Jumping the gun on terrorism – again

I know that in a world of 24/7 news and intense competition to be first with a breaking story that time is of the essence.  Individuals and news outlets feel that they do not have the luxury to wait to publish for fear that another individual or outlet will scoop them.  In their haste, there is seldom ample opportunity to allow facts to be collected, let alone verified and corroborated.  As a result, mistakes are made.  Complicating matters is our tendency to read and believe things that already match our worldviews (confirmation bias) as well as the overarching and predominant narrative through which many of us filter facts and events.

Three recent terrorist cases brought this to the fore for me lately. In  each case, reporters and ‘experts’ engaged in what I call “instant analysis”, a trend that I find worrisome and only slightly more problematic than ‘alternative facts’.  The three occurred in different countries but all involved leaping to unwarranted conclusions, at least for the time being.  Should forthcoming information turn out to support the initial findings, some will use this to claim superior analysis.  I for one still maintain that a true expert insists on more rather than less data before making any definitive statement.

The first incident was an attempt by a man to grab a gun from a French soldier at Orly Airport in Paris.  When reports noted that the individual shouted that he wanted to ‘die for Allah’ many said – Aha!  Another terrorist attack in France.  While that assessment would be consistent with what has been happening in that country for several years, it turns out that the alleged ‘terrorist’ was on cocaine and alcohol at the time of his attack (this is very rare for a real Islamist extremist), casting doubt on whether he was indeed a terrorist.

The second involved a series of bomb threats made to Jewish centres in Canada and the US.  All said it was symptomatic of a rise in anti-Semitism and was probably the work of a right-wing extremist with a hatred of Jews.  What then do we make of the arrest in Israel of a 19-year old computer hacker whom authorities believe responsible for the threats?  If true, the criminal doesn’t exactly match the profile some were so sure of, does it?

Lastly we return to the attack in London last week in which four people died and dozens were wounded when Khalid Masood directed his vehicle at pedestrians before attempting to rush Parliament.  Mr. Masood has already been labelled a ‘lone wolf’ as if there was enough evidence to make that analysis.  There is a problem with this hypothesis however.  The (now dead) terrorist was in a variety of places over the years where he could have been in touch with those who radicalised him and incited him to act.  He was in prison on several occasions and visited Saudi Arabia multiple times – all of which could easily have influenced him and inspired his decision to act last Wednesday.  The ‘lone wolf’ term is used so carelessly and usually with no forethought or real analysis such that it is meaningless and of no help in understanding terrorism.

I know that I am asking for the impossible when I suggest that we need to exercise caution before making links that may or may not be there.  After all that is how the news cycle works.  At best, we draw wrong conclusions and correct our mistakes later.  At worst, bad analysis feeds bad decisions.  For the sake of not making mistakes we owe it to ourselves to be a little more patient.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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