Just how sophisticated are most terrorists anyway?

Sometimes I think most of us get terrorism very, very wrong.  I am not sure whether this is due to the Hollywood effect where terrorists seem to be popping up in more and more films each year.  Can anyone point to a movie from the 1960s where violent extremists played a major role?  Aside from the cartoonish Bond villains that is.

In many of these cinematographic offerings the terrorists come across as cold, calculating, evil monsters who carefully plan their acts of terror and can only be defeated by the equally calculating good guys – Jack Reacher, Jack Bauer (why are all the counter terrorism heroes called Jack?), etc.  Sometimes our guys resort to unsavoury methods to stop the heinous plotters of death.  Oh well, that is how it goes in the name of keeping us safe.

It is beyond obvious that film is not always a mirror for reality and I would be a voice in the wilderness if I were to call for more accurate portrayals of terrorism and intelligence, but it may be that our image of terrorism as it is shown to us on the silver screen does us a disservice.

I am referring here to the belief that all terrorists are high level operatives who plan their death and destruction with the utmost security, meaning that it is next to impossible for security and law enforcement agencies to detect and neutralise them before it is too late (unless they have a guy named Jack on staff).

The reality is that this is not always accurate.  The way it really works came to light today when the terrorist accused of carrying out the attack on an Istanbul night club on New Year’s Eve chose his venue randomly after he was scared off his first preference by heightened security.

You read that right.  The terrorist who killed 39 people did not engage in careful pre-attack surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking of the place to bear the brunt of his ideological hatred.  And he is not alone.  Many terrorists, at least in my experience in Canada, are not the most sophisticated and are frankly incapable of carrying out meticulous planning.  They have next to zero counter surveillance skills, often choose their targets almost accidentally and rarely do dry runs to test security (Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the terrorist who attacked the War Memorial and Parliament in Ottawa in October 2014 may have been an uncommon exception as there are indications he toured Centre Block several weeks before his ill-fated assault).

When you consider this an immediate question arises: who is more dangerous – the terrorist who dots all his i’s and crosses all his t’s or the one who shows up one day and kills?  My money is on the latter.  Those who take the time to ensure success expose themselves to scrutiny, monitoring, eavesdropping, human source penetration, intelligence sharing and, perhaps most importantly, time – time for the state agencies to figure out what they are bent on doing.  The one who does no pre-planning is hard to identify and stop since his plot is shorter  in the preparatory stages and involves fewer steps that can screw up.  Truth be told, both types can succeed and both can be foiled but prior warning and longer planning cycles are the enemy of the terrorist and the friend of our spies.

I think we need to challenge our view of terrorism and terrorists.  They are not all supermen (and women) with other worldly powers that are next to impossible to match.  Most are just average joes with little foresight and not superior intellect that decide to act on whatever grievance motivates them.  That does not mean we should dismiss the “B-team” – they can still do a lot of damage – but it does imply we should not give the terrorists more credit than they deserve. They get enough free publicity already that feeds their egos and inflates their importance.  Let us not add to that.


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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