Leave threat assessment to the professionals please

The news is full, every single day, of reports of violence from a number of actors: murders, sexual assaults, shootings, etc.  Occasionally we read of a terrorist attack somewhere in the world – depending on where you live the frequency of this particular form of violence will vary.  Not surprisingly, if you live in Somalia you will come across terrorist action more often than if you live in Canada.

Nevertheless, terrorism is a fact of life and it certainly has captured our attention, especially since 9/11.  Even if attacks are rare in this fair land of ours we still see (and perhaps need) ‘threat assessments’ which tell us how worried we should be.  These can be annual or quarterly or in preparation for a specific event (see my take on the Junos as an example of the latter).

A valid question is: who should write threat assessments?  Simply stated: those with the necessary information that provides the essential skeleton on which to construct a meaningful assessment.  In this country that would be a combination of CSIS, the RCMP and perhaps CSE (maybe even National Defence) as these are the only agencies which collect intelligence and are thus the only ones qualified to judge the reliability of that intelligence and come to a consensus on what it means.

Alas, this has not stopped busybodies from interfering in the process of writing an annual threat assessment.  As Global News reporter Stewart Bell wrote this week, civil servants at Public Safety Canada appear to have tried to have language inserted into the 2017 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada that was opposed by the agencies whose intelligence was used to craft the document.  The requested portion had to do with the extreme right wing menace to Canada and someone in the ministry penned ‘Add a paragraph on right-wing extremism’, going so far as to say it was a ‘growing concern’.  CSIS, it seems, shot back by calling this statement ‘subjective’ and asked ‘where is the facting for this’ (NB ‘facting’ is the term used by intelligence folks to mean supporting documentation).  The RCMP had similar misgivings and in the end the statement was left out.  One particular concern by CSIS was that it was not ok to equate the Islamist extremist threat with that of the fear-right, at least not in Canada.

I agree with CSIS and the RCMP and not because I am a former Service strategic analyst.  I side with the spies because they are right.  The terrorist threat posed by extremists aligned with or inspired by groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State among others far surpasses that from the far right. Note that this is not the same as saying there is no threat from extreme neo-Nazis, Islamophobes, fascists and other right wing groups. The January 2017 slaughter at a Quebec City mosque is looking more and more like a terrorist attack now that we have a lot more information on the motivation of the killer (we did NOT have this in the weeks and months following his killing sprees) and it of course would be an example of an extreme RW action.  Still, judging by the number of Islamist extremist plots, both successful and foiled, over the past twenty years as well as the current state of CSIS and RCMP national security investigations it is simply a statement of fact that Islamist extremism trumps the far right.

Some have argued that these agencies are not devoting enough resources to RW extremist investigations and in this they would be correct (according to what I knew when I was still with CSIS, acknowledging that things may have changed).  What I find interesting, and supportive of my views, is the following: if CSIS is not looking at the far right closely enough one could conclude that these extremists are freer to plan and carry out attacks than those under scrutiny.  Taking this one step further, we should see more RW plots and successful acts.  And yet we do not.  This suggests that the threat is not as high as some believe it to be.

The attempt by a Public Safety Canada minion (or perhaps a senior official) to alter a threat assessment is not a good development.  I worked at Public Safety and I can attest that most of those who toil there are not intelligence professionals (this does not imply that they are not qualified civil servants).  They thus have no business telling the true professionals how to do their jobs.  Slightly more worrisome is the possibility that someone wanted the section on the far right included because s/he saw it as a shiny new object (squirrel!) that had come across her or his radar that day.

In the end we have intelligence organisations for a reason.  It is very important that we allow them to advise the government on what our threats are, not vice versa.

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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