Lessons from the election and terrorism

In the wake of the stunning Liberal victory on October 19, two stories have caught my eye that have a bearing on terrorism.

The first had to do with the surprise surrounding the “miraculous” comeback of the Liberals who, four years ago, had been declared all but dead.  With their measly 34 seats, there were legions of analysts saying that the party was kaput and that we would see some kind of duality with the Conservatives to the right and the NDP (with a rump Liberal party folded in) to the left.  The “Natural Governing Party” was no more.

Oh well, so much for that prediction!  Why do we succumb to what I call “instant analysis” and make predictions based on little to no data?  Why do we see the need to draw exhaustive conclusions minutes after something has happened?

I think there are a few reasons for this.  One is the immediacy of news.  It truly is instantaneous.  What used to take weeks to come to our attention is reported as soon as it happens.  And together with that we seem to need to understand it completely and right away with no room for measured thought.  Secondly is the stable of experts who show no compunction in providing this “instant analysis” on news programmes regardless of their depth of knowledge on the issue.  If a particular person passes on such analysis, a replacement is quickly found.

What does that have to do with terrorism?  As I wrote back in May (What Terrorism and Mark Twain have in Common), the same instant analysis has been offered on terrorist groups, declaring them dead whenever it suits some purpose (Reader alert: I think the Islamic State is on the wane – you read it here first – but its demise will open the field for another group to fill the vacuum).  Let’s be more judicious in issuing death certificates, shall we?

The second story has to do with opinion polling.  Due in part to the decrease in landlines and in public interest in participating in polls, there have been some spectacular disasters of late (the 2013 BC and 2012 Alberta elections, as well as David Cameron’s victory in the UK, come to mind).  And yet, polls are still more accurate than people think (including in the federal election this week – see story here).  They are right more often than they are wrong.  It’s just that mistakes get more attention than success.

And the same goes for terrorism.  In Canada, at least, our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies stop many more attacks than those that get through.  In fact, prior to last October, they were batting 1.000.  And yet we focus on the two successful attacks from a year ago and try to assign blame.

Look, I think that inquiries or whatever are useful to identify what went right and what went wrong and what we need to do to get better.  But let’s not forget that due to the competence of CSIS and the RCMP, most attacks are disrupted and as a consequence we are safer.

We need to all take a deep breath and think about these issues before leaping to unsupported conclusions.  After all, no analysis is better than bad analysis.



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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