Terrorism is less prevalent than you think

Quick!  Name the top ten causes of death in Canada!  Can you?  Here is one list I found in the wondrous playground and source of all wisdom we call the Internet (the data is from 2012: the rightmost column is percentage of yearly deaths:


1. Malignant neoplasms (cancer) 30.2
2 Diseases of heart (heart disease) 19.7
3 Cerebrovascular diseases (stroke) 5.3
4 Chronic lower respiratory diseases 4.5
5 Accidents (unintentional injuries) 4.6
6 Diabetes mellitus (diabetes) 2.8
7 Alzheimer’s disease 2.6
8 Influenza and pneumonia 2.3
9 Intentional self-harm (suicide) 1.6
10 Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis (kidney disease)   1.3

What do you NOT see on that list?  Deaths by gunfire.  Deaths in war or civil disturbance.  Or deaths by terrorists.  In fact for 2012, if memory serves me correctly, there were a grand total of ZERO deaths at the hands of violent extremists in Canada that year.  And the year after.  In 2014 there were two.  In 2015 zero.  And so on and so on.

I do not find this fact surprising because as someone who was working in counter terrorism in 2012 at CSIS I knew a lot about those who mused about, or even badly wanted, to carry out acts of terrorism in our country but who were either stopped or were too stupid to plan the simplest plot. In other words, Canada in 2012 – and today for that matter – was a very safe country in which terrorism, while always posing a potential threat, is rare to non-existent.  Despite what many people think, it is just not that prevalent.

Aha! you might say, but what about other countries?  Alas, it is sadly true that other nations are not as lucky as us in the Great White North.  Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan (where an election-related attack two days ago killed more than 130 civilians) and a few others are all too often faced with terrorism.  I do not have stats for Afghanistan, for example, and I’d love to see where terrorism fits in that nation’s top ten causes of death.

And yet even countries know to be disproportionately violent do not see that much terrorist activity, relatively speaking.  Take India for instance.  There has been a nasty spate of mob killings of innocent people accused by the rabble of stealing children (for indentured work or sexual exploitation) but when it comes to actual terrorist acts, the numbers are small.  Unbelievably, more Indians died in 2017 from potholes (I am not making this up!) than from all terrorist acts: 3, 597 vs. 803  (how on earth do 3,597 people die from potholes?? Those must be some potholes!!) .   It is important to point out that the latter figure includes those that have died in what is known as the Naxalite insurgency, which is more accurately a Marxist guerrilla movement than a terrorist organisation, as well as terrorists themselves killed by police, so that 803 number is not a good reflection of those who died in terrorist attacks in 2017 (i.e. the number is much lower).

What does all this mean when it comes to the perception of terrorist incidence?  It means that popular opinion is wrong, not that this is a first.  When we constantly read of something occurring somewhere on Earth we extrapolate that it is happening everywhere.  Except that it isn’t.  Furthermore, the conditions leading to daily terrorist acts in Afghanistan are very different from those here and it is hard to imagine a scenario where daily life in Canada would start to resemble daily life in Afghanistan (or Somalia, or Pakistan, or…).

In a related matter, this is the challenge facing CSIS, the RCMP and its partners.  How to detect and deter very infrequent events while at the same time convincing Canadians that they need the money and resources to be vigilant for rare acts of terrorism.  It should not be surprising that when something happens so sparingly it leaves the attention of the public and that public may start to question why all these funds are going to security agencies that have apparently little to do.  Think I am making this up?  This is exactly what happened after we ‘won’ the Cold War and decided that the Soviet Union (now Russia) was not worth watching as closely (I was at CSE at the time and saw the diminution of resources firsthand).  Look where are now with Putin in power.

I am pretty sure there are several lessons here.  First, don’t panic over terrorism: it is not an existential threat in Canada and will most likely never be one.  Second, be assured that the forces in which we place our trust to keep us safe are very much engaged in monitoring terrorist threats, even if they are few and far between, so you don’t have to.  And thirdly, be careful with collected wisdom.  Hint, the all powerful Internet has some material that is not very good and the notion that there is a terrorist under every bed is a good example of bad information.  Consider yourself warned.



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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