When is a terrorist attack not a terrorist attack?

It is really hard to come up with a definition of terrorism that all agree on.  Every country seems to have its own version and while there are of course similarities there are also differences and some of these may have legal ramifications.  Then there is the non-legal definition: i.e. what the average person thinks terrorism is.  There was no better illustration of the gap between the two than in the case of the mosque shootings in Quebec City last February.  The Crown has not charged Alexandre Bissonnette with terrorism under the Canadian Criminal Code but that has not stopped many, including politicians, from saying it was clearly a terrorist act.

I have long argued that there are a few things that have to be present for a criminal act to be terrorist in nature (remember: terrorism is first and foremost a crime, albeit a crime that has special characteristics).  Firstly it has to be a serious act of violence or threat thereof. Secondly it  has to be perpetrated for ideological, political or religious reasons.  Thirdly, it is normally believed to be aimed at non-combatants (i.e. civilians).

So what do we make of Monday’s attack in Mogadishu where an Al Shabaab terrorist wearing a Somali army uniform blew himself up inside a military training base, killing seven soldiers and wounding 15?  Technically, it is not terrorism since the victims would supposedly have been armed.  Does it matter that the attack did not take place on a battlefield?  This incident reminds us of the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon: 241 US service personnel died but it is unlikely that they were prepared for a fight when the suicide trucker drove through the gates.

Exploring this further, is it a terrorist attack always when the group or person behind the action is tied to a known terrorist entity?  There is absolutely no doubt that Al Shabaab is a particularly brutal terrorist group (although less barbaric than Islamic State).  Does it therefore follow that any action in which it is engaged can be called an act of terrorism?  At times things get even more complicated.  In an earlier attack in Mogadishu Al Shabaab was targeting a a military convoy but hit a minibus instead, killing at least 15 people.  Had the primary target been hit, would we have looked at the incident differently?

I don’t have an easy answer to any of these questions.  My head tells me to limit terrorism to events where civilians die or are wounded because civilians are neither trained nor prepared for possible or probable violence.  Those that serve in our military do know that there is a very real chance of death or injury in what they do. But my heart tells me that a death is a death is a death if the assailant murders for some cause, justified or not. I also do not want to dismiss the loss of our soldiers as just ‘stuff happens in war’: they are too precious for that.

But when it comes to our justice system labelling a murder a terrorist act does not make any real difference (or does it?), unlike a hate crime where the presiding judge can layer on a harsher sentence if it is clear that the crime was indeed motivated by identifiable hate.  Then again, terrorism is the ultimate hate crime as terrorist groups are oozing with hatred for just about anyone and anything that does not fit their warped sense of the world.  So perhaps we should make terrorists serve longer sentences for their hateful intent.  Maybe judges already take this into consideration in Canada – it’s just that we haven’t had that  many cases go to trial and sentencing.

I don’t suppose the average Canadian cares what the law says. Terrorism is terrorism, they’d say, whether it is Alexandre Bissonnette or the Somali standing trial in Ottawa for his role in the kidnapping and brutal treatment of Amanda Lindhout or John Nuttall and Amanda Korody (the convicted and released 2013 Victoria Canada Day bombers).  And maybe for a crime that is committed to instill fear and emotion  a purely emotional definition is fine after all.



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.

Leave a Reply