Is RW extremism really a bigger threat than Islamist extremism in the US and Canada? The numbers say no

And so the debate continues on which terrorist movement(s) poses a bigger threat in the West.  Is it really Islamic State and IS-inspired extremists or is this belief a symptom of Islamophobia?  Or is it the collection of hate-filled racists and white supremacists as everyone seems to be saying?  And what about the rise of Antifa and the ever-present poorly-organised anarchists (I suppose ‘highly organised anarchists’ would be an oxymoron, wouldn’t it?)?

The simple truth is that all forms of ideologically-committed violence pose a threat and all are capable of committing acts of terrorism that result in death and destruction.  While I realise I have an inherent bias, having worked on the Islamist extremism problem at CSIS for fifteen years, I still think of myself as a numbers kind of guy.  In other words, unless I see unambiguous data that tells me otherwise, I stick to my contention that yes, Islamist extremists do constitute the #1 threat and that is where our resources (CSIS and the RCMP in our country and the FBI in the US) need to deploy their resources when it comes to terrorism.  If, and only if, those numbers shift or we get a good sense they are about to shift, should we consider moving people and money around.  To do so in the absence of good data is foolhardy.

This is why I have a real hard time with an FBI/DHS report that says that the threat from white supremacists’ in the US in the period 2001-2016 has been “responsible for the lion’s share of violent attacks among domestic extremist groups” and goes on to say that there have been 49 homicides in 26 attacks.

Part of the problem is a definitional one.   I have never been able to understand how and why US intelligence and law enforcement agencies quantify and qualify terrorism.  They make what I consider to be an unjustified distinction between ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ terrorism based on the underlying ideology: white supremacists are thus domestic while IS-inspired are international.  A much more logical division is to consider where the attack takes place and who carries it out, or at least this is more logical in my mind.  However I am not so naive to think that my way of looking at this will have any bearing on how the US does.

But let’s get back to those numbers.  Recall 49 deaths in 26 attacks.  How many people have been killed by Islamist extremists in the US over the same time period?  Here is a very short list of the most lethal incidents:

  • November 5, 2009 Fort Hood, Texas: 13 dead 30 wounded
  • December 2, 2015, San Bernardino, California, 14 dead, 22 wounded
  • June 12, 2016, Orlando, Florida, 49 dead, 58 wounded

I am not a mathematician, but these three attacks alone have resulted in 50 percent more deaths than those caused by white supremacists.  In fact, one single attack, that of Omar Mateen on that nightclub in Orlando, was as lethal at all the RW attacks over 15  years! So on what basis, definitions aside, does the far right pose a larger threat?  They certainly may become much bigger and there are worrying signs pre- and post-Charlottesville that this may be on the horizon.  But in the absence of data it does not help to throw out evidence-lacking assertions.

So what is the situation here in Canada? Not much different I would maintain although the very low numbers undermine solid analysis.  During the same time period  used by the FBI we have had two deaths from Islamist extremism (St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa two days apart in October 2014) and zero from white supremacists/neo-Nazis (unless Alexandre Bissonnette’s attack on a Quebec City mosque in February of this year is classified as terrorism, which it has yet to be insofar as the charges laid).  There would  also have been a much greater number of casualties in this country had it not been for the work of CSIS and the RCMP in cases like the Toronto 18.  I am not aware of a single mass-casualty attack planned by the far right in Canada that was thwarted thanks to these agencies.

Terrorism is an emotional topic for its intent is to elicit emotion – fear, distrust, terror…  Our response to it must, however, be rational and based on facts, not conjectures.  If we cannot quantify the threat it makes it very hard to neutralise.  Unless  a lot changes over the coming years, our protectors’ resources are being put exactly where they should be.

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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