The perils of “instant analysis”

Today (July 22) marks the fifth anniversary of one of the darkest days in Norway’s history.  Anders Behring Breivik set off bombs outside a government complex in Oslo, killing 8, then traveled to an island called Utoya where a young person’s political function was occurring and massacred 69 people.

Today also marks the fifth anniversary of the darkest day in my 30+ years as an intelligence analyst and a perfect example on why what I call “instant analysis” is usually a very bad idea.

On that day, I described the attack as an Islamist extremist one.  I know, that sounds ridiculous and is 100% wrong, but before you question why the Canadian government paid me a good salary for three decades to be an analyst perhaps a bit of context may help.

I was asked by my superiors to write a short piece to account for the attack and its significance minutes after it had taken place and before we knew ANYTHING about the perpetrator.  In fact, the death toll had not yet been calculated when I hit the “send” button to issue my report.

We did not know anything about Breivik, not even his name, let alone have a chance to read his stream of consciousness 1,500-page manifesto with its Islamophobia, xenophobia and bizarre self-portrayal of Breivik as a knight Templar.  I had little to go on.

So why did I conclude that the attack had to have been carried out by an Islamist extremist? There were several reasons.  Norway had been named as a target by Al Qaeda on a few occasions.  We were seeing some threat reporting that operatives had been sent to Norway to do an attack.  Norway is part of NATO and hence seen as an enemy of Islam by extremists.  Most importantly,  I was a radicalisation/Islamist extremism specialist and that is what I knew best.  My hammer was Islamist extremism and all the nails were therefore Islamist extremists.

I cannot undo what I wrote that day.  As well, I cannot shake the feeling that I should have told my bosses that we needed more information before we could come up with any serious analysis about what had happened (more accurately: what was still unfolding).  I blew it – there is no other way to put it.  The fact that my right-wing terrorism colleague, who sat across the hall from me, didn’t challenge my analysis is little solace.

The lesson here is that pronouncing definitive theses in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack is foolhardy.  And yet that is exactly what happens on EVERY SINGLE OCCASION these days.  Watch CBC or BBC or Fox or Al Jazeera or CNN and I can assure you that within hours of an incident some “expert” will have all the answers.

  • “His second cousin twice removed once said he was psychotic – it’s all about mental illness!”
  • “He beat his wife – it’s all about domestic abuse!”
  • “He visited a gay porn site – it’s all about gender confusion!”
  • “He was unemployed – it’s all about marginalisation!”

I could go on but I think you get the point.  In our craving for meaning and understanding we allow ourselves to grasp at any straw we can find and use that one straw to make a basket.  We have to stop doing that.  If you have been following the Nice attack aftermath at all you know that the initial “lone wolf” terrorist now seems to have had accomplices and may have planned his spree of violence over a year. Then again maybe this information is wrong too.

I am not so naive as to think that I can change the way we create and consume news.  News is instant and so is analysis.  We cannot go back to the days where news of an event in a land far away was received at home three months later, and I would not want to if we could.

But bad analysis based on fragmentary or bad data leads to bad decisions.  And while it may be true that my one erroneous piece has been forgotten (I sure hope so!) a series of bad pieces leads to a belief  in collected wisdom and it is that collected wisdom that clouds our thought process.  We see that clearly in the myth of the “lone wolf”: the term has been repeated so often that it is now seen as paradigmatic irregardless of its accuracy.

My heartfelt plea to all my colleagues out there is to have the maturity to speak honestly about what we know and acknowledge what we have yet to know.  When media outlets ask for your opinion, feel free to avail yourselves of your hard-won expertise but be careful about speaking definitively in the absence of certainty.  After all, it is better to be somewhat humble and right than show hubris and be seen as a charlatan.

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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