Right wing or jihadis: which poses the greater threat to Canada?

We really need to stop debating whether the far right or Islamist extremists are more dangerous: both need to be monitored.

This piece appeared on The Hill Times on January 02, 2020.

OTTAWA – When it comes to the discussion on terrorism in Canada we are in a very fortunate position. Our country is blessedly beset with violent extremism very rarely. Nevertheless, the threat is not zero and hence we need to dedicate some level of resources to detecting terrorists and terrorists plots in order to prevent from death and injury to Canadians.

In recent years there has arisen a debate on whether the services tasked with counter terrorism in our nation, i.e. CSIS and the RCMP, are ‘getting it right’. These organisations, like many of their counterparts around the world, have been focusing their efforts against one particular threat in the post 9/11 period. I refer, of course, to Islamist extremism.

Has this been the right move?

In a word, yes. While very few plots attributed to these actors have been successful – the two in October 2014 come to mind (two deaths aside from those of the terrorists themselves) – there have have been a number that were foiled thanks to the efforts of the aforementioned agencies. To cite but one example, the Toronto 18 case in 2006 was successfully prevented: had the cell carried out their plans they would have killed and injured hundreds if not thousands.

Developments and trends around the world demonstrate quite clearly that Islamist extremism has not disappeared, the ‘defeat’ of the Islamic State notwithstanding. We would be committing a terrible mistake were we to re-allocate our attention holus-bolus to the ‘new’ threat.

Nevertheless there are some who maintain that another series of actors, falling under the general rubric of the ‘far right’ (including white supremacists, neo-Nazis, etc.), actually poses a much greater menace to Canada. Canadian scholar Barbara Perry is one voice defending this position.

Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire during evening prayers, killing six and wounding more, although he was not charged with terrorist offences.

Security and Intelligence Services

If we look again at successful attacks since 9/11 it is true that from the viewpoint of body count it is true that the single largest incident was the attack on a mosque in Quebec City in 2017. Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire during evening prayers, killing six and wounding more, although he was not charged with terrorist offences. There is also the April 2018 van attack in Toronto by alleged ‘incel’ Alek Minassian, although there is debate whether he was really an incel and whether his actions constitute a terrorist attack.

From where I stand the emphasis placed by our security and intelligence services in recent years has been precisely where it should have been. I am, obviously, biased, having worked on homegrown Islamist terrorism at CSIS from 2001 to 2013, but I nevertheless believe I can justify my stance as follows:

  • We need to include failed as well as successful plots when deciding on resource allocation. Had CSIS and the RCMP not devoted the necessary attention to homegrown jihadis these plots would probably have succeeded, resulting in high death rates;
  • If the attention was indeed poorly allocated one would have predicted more successful far right action (if terrorists were not a priority they could have acted undetected). In fact we have not seen an increased tempo from those extremists;
  • One could challenge the notion whether the far right is capable, or even interested in, mass casualty attacks like the jihadis are. I’d be curious what the data and analysis says in this regard; and
  • The bottom line is that terrorism from all sources in Canada is low. It does not seem to matter what the underlying ideology is.

Going forward there is no question that CSIS and the RCMP need to look at the various manifestations of the far right, which , based on my experience, was not a priority (I have heard that is changing). Still, developments and trends around the world demonstrate quite clearly that Islamist extremism has not disappeared, the ‘defeat’ of Islamic State notwithstanding. We would be committing a terrible mistake were we to re-allocate our attention holus bolus to the ‘new’ threat.

Our protectors need to be vigilant on all fronts. I just hope they get the resources they need.


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

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