Podcast 1 – What now? Road terrorists?

Welcome to the very first episode of the podcast An intelligent look at terrorism. In this inaugural broadcast, former Canadian intelligence analyst Phil Gurski looks at what we mean by terrorism and sets the stage for future podcasts.

What the heck is a ‘road terrorist’?

Hello and welcome to the inaugural episode of the podcast ‘An intelligent look at terrorism’.  I’m your host Phil Gurski, President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting in Ottawa.

This podcast will look at a variety of issues surrounding the phenomenon of terrorism, both here in Canada and around the world.  It will be available every two weeks – once a fortnight, even though this discussion has nothing to do with the popular online video game Fortnite (perhaps if I did a podcast on Fortnite – the game – I’d get a much bigger audience!).  We’ll examine trends, attacks, counter terrorism efforts and other aspects of a topic that has seized the imaginations – and fears  – of  many in our societies.  The unfortunate truth is that there is a lot of terrorism out there and no end of matters to talk about.

But before we get into this session’s topic, maybe it would be a good idea to outline why this podcast, among many others, is worth listening to.  One thing is certainly true: there are a ton of articles, books and journal entries available and it can be hard to decide which ones to read, as well as whose opinion to follow and see as informative.  If there is one label that has expanded to the point where it is almost meaningless, it is the word ‘expert’ – and this is why I prefer not to use it.  So who am I and why might my perspectives on terrorism be of  interest to listeners?

Well my story is a simple one and my views on terrorism come from a particular place.  I am a retired Canadian intelligence analyst, having spent more than three decades in the spy business so to speak.  I worked from July 1983 to the end of 2000 at Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s signals intelligence agency, as a multilingual analyst, specialising in the Middle East and Asia.  In 2001 I moved to CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, as a strategic analyst specialising in terrorism, more specifically Islamist extremism.  I had access to intelligence on all CSIS investigations on homegrown jihadi terrorism from 2001 to 2013 and developed a deep understanding on the process of radicalisation to violence.

In 2013 I transferred to the National Security department at Public Safety Canada, the ‘mother ship’ so to speak for agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP.  I participated in many outreach sessions across Canada, seeking to discuss terrorism and radicalisation with communities in a large number of Canadian cities.  After my retirement from the public service in 2015 I was hired as a consultant by the Provincial Anti-Terrorism Section (PATS) at the OPP, a position I held until the end of 2015.  That year I also founded my own consulting firm, Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting.

Since 2015 I have authored five books on terrorism: The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization and terrorism in the West (2015); Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security (2017);   The Lesser Jihads: bringing the Islamist extremist fight to the world (2017); and An End to the War on Terrorism (2018), all published by Rowman and Littlefield and When Religion Kills: how extremists justify violence through faith (to be published in 2019 by Lynne Rienner).  I have also written close to a thousand blogs on terrorism, all available on my Web site, www.borealisthreatandrisk.com.   Over the course of my career, both within and outside the Canadian government I have delivered thousands of presentations, key note addresses and training sessions to audiences in Canada and throughout the world.  I have also been interviewed thousands of times on terrorism and intelligence subjects for  Canadian and other media and pen a weekly column on terrorism for The Hill Times, Canada’s parliamentary newspaper.

So, I have a lot of experience in terrorism and keep thinking about it.  That being said, there is a lot I don’t know and I am happy to admit I am still learning.  This podcast is part of that process.  I want to share some of my views on terrorism and I’d love to hear what you think.  Details on how to contact me will be provided at the end and are available in the description section of the podcast.

In these podcasts I hope to develop a biweekly theme.  Some of the topics will be very ‘topical’ so to speak while others will deal with larger issues surrounding what we think about terrorism, in addition to what is happening on terrorism fronts around the world.

Later in each session I will feature some of the most important, or most interesting, terrorism-related stories from the previous two weeks.

One last thing before we launch into the meat of this episode – a little on the theme song, Superman by Five for Fighting.  Vladimir John Ondrasik is the guy behind Five for Fighting, an American who chose the name because he is a hockey fan (as a Canadian I love that!).  Superman became the unofficial song for all first responders after 9/11 (It may sound absurd, but don’t be naive; Even heroes have the right to bleed).   This podcast is dedicated to all the men and women in our security intelligence, law enforcement and other agencies that have a role in preventing terrorism.  Thanks to all!

I’d also like to thank the folks at Continuity Link (www.continuitylink.com) for their help in creating this podcast and especially Jean-Baptiste Pelland-Goulet for his invaluable technical assistance.

So let’s begin our journey together, shall we?

For this initial chat I thought it would be a good idea, to cite Mary Poppins, to start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.  If this is to be a podcast on terrorism, we might want to come to some common understanding on what we mean by ‘terrorism’.  You may be surprised to learn that there is actually very little consensus on the term.  As a colleague of mine at the Netherlands-based ICCT, Alex Schmidt, once discovered, there are at least 100 definitions of terrorism.  We do not have time – or the need  – to look at all 100 but it might help to demonstrate some of the variation out there.

I was struck the other day by a letter to the editor of my local newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, where a resident, in noting the disrespect motorists have for speed limits or road signs such as those designating school zones, suggested we call these bad drivers “road terrorists”.  Road terrorists.  Now when I think of ‘road terrorists’ my mind goes to the tactic of using vehicles – trucks, cars, etc, – to run down and kill or maim pedestrians, an all too frequent occurrence these days (Berlin Xmas market 2016; Barcelona August 2017; London Westminster Bridge March 2017; Nice Bastille Day July 2016 –even Alex Minassian in Toronto in April 2018, an attack we will return to in a bit).  I don’t see bad drivers as ‘terrorists’, do you?

Here is another frivolous use of the term.  In the wake of the signing of a new head coach for the legendary British football team Manchester United, African headlines screamed that the team would ‘terrorise’ its opponents with its aggressive attacking style.  Footballers as ‘terrorists’?  I think not!

And, finally, to cite one more example, there are lots of things that terrorise some of us: heights, public speaking, first dates, spiders, snakes, sharks….  No one would seriously suggest that sharks are terrorists.

For some, any group that ‘terrorises’ others must be a terrorist group.  Gangs terrorise neighbourhoods in many cities around the world and their actions are indeed violent and worrisome.  In some Central American cities murder rates are amongst the highest seen.  So, are gangs composed of terrorists?

All this to say that there really is no agreement on what constitutes terrorism and what does not.  That makes a podcast on terrorism hard to organise.  So, in the interest of narrowing the field of discussion to a reasonable extent, I’d like to propose a definition of terrorism, one that I will use in deciding what to talk about.  And I’d like to start with what the law says.  I know laws don’t make the most interesting reading, but they can provide insight into how our governments view the problem. After all, if states want to prosecute terrorists they have to know what they are prosecuting, no?

In this vein I will cite what I am most familiar with: the Canadian Criminal Code.  Terrorism is covered starting in section 83.1 and reads as follows (actually, the code defines ‘terrorist activity’ and not terrorism per se):

  •  an act or omission, in or outside Canada, that is committed
    • in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause, and
    • (B) in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act, whether the public or the person, government or organization is inside or outside Canada, and
  • (ii) that intentionally
    • (A) causes death or serious bodily harm to a person by the use of violence,
    • (B) endangers a person’s life,
    • (C) causes a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or any segment of the public,
    • (D) causes substantial property damage, whether to public or private property, if causing such damage is likely to result in the conduct or harm referred to in any of clauses (A) to (C), or
    • (E) causes serious interference with or serious disruption of an essential service, facility or system, whether public or private, other than as a result of advocacy, protest, dissent or stoppage of work that is not intended to result in the conduct or harm referred to in any of clauses (A) to (C),
  •  

And the text goes on and on and on.  What I think is important are two main issues: death or serious harm (whether actual or planned) and the so-called ‘motivation clause (a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause).  Of course there are still challenges even with this summary.  What constitutes ideology?  How do you demonstrate that an act was carried out for that reason?  Do you need a manifesto? A statement?  A video?  It is sometimes not as easy as people think, as we shall discuss below.

For comparison purposes here are what other nations or organisations see as terrorism.

  • The US:  “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” 

The EU: serious offences against persons and property that;

…given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an international organisation where committed with the aim of: seriously intimidating a population; or unduly compelling a Government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act; or seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation.

  • NATO: The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives”
  • The UN: criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature.

Wow! What a variety of definitions.  Is it any wonder we cannot agree on a universal meaning?

Let’s muddy the waters further.  Several nations also have what are known as ‘terrorist entity listings’, legal documents which label certain groups as terrorist organisations.   It is illegal to belong to or aid these groups and, one assumes, any serious act of violence committed by a member of such a group would by definition be an act of terrorism.  Problem: the listings are subject to political pressures (e.g. the anti-Iranian regime Mujahedin-e-Khalq, aka the People’s Mujahdieen, were once listed in Canada but removed after lobbying efforts by the group and its supporters).  Furthermore, not all countries agree on which groups to put on these lists.

Wait, there’s still more to consider!  States can decide to label legitimate dissent as terrorism, which is what is happening in Nicaragua right now. Anti-government protests have led to violent state reaction and what appear to be execution-style murders.  Don’t get me wrong, no country can tolerate the burning of government buildings as has occurred in Nicaragua, but are all protesters terrorists?  Totalitarian regimes regularly dismiss any opposition movements as terrorists.  And let’s not go down the rabbit hole of ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter!”

One more thing.  What is the difference between terrorism and hate crime?  Let me give you a few recent examples from  Canada to illustrate this  conundrum

  • In June 2014 24-year old Justin Bourque killed 3 and wounded 2 RCMP officers in Moncton NB.  He claimed that his actions were a rebellion of sorts against the Canadian government, which he believed to be oppressive. He stated that he believed that police officers were protecting such a government.  At trial he pleaded guilty to 3 counts of 1st degree murder and 2 counts of attempted murder.
  • In January 2017 Alexandre Bissonnette entered a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire, killing 6 and wounding 19.  He pleaded guilty to 6 counts of 1st degree murder and 6 counts of attempted murder.
  • In April 2018 Alek Minassian drove a van down Yonge St in Toronto, killing 10 and wounding 19.  He has been charged with 10 counts of 1st degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder.  In a FaceBook posting prior to his attack he seemed to suggest he was an ‘incel’ – a term to refer to men who are ‘involuntary celibate’, i.e. sexually frustrated misogynists.

A man who wanted to start a rebellion to overthrow the government, one who hated Muslims and one with sexual frustrations.  Did any do what they did for ‘ideological, political or religious reasons’?  Great questions and ones that are yet to be resolved.  For the record , none were charged with terrorism, a topic I will return to in a future blog.

Confused?  I am not surprised. Terrorism is a contentious term, one that evokes strong emotional responses.  I fear we will never get to a compromise on what it actually means.  That puts a podcast on terrorism on shaky footing.

In the interests, then, of having some leg to stand on I will use the following criteria in deciding what to call terrorism.  You do not have to agree with me but at least you know where I am coming from.  For the purposes of our discussions, then, terrorism will be defined as (drum roll please):

  • Any act or threatened act of serious violence planned or carried out in furtherance of a demonstrable cause or goal that is political, religious or ideological in nature.

Feel free to come up with your version – I’d love to hear your views.

This then is the topic of this podcast – anything to do with terrorism and how we respond to it.  There is no shortage of aspects to talk about, as future podcasts will show.  I’d like to add that if there is a particular issue you’d like me to weigh in on please let me know. You can reach me via email (borealisrisk@gmail.com), on Twitter (@borealissaves),  on LinkedIn or on FaceBook.  I cannot promise that I will get to your ideas right away but I can promise that I will seriously consider them.

Terrorism summary

Before I leave you I want to end with what I hope will be a regular feature of this podcast: a summary of the world of terrorism over the past two weeks.  In any given 14-day period there are usually too many events to cover: in fact there is, on average, several attacks or attempted attacks somewhere in the world every day.  Most people don’t hear of them unless they are particularly catastrophic or occur in a high profile Western country.  This list will not be exhaustive however.  I will select what I feel are the most important and/or interesting events over that period, and provide some comments on them.  This episode’s list runs from December 17 to 31, 2018.

I rely on open sources for this information.  Some come from well-known news sites such as the BBC and the NYT.  Others come from local media less well-exposed in the West.  Where possible I try to corroborate attacks from multiple sources.  Casualty counts are as accurate as I can determine at the time of the podcast.  It takes a lot of time to monitor terrorist events around the world – several hours per day – but I cannot ensure that some inaccurate information may find its way into the reporting I use.  What is important, as far as I am concerned, is not the precise nature and scope of terrorist incidents but what they say about  larger trends and developments.   So here we go.

Killing of tourists in Morocco

I want to begin this episode’s overview with a rare event: a successful attack in Morocco.  That North African country is not immune to terrorism by any stretch of the imagination: many Moroccans traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with groups like IS and Moroccan security services regularly thwart planned attacks.

But on December 17 the bodies of 2 Scandinavian female tourists, 24-year-old Louisa Vesterager Jespersen from Denmark and 28-year-old Maren Ueland from Norway, were recovered in a remote area of Morocco.  A video surfaced in which men are shown slitting the throat of one of the women while stating ““This is a revenge for our brothers in Hajin”, an apparent reference to IS in Syria.  Four men later arrested by Moroccan police were discovered to have pledged allegiance to IS.  More arrests were later made: by the end of the year a total of 15 suspects had been seized and brought before a judge.

I could be wrong, but this is the first successful attack by anyone tied to IS in Morocco (if I am wrong I am sure someone will let me know).  Some Moroccans have created a petition on Change.org, calling on Morocco’s Ministry of Justice to give  the murderers of two Scandinavian tourists near Mount Toubkal the death penalty, calling it the ‘right penalty’ for such a horrible crime.

The Moroccan economy is powered to a large extent by tourism (it is the second largest generator of foreign exchange after the phosphate industry).  It is unclear what effect these attacks will have on the tourism sector.

One more note on the use of beheading by terrorist groups.  Many resort to this gruesome way of killing hostages.  The question is: why?  I don’t think other terrorist movements are nearly as adept at this – so why the jihadis?  Aside from the horrific nature of the act itself there is another fundamental reason.  Islamist extremists see themselves as prototypical and perfect Muslims.  They reject any other way of practicing the Islamic faith: this is why so many – in fact the majority – of their victims are fellow Muslims, whom they see as apostates for not kowtowing to the extremist interpretation of Islam.  As  such, they want to return Islam to its roots in 7th century Arabia and ban any changes since that time (this is known as bida’a in Arabic).  And what was the capital punishment of choice in that era? Beheading of course.  Jihadis are emulating what they see as original and right.

Speaking of beheadings, what other state, a supposed ally in the struggle against terrorism, avails itself of that particular punishment?  Why Saudi Arabia naturally.  You can bet the mortgage that I will devote a future podcast to whether or not the Kingdom is really on our side.

Plot to bomb the Vatican

On December 18 Italian police announced that they had arrested a 20-year old Somali man the previous week on suspicion of planning to bomb several churches in Rome, including St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. The man, identified as Omar Moshin Ibrahim, was arrested in the southern port city of Bari, and had been under surveillance by police for a month.

The Vatican represents a key enemy for Islamist extremists as it is the centre of the Roman Catholic Church.  Jihadis often use the term ‘Crusaders’ when referring to Christians and regularly call for attacks against them.  A successful attack at St Peter’s, always filled with tourists and the devout, could have been catastrophic.

Threat to Coptic Christians in Egypt

Staying with the theme of attacks on Christians, the Egyptian government announced on December 20 that security forces have killed eight militants and detained four more who planned attacks on Coptic Christians during the upcoming holiday season.  In a statement, the Interior ministry said the 12 belonged to “Hasm,” an armed faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo considers a terrorist organization.

It said two of the eight killed were separately shot dead after they opened fire on security forces storming two residences in Cairo. The remaining six were killed in a shootout as they tried to flee the capital.

On December 20 a Cairo Criminal Court handed a death sentence to an IS-affiliated man who killed a Christian doctor in his clinic in Shubra.  The killing took place in September 2017 when Hassan Zakaria requested to see the doctor, pretending to be a patient.    He stabbed the doctor and then stabbed a nurse that intervened to try to stop the attack. He was caught red-handed carrying a blade as he attempted to run away.

For good measure, Egyptian authorities announced that they will raise security levels to maximum alert in preparation for Coptic Christmas festivities and possible Sinai terrorist attacks.  The alert will remain in place until January 7, 2019.  During Christmas celebrations in 2016, an explosion planned by IS near the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, killed 29 people and injured tens of others. 

And on December 28 an IED exploded as a tour bus carrying Vietnamese travelers near the iconic Giza Pyramid, killing 2 and wounding 12: only 2 passengers escaped unharmed.  Egyptian forces retaliated by killing 40 ‘terrorists’ the following day.  The attack is another blow to Egypt’s tourism industry, which has seesawed since 2010, dropping from a high of 14 million visitors in 2010 to less than 5,000,000 in 2016.  The Karnak Temple  in Luxor was attacked as recently as 2015when an attempted suicide bomber was killed by police: no tourists died in that incident.

Nevertheless, the Egyptian government put a positive spin on the security situation in the country  at year’s end.  In a report entitled “2018: Terrorism is dying in Egypt”, the government t noted that there were only 8 attacks in the most recent 12-month period, compared with 50 in 2017 ( and 199 in 2016).

Terrorist on terrorist violence

In Somalia on December 21 the terrorist group Al Shabaab, which has been active since 2006, declared ‘war’ on its rival, an IS affiliate in the country.  In a radio address a spokesperson said: “We have given them a chance to change, but they have continued their wrongheadedness.  Our senior command has ordered our fighters to attack and eliminate the ‘disease’ of IS”.  The AS campaign has been called ‘Disease Eradication.’  The spokesperson also accused the movement of “spoiling the ongoing jihad in Somalia”.

Despite the new focus on IS, Al Shabaab continued its campaign of violence elsewhere in Somalia.  On December 22 a pair of powerful car bombs exploded near the Presidential Palace in Mogadishu killed 15 people and wounded another 15.  .

On December 24 an employee of the Somali Ministry of Religious Affairs was killed by Al Shabaab in apparent retaliation for the government’s execution of one of the terrorist group’s senior bombmakers, who had been found guilty of 3 car bombs in Mogadishu in 2017 that had killed 26 people.

Eight soldiers were killed when Al Shabaab tried to overrun a military base in SW Somalia on December 29.  The battle lasted 6 hours as the terrorists attacked the facility from ‘four directions’, according to a Somali Army spokesman.  The Somali National Army was able to kill 14 terrorists during the siege.  The base has been a regular target for Al Shabaab over the years and has been briefly occupied and destroyed by the terrorist group on several occasions.  Lastly, on December 31 the SNA claimed it had killed 30 AS terrorists in the southern town of Jilib.

Indian forces bust IS cell

On December 26 the Indian National Investigation Agency (NIA) busted an IS cell in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh that had been planning  a string of terror attacks targeting politicians, key locations and crowded places.  134 mobile phone SIM cards, as well as 112 alarm clocks and over 25 kg of chemicals that were to be used to make scores of remote-controlled bombs were seized in the raids.  10 men were arrested in total.  The investigation into this cell had been going on for 3-4 months.  In December 2017, a report by the ministry of home affairs had said that the NIA had arrested 103 accused in cases against IS cadres, most of whom were taken in Uttar Pradesh.

India of course is no stranger to terrorism and extremism.  In addition to IS and AQ-linked cells, the country is faced with a continuing Sikh extremism problem and rising Hindu extremism (both of which are covered in my forthcoming book ‘When Religions Kill’).

Terrorist attack in Libya

On Christmas Day an attack later claimed by IS was carried out against the Libyan Foreign Ministry in Tripoli.  A combined firearms and suicide bomber assault killed 3 and wounded 10.  Libya has been riven with terrorist attacks and a resilient IS affiliate since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

More terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan

Nor do rumours of ‘peace talks’ between the US and the Taliban in Afghanistan mean that terrorism has ended in that unfortunate nation.  Here is a sample of the killing over the past 2 weeks in those two nations:

Plot foiled in Sweden

On December 27 Swedish police arrested 3 men it accused of procuring and storing large amounts of chemicals and other equipment with the intention of carrying out a terrorist attack.  Those three individuals, along with three more people, are also suspected of sending money from Sweden to be made available for IS’s activities abroad.

Sweden is rarely in the headlines when it comes to terrorism. The most notable recent plot was a vehicle ramming in Stockholm in April 2017 in which a failed Uzbek asylum seeker, Rakhmat Akilov, who had expressed support for IS, killed 5 and wounded 14 people.

So much for ‘Boko Haram is defeated’ messaging

Each end of year the Nigerian President makes an address in which he invariably announces that the terrorist group Boko Haram, which has carried out its campagn of violence primarily in that nation’s NE has been ‘defeated’ or is ‘almost defeated’.  And every year the group kills more and more people, kidnaps girls to use as suicide bombers and destroys villages.  This two week period was no exception alas:

Citizenship revocation as a counter terrorism tool

Some governments have policies whereby they strip citizenship from those accused of carrying out or planning terrorism. This is exactly what Australia has done to Neil Prakash, long a thorn in the side of Australian counter terrorism agencies for his involvement in extremism.  Although born in Melbourne, Prakash’s mother is Cambodian and his father Fijian.  He is currently in a Turkish prison after having fled IS territory in 2016.

Citizenship can be revoked normally only in the case of dual citizens: the state cannot make someone stateless.  I am of two minds on this issue.  While I understand the desire to punish terrorists I also believe that those radicalised in our countries are our problem and we cannot deport our problem away.  Prakash was born in Australia and his journey to terrorism supposedly took place there: hence he is a homegrown jihadi.  Besides, where should he go after (or when) he gets out of Turkish custody?  Fiji or Cambodia, 2 nations he has probably never lived in?  Who decides?  What if neither Fiji nor Cambodia is willing to take him?  This debate will continue.

Trinidad and Tobago as a supplier of foot soldiers for IS?

Quick!  What comes to mind when you think of Trinidad and Tobago?  If anything probably just another idyllic Caribbean island, right?  Think again.  T&T is the home of one of the highest per capita number of fighters for IS.  Yes, Trinidad and Tobago!  100 citizens are suspected of having left their country to join IS and 2 of those have found their way onto the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list and a third is the recipient of the ‘specially designated terrorist’ award.

Trinidad and Tobago’s ties to terrorism run deep.  Way back in 1992, two men from that country who were living in Canada were arrested on suspicion of planning to bomb a Hind theatre and temple in Toronto.  They were tried, convicted, incarcerated and deported eventually back to their homeland.

Well, that’s it for the first episode of ‘An intelligent look at terrorism’.  I hope you enjoyed it.  Let  me know what you think, good, bad or otherwise.  Make sure you subscribe to receive notices of upcoming podcasts.  I’ll talk to you again in a fortnight. Until then, stay safe!

Phil Gurski

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