We need to ignore most jihadi propaganda

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on January 3, 2018

In the lead up to New Year’s a lot of people were very nervous that festivities would be interrupted by a terrorist attack.  To be fair, the fear was not completely unfounded as at last year’s celebration in Turkey a gunmen opened fire in an Istanbul nightclub killing 39 and wounding more than 70.  Some states this past new year’s banned certain parties or, in the case of Singapore, increased security measures by putting up concrete blocks and ‘mobile crash barriers’ to prevent the kind of attack we saw in 2017 in Barcelona, Manhattan and Edmonton.

The jihadis were busy as well, putting out threat after threat after threat.  Here are some of the things they posted in late 2017 to strike fear into New Year’s (and Christmas) revelers:

  • IS suggested that an operative ‘infiltrate’ the site where fireworks were being set up and move them so that they would be aimed at New Year’s crowds instead of the sky
  • IS also said it would be a good idea to poison drinks at student parties since alcohol is usually left unattended on table
  • Or you could hide IEDs in trashcans or ‘the snow’
  • One particularly gruesome posting showed Santa Claus with his severed head on his knee
  • Jihadis were encouraged to attack non-Muslims when they were ‘intoxicated and celebrating’
  • An IS video showed an image of a wrapped package with the slogan “our gifts are ready”

I think you get the point.  There is no end to this material online – some of which strikes me as silly to be honest –  despite government programmes, including pressure on tech companies like YouTube and Twitter, to take it down.  It appears with alarming regularity, not just during holiday periods.

And yet what did we see on New Year’s Eve this year?  How many attacks were carried out in the West targeting those welcoming in 2018?  Precisely zero.  All this encouragement to wreak havoc was for nought, and this should tell us something.

Jihadi propaganda is a cost-free tool for terrorists.  It is all too easy to post stuff online that promises death and destruction and there is no downside for extremists.  Web sites carry their material around the world where it can be read by billions and if one or two people are inspired by the rhetoric and actually carry out a simple, low-tech attack (can it get any simpler than driving a vehicle into a crowd?) then terrorists can issue a post-mortem paean to their ‘hero’ and chalk his act up as a victory over the kuffar.  It is a very good strategy on their part.

All this works for terrorists in large part due to our reaction to their posts.  Many agencies and individuals troll the Web in search for this material and some states take direct action to ward off the very attacks they see promoted online. All of this costs money and jihadis have long boasted that their threats will eventually bleed us dry economically as we are forced to thwart what they plan to do.

Except that there is nothing behind the vast majority of these threats.  They are empty intimidation with the sole purpose of scaring us, which seems to be exactly what they are doing judging by our reaction to their taunts.  We are handing relevance and legitimacy to the terrorist groups we should be ignoring.

I am not advocating a complete inattention to what extremists are up to.  Some security measures make sense and many have become a fact of life in our world (try to get into an Ottawa Senators game and see how long it takes to get through security).  There is no going back to a pre 9/11 world but we do have a choice whether to give terrorists the distinction they crave.  We do not have to jump at every posting made and alter every aspect of our lives for fear that an attack is imminent.  In this light there are at least three things we can do to address the current situation without handing the terrorists a victory on a silver platter:

a) we can realise that while terrorism is real it is still a rare phenomenon, especially in a country like Canada

b) we can encourage media outlets not to give jihadi threats prominence (I am not suggesting censorship), just as many newspapers and Web sites refuse to publish the names of mass shooters to deny them fame

c) we can allow our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies to monitor real threats and rely on them to tell us when something is real and we should take action.

None of this offers a 100% guarantee of safety: some attacks will take place irrespective of what we do or do not do.  Still, not reacting in a panic at every terrorist tweet or YouTube video would be a good start.  We may never get back to ‘normal’ but that does not mean we can’t try. Let us use this as our starting point in 2018.

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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