Some people have unrealistic views of security intelligence services. I cannot count how many times I have turned to my wife, while we were watching a movie featuring the NSA (the US signals intelligence agency) or the CIA, and guffawing ‘as if!’ when something truly outrageous is presented. Like when a small team can find, process and analyse a completely new signal in seconds. Or when armed agents show up at someone’s door minutes after new information is received. The Bourne films, as exciting as they are, are pretty egregious in this regard.
We in the intel business are accused of being overbearing. We are told we collect and keep too much information on average citizens. We are labelled oversensitive to threats. We have a hard time distinguishing between lawful dissent and real extremists. And so on and so on.
At the same time taxpayers demand to be kept safe and think that we can carry out perfect investigations in which, to use an old Mountie phrase, we always ‘get our man’. Failure is not tolerated, quite the contrary. When something big happens, like 9/11, we have inquiries and hearings or, if you are in Canada, royal commissions. And fingers are quick to be pointed at the alleged guilty parties and calls of incompetence or negligence.
Just as Justin Bourne movies aren’t real, neither are expectations of 100% success in counter terrorism. Let’s take the recent stabbing in Flint as an example. A 50-year old Tunisian Canadian, Amor Ftouhi, has been accused of attempted murder when he slashed the throat of a police officer yesterday. Here is what we know so far.
- Mr. Ftouhi has been in Canada for about a decade.
- he has no criminal record.
- he had a ‘Fast Pass’ which facilitated entry into the US. This permit requires a background check and nothing surfaced during that process.
- he had no history of mental illness, drug abuse or alcohol problems.
- he had a college degree.
- no one in his immediate environment noticed any change or worrisome behaviour.
- nothing has come to light in his social media postings to raise alarm.
- he was married with 3 kids.
Please tell me what if anything in the above would have warranted CSIS, RCMP or SPVM (Montreal Police) attention. Nothing, right? He seems like a whole bunch of other immigrants to this country, the vast, vast majority of whom are outstanding citizens.
So we stand at a conundrum. People would howl in protest if someone like Mr. Ftouhi had been monitored by our spies and/or cops for flimsy reasons. And yet clearly he went off the rails at some point: people don’t wake up one morning, drive the few hours to the US border, hang a right and travel another 1,000 km to Flint, Michigan, find the airport, wander around a bit, see a guy in uniform and rush at him with a knife yelling ‘Allahu Akbar’. People don’t develop a sense of revenge for US actions in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (his words, not mine) while eating Cheerios one day. We may never get the whole story but there is one there. Because he did carry out a terrorist act ergo CSIS/RCMP/SPVM should have been following him. Except that they had nothing to go on.
In a perfect world we would have known about Mr. Ftouhi’s terrorist intent. But the world is not perfect and his violent act was, for all intents and purposes, unstoppable. We need to accept that and stop over-reacting to one act of rage. People die and are wounded by other people every day and while we must work to lower that toll we cannot be seized with the odd incident that is terrorist in nature. And we have to stop blaming agencies for things they cannot prevent.