I have just returned from a CVE (countering violent extremism) conference in Edmonton organised by the Organization for the Prevention of Violence (OPV), the Canadian Practitioners’ Network for the Prevention of Radicalization and Extremist Violence, and the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) where I gave a presentation on what we know about the extremist threat in Canada. There were a lot of very smart and talented people in attendance and the gathering was a great place to catch up with old friends and meet new ones.
There was so much that I learned from listening to others and so much that made me think about terrorist issues that I’d like to dedicate the next few blogs to those topics. We’ll start with this one on how big this threat really is. I was part of a panel on talking about the situation in Canada – and more specifically Alberta as many of the conference participants were from that province – in order to give attendees a good framework in which to situate the threat from violent extremism in our country.
In typical Gurski fashion I led off with a counter-intuitive talk on why the threat is actually lower than most people think. This might strike some as career suicide for a guy who spent 32 years in intelligence – including 15 in counter terrorism – since saying the menace is small would lead to questions as to why we devote so many resources to it then. Nevertheless, as I stated the threat from violent extremist actors in Canada is very much a small-n problem: we simply do not see a heck of a lot of activity in the form of plots here or plots abroad (in which Canadians are involved). This is of course very different than what we see in all too many countries around the world. A few examples will suffice:
- so far this year in Nigeria, 6,562 people have been killed in violent ways, including terrorist attacks perpetrated mostly by Boko Haram and an Islamic State affiliate that calls itself Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA).
- on average 50 die every DAY in Afghanistan in that country’s ‘war’ (again many in terrorist attacks carried out by the Taliban or the IS affiliate Islamic State in Khorasan).
To illustrate clearly the difference with us, consider this: since 9/11 between two and eight Canadians have been killed in terrorist incidents (NB the discrepancy lies in whether the attack on a Quebec City mosque in 2017 was a hate crime or a terrorist attack – I return to this in my next blog). That works out to less than one-half of one person per YEAR. Now is that not a telling statistic??
The mere fact that the terrorist threat to Canada is this small is obviously a good problem to have as the alternative is not so good. Whatever it is that we are doing well – integration, immigration, society building, etc. -we really should keep doing it, assuming we can ever figure out what is working for us.
On the other hand, having a tiny problem does lead to two challenges. These can be defined as:
a) are we doling out too much money and resources to counter terrorism?
b) why is the fear of terrorism so disproportionate to the level of terrorist threat?
The answer to a) is: maybe. We probably could take some money and people off monitoring terrorism and put them on other problems. The counter to that is that it only takes one successful attack, no matter how small, to get people to demand “Where the hell were CSIS and the RCMP and why the hell didn’t they prevent this??” Deciding what to focus on in the national security realm is not an exact science reducible to some algorithm and never will be.
The response to b) lies with understanding human nature and our reaction to what is occurring in far-flung places. When we read about attacks in Afghanistan or Somalia or Nigeria, or perhaps closer to ‘home’ in Europe and the US, we tend to extrapolate that if it is happening there it could very well happen here. Hence the threat is seen as larger than it is, facts notwithstanding. I am not sure how you cure this misconception other than to keep bringing up what is truly occurring, although in an era where news sources are not trusted (thanks boy President Trump among others!) that is far from easy.
In the end it is important to divide fact from conjecture. When those facts are analysed there is no other conclusion than that of we are relatively safe from terrorism in Canada. Any other conclusion is disingenuous.