Just what is terrorism anyway?

I feel for politicians and public leaders – sometimes.  True, they do come out with some stupid things on occasion, but I want to give them credit for assuming the role they do. It cannot be an easy job.

When it comes to terrorism, and more specifically talking about a specific act as terrorist or not, these public figures can’t seem to get a break.  They are often criticised when they hesitate to call a mass murder terrorism – witness the shootings at a church in Charleston, South Carolina by a probable white supremacist – and when they come out immediately and say so – recall the brouhaha over whether Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s murder of Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial in Ottawa and subsequent attempt to storm Parliament back in October 2014 was terrorism or not.  For what it is worth, in my opinion both incidents were clearly terrorism.

And now we have the shootings at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City.  The Prime Minister, the Minister of Public Safety, and others, were quick to call it an act of terrorism.  I, for one, am waiting to do so, for reasons I hope to make clear.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale stated on Monday that “This was an act of extreme violence directed against a particular group with the clear intent to intimidate and harm that group and to strike fear in their hearts. In the definition in broad terms of terrorism, they were trying to inflict terror, and that fits the definition.”  With all due respect, Minister, what happened may be terrorism but we just don’t know yet.

In the Canadian Criminal Code, an act of terrorism is defined as: an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with the intention of intimidating the public.”  I have bolded a few parts deliberately.  Calling a serious act of violence an act of terrorism relies crucially on ideology.  If a murder takes place, or even a mass shooting, and there is no identifiable ideological rationale behind the act then we are left with murder(s) not terrorism.

The simple fact is we don’t yet know – and may never know – what drove Mr. Bissonnette to carry out his heinous crime.  Jumping the gun to call it terrorism serves no useful purpose.  We must allow the relevant authorities time to do their  investigation and determine, if they can, whether the alleged shooter had any assistance, was in touch with likeminded people, was cajoled or urged to kill, chose his targets deliberately (as opposed to randomly) or was suffering from a mental illness when he acted. At this point anything is possible.  If we are fortunate we will learn more in the days and weeks to come.  If we are really fortunate, Mr. Bissonnette may have left a manifesto like Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik did or an online video like Aaron Driver did.  In the absence of concrete information – not speculation as we are seeing now – we need a full disclosure from the shooter.  If he chooses not to offer one, we are left in the dark, perhaps forever.  In other words, we may not be able to classify this as an act of terrorism.

Terrorism is a serious crime and it needs serious evidence to back it up.  We have nothing of the sort – yet.  I commend the RCMP and the Surete de Quebec for refusing to call the massacre in Quebec City terrorism until all the facts are in.  They are doing the job we ask them to.

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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