Terrorism begins at home sometimes

In the wake of the Paris attacks and continuing developments, we have been inundated with dire warnings that everything has changed. These attacks were the harbinger of a “new wave” of terrorism  now that Islamic State has left the confines of Syria-Iraq and decided to spread its carnage elsewhere (Egypt, Lebanon, France…).   So much for our own”lone wolves”  (which remains a stupid and inaccurate term btw) that some were raving about a few short weeks ago: we are now entering the era (can an era last a few months?) of IS-directed and executed operations.  In this light, we need to be vigilant about those coming to our shores from abroad – with obvious implications for refugees.

So, is this true?   Has “everything” changed?  Not surprisingly, I will answer “no” but before I do can I make one more plea for a little bit of time before we all pronounce on what just happened and what we need to do about it?  Perhaps just a tad so we can actually get some info or facts?  Please?  Pretty please?  Sigh.  Probably not.

This was born out yet again in the flurry of “they came from Syria” accusations.  Irrational and unsubstantiated claims were made that the attacks were carried out by a crack team of commandos from IS in Syria, perhaps entering France via the refugee stream or perhaps on IS-developed aircraft with cloaking devices (a la Romulan warbird).  Sorry, Star Trek reference.

Did some come from Syria?  Maybe.  Probably.  And that is an important fact.  But equally – if not more – important was the news that at least three were Belgian citizens.  Born and/or raised in Brussels.  Perhaps within spitting (peeing?) distance of Mannekin Pis.  And this seems to have been missed – other than the headlines that Belgium is ground zero for terrorism in Europe.

What this means is that at least three of the eight attackers were radicalised IN EUROPE.  That they may have travelled to Syria and fought, or trained or whatever with IS is also important (as Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer has pointed out), but they were not radicalised by IS.  You don’t go to Syria as a blank slate and come back a terrorist: you go radicalised and come back more radicalised.

So, what does this mean for security?  It’s not hard to understand.  Closing our borders to immigrants does not preclude terrorism since we all have plenty of radicalised people who got that way in our own nations.  My experience in Canada is that close to 100% of terrorists who planned acts here or traveled abroad adopted the requisite ideology here – not overseas.  I hope that deflates the “stop the refugees” mantra (are you listening Saskatchewan Premier Wall?).

Rather than being on the cusp of a new “era” in terrorism, we are exactly where we have been for the past 25 years or so: a mixture of major groups like IS and AQ, affiliates like Al Shabaab and AQAP and a slew of homegrown.  And that is the challenge facing our security and law enforcement agencies like CSIS and the RCMP.  It is not and never was either or and never will be.

Can we stop the drama for once?  Every time a big attack occurs (7/7, Madrid, Mumbai…) we are asked to throw out the old and usher in the new.  Regardless of whether that is necessary.

To quote Ecclesiastes 9:1 “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”.  I don’t think they were talking about terrorism back then, but the quote is still apt.

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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