Is there a problem with terrorism ‘indicators’?

One criticism that has been leveled a lot in the post 9/11 period is that governments, through their security intelligence and law enforcement agencies, has run roughshod over civil rights and what should be seen as legitimate political activity, and criminalised some behaviours all in an effort to prevent terrorism from occurring.  The timeline on which these agencies are expected to begin their investigations has been lengthened so much so that  some say mere thoughts are now equated with support for terrorism.  Not surprisingly, much of the concern surrounds Muslims in Western communities.

One way of thinking of this can be described as the ‘left of boom’ approach.  A society has an interest in stopping terrorist acts from happening and it expects the agencies tasked with doing that to be successful, doing everything required to prevent attacks.  No one wants to hear excuses why CSIS or the RCMP failed in its mandate.  The question then becomes: when should these agencies start looking into terrorist threat?  In other words, how far ‘left of boom’ (i.e. before an attack occurs along a timeline) should an investigation be warranted?

There are two major views on this.  Those worried about an erosion of our Charter (or in the US, Constitutional) rights want only those actively planning an attack to be the subject of attention: this is hugely problematic as I shall point out later.  Others who are really freaked out by all these incidents, want whole communities (read: Muslim) to be under surveillance at all times since anyone from those communities can become a terrorist.  As with most things in life, the best solution is somewhere between the two extremes.

Complicating this are the myriad ‘radicalisation’ models out there.  Everyone has a theory and there is an aggressive marketing struggle to have one’s pet ideas adopted by governments, spies and cops.  Most of these have a nugget or two of value but none are comprehensive and most suffer from a lack of data or poor methodology working with whatever data they have gathered.  Most importantly, no study follows a classic approach where you posit a factor and test it by having a target group and a control group (there are obvious ethical reasons why this is not done).

So we are left with a problem.  We demand to be kept safe and yet we have no foolproof model to guide our protectors.  In some cases, according to Arun Kundani, bad theories get adopted by intelligence and police and the ‘simplest’ approach is rolled out, resulting in bad intelligence/policing and poisoned community relations.  Garbage in, garbage out as they say.

What then is the solution?  Well, I can think of a few things.  Security intelligence and law enforcement organisations have to do a much better job of both training their own staff on how to act and what to act on and fostering meaningful relations with all communities.  The latter takes time, effort and constant attention. If done properly, ties are stronger, myths are shattered and average citizens are both better informed and more willing to come forward when they have information linked to a terrorist plot or someone radicalising to violence.

But what about indicators?  In the absence of a perfect model of why and how people adopt violent ideologies what can our spies and police do?  For one thing they can absolutely use a set of POTENTIAL indicators of violence and political extremism to ask questions.  These indicators are not guarantees of a terrorist act but they are consistent with cases of actual terrorist acts.  CSIS, the RCMP and their counterparts should and must look into individuals and groups that exhibit these behaviours and attitudes (for a more detailed discussion consult my first book The Threat from Within).  No, this does not mean full investigation leading to arrest and trial: it means doing due diligence.

As for waiting until the last possible moment to engage in what some see as the state’s ‘intrusive action’, that is no longer realistic.  Where once terrorists searched for weapons and fertiliser to make bombs and thus gave officials ample time to act they are now driving their cars/vans/trucks into crowds.  This kind of attack requires next to no lead time.  We must allow our agencies the room to do their jobs and inquire as to suspicious behaviour (i.e. behaviour consistent with violent radicalisation) before they get behind the wheel. If not, people die and survivors wonder why the authorities did not act sooner.

The fact that I have to address this again in a blog tells me that the issue is still misunderstood.  More dialogue is necessary. Let us get to it.

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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