When the Junos become a terrorist target

Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said it best in referring to the Canadian-US relationship: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt”.  We Canadians do spend a lot of time comparing ourselves against our southern neighbours and celebrate small victories over our much larger, wealthier and more powerful ally.  Sometimes that comparison assumes silly levels.  For instance, which do you think is better – the Grey Cup or the Super Bowl?  22 Sussex Drive or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?  The Juno Awards or the Grammies?

To top things off, the Junos  may have been on the terrorist hit list.

According to Global News reporter Stewart Bell, the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC), Canada’s intelligence ‘fusion’ agency, issued a threat assessment last March entitled “Special Event: 2017 Juno Awards” to outline what terrorist threats, if any, could target the national celebration of music.  In truth, the assessment was generic in nature and there was no specific threat to the event.

What I find most interesting about this document is not so much what it said about the Junos but what it says about threat assessments in general.  Having worked in intelligence for three decades and now an outsider I find that agencies such as ITAC and CSIS do not do a very good job at explaining what they do and how they do it (there are very good reasons for keeping some things secret but much more could be opened up).  For instance, when ITAC says that the national threat level is at ‘medium’ the public has little understanding of what that means.   In an effort to shed a little light on how these documents are created (how the ‘sausage is made’ so to speak’) here is an explanation that I hope will help.

Threat assessments on terrorism can be drafted by ITAC based on specific intelligence or general trend analysis.  In cases of the former it is most likely that they will be highly classified and journalists like Mr. Bell would not get access to them. If based on  a general evaluation of threat streams that do not necessarily mention a specific event (such as the Junos), then they can be issued at a lower classification level (or even unclassified but ‘for official use only’, often abbreviated FOUO, which aims at ensuring that those with a ‘need to know’ are the only ones that get access).  They can also be based on specific open information, such as a piece of propaganda by a terrorist group.  If someone like Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri were to call for an attack on the Junos (would the terrorist head honcho even know where Canada is let alone what the Junos are?) an assessment would also be issued, probably also unclassified.

Furthermore, assessments can be generated at the request of clients or at the discretion of ITAC.  Organisers of an important public event would want to have the best and most current information if for no other reason than to be seen to have done due diligence (and perhaps to cover their bases should something happen).  Alternatively, ITAC analysts, who are after all professionals, scan threat information on a daily basis, detect trends and developments, and are in a good position to produce assessments based on their understanding of the threat picture.  They would draw the conclusion, based on what they are seeing, that it is proper to write up a specific evaluation on the Juno Awards, even if those responsible haven’t asked for one.

In any event, papers of this kind have become the new normal.  Terrorism may be infrequent in Canada but it does happen on occasion.  We know that terrorists are increasingly targeting crowds and ‘soft targets’ where they think security will be less stringent.  The Junos would fit both criteria.

As a result, even if some think that a threat assessment on this very Canadian of events is overkill (no pun intended) it is nevertheless a reflection of our times and demonstrates that our protectors are doing their best to think like the terrorists do. After all, to defeat your foe, you must seek to understand him.  That is what ITAC is trying to do.


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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