Pre-terrorism can at times be identified more easily than you may think

My wife and I are quite taken by British programming. We have watched Midsomer Murders – all 19 seasons we have access to – at least twice and other similar series on Netflix and Acorn TV. We are currently making our way through George Gently, starring Martin Shaw (and Lee Ingleby, who also played Stan Shunpike, the ticket taker on the Knight Bus in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), an early 1960s detective in Northumberland.

The series is a true reflection, I suspect, of policing in the north of England back then. There is a good dollop of sexism and police brutality that I don’t think would pass muster today. A recent episode (well, in that we watched it recently) dealt with a scourge that is unfortunately not limited to the 1960s: child sexual abuse by those in positions of authority. It tells the story of a school/orphanage where the man of the household sexually assaulted girls in his care and allowed local dignitaries to abuse the boys. In one scene it comes out that although many people claimed ‘not to know’ what was happening in fact a lot did, including the main abuser’s wife, and yet said and did nothing. No one admitted to seeing the ‘signs’ that something was amiss.

A story in the weekend edition of the Globe and Mail about a multiple murder in cottage country (just on the other side of Algonquin Park from our country place actually) where a man killed three people and himself in February 2018 tells a similar tale. According to the article the killer’s “disturbing behaviour gave the community of Burk’s Falls indications that something bad was brewing.” The piece goes on to state that “signs of danger were in clear sight” adding that the perpetrator had several of the 41 ‘top risk factors for domestic homicide’.

Alas, terrorism is very similar.

Beginning in the early 2000s my colleagues and I began to study the signs of radicalisation to violence we were seeing in those under investigation by CSIS (this work, void of classified information of course, made it into my first book The Threat from Within in 2015). The bottom line is that there are always signs and that these are ignored (more on that soon). No, they are not foolproof and they do not guarantee that someone will actually engage in terrorism but they are definitely worth taking note of.

After I left CSIS those same colleagues began to narrow the search for indicators to those that demonstrate actual mobilisation to violence. The unclassified version of their work can be found here (the US version is here). Again they are not foolproof and they do not guarantee that someone will actually engage in terrorism but they are definitely worth taking note of.

It turns out that those of us in intelligence were not the only ones trying to figure out in advance who goes on to commit an act of terrorism. A few academics have also turned their attention to this problem. or instance a friend of mine in the UK, Paul Gill, and his colleagues found that for a subset of terrorists, the so-called ‘lone actors’, “a striking (NB emphasis added) 86% of lone actors communicated their radical or extremist convictions to others, be that family members, friends, colleagues, or strangers online.” This phenomenon is also known as ‘leakage‘, a term I first heard pronounced by US  forensic psychologist Reid Meloy a few years ago.

So it seems that terrorists and others who engage in violence demonstrate their intentions well before they act in a majority of cases to those in their immediate environment. If this is true, why are not more incidents stopped in part by having intimates call the police or intelligence or anybody for that matter? I think several aspects are at play here:

  • some may not want to ‘over-interpret’ what they are seeing and hearing;
  • some may not want ‘to get their friend/son/uncle in trouble’;
  • some do not know who to call;
  • some cannot be bothered; and
  • some may not trust the authorities who need to know this information.

This last one is huge and is a topic I will return to in a separate piece. There is also the possibility that authorities ignore when they do get tips, as some are alleging in the Burk’s Falls murders described above.

Still I find it hard to believe that an average citizen would not want to do everything possible to prevent unnecessary innocent death. Would you want to live with the fact that people are now dead and that you may have had a piece of info that could have contributed to an understanding perhaps leading to peremptory action yet elected to do nothing? I am pretty sure you would want to assist.

Do me and the rest of the country a favour. Read my book or Paul’s work or Reid’s work or what CSIS and the US NCTC put out and educate yourself on what is worrying behaviour. And then if you happen to see it, call someone! Those who do not become victims as a result of your actions will thank you.

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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