A tale of two countries and two terrorism levels

We in Canada have longstanding ties to the UK.  We were, after all, part of the British Empire for a over a century and by Confederation a sizeable part of our population had come from the British Isles.  Even well after 1867 immigration was dominated by Irish, Welsh, Scots and English families seeking a new life in a new land.  For instance, my wife’s ancestors were part of the massive wave of potato famine survivors from southern Ireland who came to our land in the 1860s.

The US government often speaks of its ‘special relationship’ with the UK, in reference to very close military and intelligence ties, and of course the US also started out its existence as a British colony (although they fought a war to gain independence while we signed an act of parliament – how Canadian!).  I would counter that our relationship with the UK is ‘more special’ in that we continue to share a lot of values and our systems of governance are much closer to those of the UK than those of the US.  I realise that we are in an era of ‘everything historical is bad’ – we have seen the taking down of statues and the whitewashing of negative aspects of our past – nevertheless we owe much to our British cousins.

One thing we do not share, thank God, is the level of terrorist threat.  While both nations do have an uncomfortably high number of violent extremists that are capable of carrying out  heinous acts of terrorism, the sheer magnitude of the threat in the UK is orders of magnitude bigger there than it is here.  According to a recent article in The Independent UK security forces have made 379 terror-related arrests as of June this year (compare that with 226 in all of 2016), the country has seen four successful terrorist attacks (one in Manchester, two in London – both IS linked – and a fourth involving a white supremacist outside a mosque in east London), and 19 plots have been foiled thanks to excellent intelligence and law enforcement work.

Let these numbers sink in for a bit.  Now compare the situation here in Canada.  We  have had, so far this year, one ‘attack’ (a golf club-wielding wannabe female jihadi in a Canadian Tire), the massacre of Muslims at a mosque in Quebec City in late January (which may or may not be terrorist-related), and very, very few arrests.  Have our protectors foiled any plots in 2017?  None that come immediately to mind.  With these figures in mind we see that our two nations are on opposite sides of the scale.

Why is this?  The answers are complicated.  Successful terrorism plots rely crucially on people and the more individuals you have committed to violent extremist ideologies the greater the chance you will have carnage and destruction.  UK spooks have identified 23,000 such people of whom only 3,000 are being actively watched (this is  a resource issue and not only a priority one).  We have nowhere near that number to the best of our ability to make that determination.

The UK was also accused of ignoring the jihadi threat as far back as the 1990s, so much so that it was called ‘Londonistan’ by some.  There is probably something to that moniker though I expect some of the more sensationalised books on the subject were an exaggeration.  You cannot reduce radicalisation and terrorism to any one policy or any one government.  As I noted networks are the key and the UK just happens to have more bad guy networks than we do.

The good news is that it is hard to imagine the situation here in Canada ever getting anywhere near that of the UK.  I cannot fathom how this would happen – never say never but it is highly unlikely unless a lot changes between now and some future date.  Again, it is not that we are necessarily better at building society but we do not suffer from critical masses of violent extremists and will probably not see the situation deteriorate to the point where CSIS and the RCMP have to worry about thousands of jihadis, let alone tens of thousands.  Were that day to arrive our protectors would not be in a position to deal with it.

So let us celebrate what we have in common with our English and British confreres but let us also celebrate our differences.  We are enriched by the former and  safer because of the latter.

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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