Terrorism by the numbers

Whenever a new year kicks in we always cast a Janus-like glance back to the previous one to get an idea of what we just went through and, hopefully, gain some insight into what we are in for in the coming 12 months.  By all accounts 2016 was not a great year on several fronts, terrorism among them.  There is no need to review all of the attacks the world witnessed because a) there are too many and they are all well known, b) I’d like to start 2017 on a positive note (the Turks, Iraqis and Somalis, however, have already suffered heinous acts in the first two days of the young year) and c) I’m not so sure that last year’s events predict this year’s.

There is one statistic that I want to share with you though and it came to me via a tweet from National Post security and terrorism reporter Stewart Bell.  He wrote that in all of 2016, a dozen Canadians died abroad at the hands of terrorists: 6 killed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – all in the siege of a hotel in Bamako if I am not mistaken –  3 by Islamic State (IS), 2 by Abu Sayyaf (beheaded sailors) and 1 by Al Shabaab.  Twelve.  That’s it.  For an entire year.  Note that precisely zero Canadians were killed in terrorist acts in Canada in 2016, thanks in part no doubt to the shooting of IS wannabe Aaron Driver in Strathroy, Ontario in August.

(CBC is reporting that one of the victims of the New Year’s Eve club attack in Istanbul was Canadian, thus launching 2017 on a bloody foot)

Look, I am not trying to ignore the deaths of 12 people: one is too many and I cannot imagine what the families are going through.  The loss of a loved one in a terrorist attack must be incredibly horrible.

But I want to compare the 2016 figures with an op-ed in last week’s Globe and Mail by Tony Coulson of Environics (a Canadian polling firm).   Here are some highlights from that article:

  • most Canadians think a terrorist attack is likely over the next couple of years and one in four think an attack is “very likely”
  • one-third would alter their travel plans or reconsider visits to public places in the wake of an attack
  • 40% think Canada and its allies should go to war against terrorists
  • another 40% believe we should slowing immigration from “certain regions” (whatever that means) and one quarter support the total elimination of refugees and immigrants from those areas

It is hard to choose which of these findings is most disturbing.  As to the likelihood of an attack, I am confident that the appropriate authorities (CSIS, RCMP) will disrupt any plan.  Secondly, why would anyone avoid public places AFTER an attack? These places are probably no less safe than anywhere else afterwards.  Thirdly, go to war against whom?  Strathroy?  The vast majority of Western terrorists are homegrown and there is no “obvious” target to retaliate against.  Fourthly, since Canada needs more people and since 99.999 % of immigrants and refugees are just good future citizens who will contribute massively to our common weal why would we shut the door to keep out the 0.001%?

What explains these irrational responses to threat?  Maybe our brains do.  According to an article in New Scientist, humans are appalling at assessing risk.  Our “inbuilt fear factory” is highly susceptible to immediate experiences – which kinda accounts for why those who make money on security over-hype the threat – and lousy at determining risks that build up over time (like climate change).  One solution, say the scientists, is to stop our “system 1” thinking (i.e. going with your gut) and engage our more analytical and rigorous “system 2” thinking.  System 1 probably kept us alive on the savannah tens of thousands of years ago but there is a greater need to allow our evolved brains to have a go.

Terrorism is here to stay and 2017 will be no different.  It may be better, it may be worse, but we won’t know until next January when we crunch the numbers.  Whatever happens over the next twelve months, reacting hurriedly and stupidly is not a good response.

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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