Is terrorism in Canada really a national security threat?

The other day I had lunch with an old friend who, like me, worked in the Canadian intelligence community.  We had  a wide-ranging chat over a number of issues – Donald Trump, what each of us was up to these days – but as inevitably happens when two people with our backgrounds get together the conversation turned to international affairs and threats.  This may strike some as odd, but when you spend decades thinking and writing about these kinds of matters it is hard not to continue to think and talk about them.

My colleague raised an interesting point about how we perceive threat in Canada and made a provocative statement, one I wasn’t sure at first how to take.  He said that it was wrong to look upon terrorism through the lens of ‘national security’ and that it was more accurate to see it through the lens of ‘public safety’.

Many of you may ask ‘what is the difference?’   Aren’t the two phrases more or less synonyms?  Yes and no.  Both clearly have to do with affairs that are not good in the sense that they do not contribute positively to a state. And both carry with them the implication that governments need to devote some level of response (human, financial) to tackle what is obviously a problem.  Yet there is a fine distinction between public safety and national security, and upon further thinking I came to agree with my friend that terrorism is very much an example of the former but not the latter, at least not in Canada.

As he put it to me, a national security threat has ‘national’ import. What kind of menace would threaten us in Canada at a ‘national’ level?   Well, we could cite infrastructure collapse, the hacking of major computer or electrical systems, the breakout of a pandemic or the undermining of our governance mechanisms.  If any of these were to be truly at risk, which actor(s) would likely be responsible?  The answer he provided and with which I wholeheartedly agree is not terrorists but rather other states, rogue or otherwise.  Generally speaking, the resources required to take down a water filtration network, or hack into a political party’s internal system or manufacture a virus that is easily transmitted and has a high lethality rate are found only within states (or highly organised and capable large groups of people).  We know intuitively which states could decide to execute any of these catastrophic events: Russia, China, maybe North Korea, actually any nation state with the desire to do so.  Should any of these threats materialise they would truly constitute national security issues because they could become national in scope.

At this point, to the best of our knowledge, no terrorist group can really do any of this.  We have seen instances where a group like Islamic State can hack a particular Web site but it does not seem to be able to infiltrate and disrupt an entire computer network.  Terrorist groups may get to that point some day but they are not there yet.  The same goes for the use of biological or chemical weapons (nuclear is beyond  their ability): lots of talk and bluster but no real indication that they are on the cusp of something catastrophic.

So the threat from terrorist groups or individuals inspired by them is thus in the realm of public safety: i.e. they threaten the safety of the public in a limited way. They can carry out attacks that kill and maim innocent civilians as we saw this week in Barcelona and we need to ensure that those agencies tasked with following and disrupting them are well-resourced.  Even in the worst case scenario what the terrorists can achieve is local, not national.

The way we talk about threat matters.  Terrorist groups like to pretend that they are national and international in scope.  They are in that they can strike anywhere at anytime but they are not in that the effects are neither national nor international in scope. Unless of course we allow them to have that effect through our ill-considered response – stopping immigration, closing borders, making broad-based laws that are overkill, etc.  The bottom line is that terrorism does not pose an existential threat to any nation, Afghanistan perhaps being the only exception, despite how the extremists see and try to portray themselves.  And we should not feed that myth by speaking of them in those terms.

In response to a true national security threat a state has to mobilise resources at the highest level, up to and including the deployment of the military.  In response to a public safety threat it has to rely on security intelligence and law enforcement.  Thankfully, terrorism today lies squarely in the latter and not the former.  Let us keep it where it belongs and not give extremists the satisfaction of having goaded us into over-reaction.

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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