A rare look at the terrorist threat to Canada thanks to CSIS

This article appeared in The Hill Times on February 12, 2018

We get a peek at what security intelligence services do all too rarely in this country.  In contrast, the recent leaking of an FBI memo on the investigation into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election is but the latest example of many on the inner workings of the US intelligence community.  And as for the Brits scarcely a month goes by without a report, either shared on purpose or otherwise, on what Her Majesty’s services are up to.  Canada is definitely an outlier in this regard.  Oh sure, we see the CSIS Director  on the odd occasion before a Parliamentary committee on this or that, but there is seldom any real insight into what the spy agency knows or does.

Thankfully that changed, even if only a bit, this week when a report appeared on the Public Safety Canada Web site penned by CSIS and entitled “Mobilization to Violence (Terrorism) Research: key findings.   The awkward title notwithstanding, it is a fascinating look into work carried out by CSIS analysts on the very important question of whether it is possible to determine when a person (or cell) is planning to move beyond talking about terrorism to actually executing a terrorist attack.  This research has significant implications for how CSIS does what it does, and I will return to this in a bit.

Firstly, though, I want to congratulate CSIS for agreeing to share this work with the Canadian public.  Full disclosure though: this is exactly the kind of work I did over my 15 years with the organisation and I was very proud (personally) to see that the research I and my colleagues pioneered in the mid-2000s is continuing.  You must understand that the ‘prime directive’ of an intelligence service is to say nothing for fear of saying something that will be misconstrued or used against it. The decision to publish this report says a great deal on an important topic without compromising sources or methods, the two sacred trusts of a spy agency. And yet it demonstrates that CSIS has robust, meaningful data and that it is applying sound analytic techniques to that data in order to both get a better understanding of the threat we face and contribute to what the organisation, as one of our key threat diminishment bodies, should do about it.

The importance of this work lies in its promise to help CSIS narrow the focus of its investigations to those who pose the greatest danger.  If it indeed proves possible to separate the ‘talkers’ from the ‘walkers’ – although I think (and CSIS appears to agree) that their findings are not guarantees and will never be 100% reliable – then CSIS will spend less time on the former and more on the latter.  This not only frees up resources and eliminates some useless practices but it should convince those who are sure CSIS monitors everyone all the time that the agency is quite serious about concentrating on the real McMcoys and not the wannabes (spoiler alert: no one has the luxury to indefinitely watch people that never end up doing anything violent).  This is a win-win situation for the Service and for Canadians.

Now that I am retired I often reflect openly on the kinds of things I did at CSIS in the hopes that the confessions of a ‘former’ can help Canadians understand the nature of terrorism and just what type of threat we face in our country (NB I also turned much of my original research at CSIS into my first book The Threat from Within).  With this move to give Canadians a little insight into what it does, CSIS has performed a valuable service and it now becomes a little easier for those studying terrorism on the outside (i.e. academics) to see that our intelligence agencies are capable of doing quality research and analysis.  I sincerely hope that this is not the first and last time CSIS elects to take a chance and let Canadians know more about what they are doing, what their concerns are and what they have discovered regarding those concerns.  This is indeed a good news day for the Service and for Canadians and I for one look forward to future disclosures.

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.

Leave a Reply