When terrorist attacks succeed and why

Another successful terrorist attack, another inquiry as to why it was not stopped.  This is becoming a common occurrence at least in Western societies where the exigencies of liberal democracies demand accountability. There may very well be post facto reviews in non-democracies like Russia and Saudi Arabia as well but we do not tend to hear about them.

We in Canada have thankfully had to launch very few of this inquiries – Air India is the best known in part because of the sheer size of that attack (the largest in history prior to 9/11). Other nations have had similar bodies go over what happened: France over the November 2015 Paris attacks, Germany after the 2016 Berlin Christmas attack, and Spain in the wake of the August 2017 attack in Barcelona.  For the record, the French hearings found that the intelligence services had ‘multiple failings’, in Germany their security services were described as ‘sloppy’ and the Spanish commission, which is still working, suggested that their forces ‘missed opportunities‘ to uncover the plot.

Now we can read the report into the Manchester and London attacks of earlier this year thanks to the efforts of David Anderson, a UK lawyer and former terrorism watchdog.  I will not recount the entire findings here, leaving it to the reader to go through the 66-page work (spoiler alert: Mr. Anderson found that the attacks ‘could have been stopped’ as MI5 (the UK CSIS) knew about some of the perpetrators).  What I would like to do, however, is to give a perspective on what constitutes ‘failure’ in the counter terrorism business and why our security services do not have, and will never have, a perfect record.

Of course I have a distinct bias, having worked at CSIS during major counter terrorism successes (Toronto 18, Operation Samossa, VIA passenger, Victoria).  For the record, not that this means anything really, I was not at the Service in the lead up to the two that slipped our net: the attacks two days apart in October 2014 in which two members of our Armed Forces were killed.  I must also add that my comments here should not be construed as calling for a ban on terrorism inquiries, but rather a reality check for Canadians and others on what it is like to work a terrorism case and what it takes to foil a plot.

In many ways it is remarkable that our security services stop any one attack.  Yes, that is why we support them through our tax dollars and it is after all their mandate to prevent attacks, but here is what it is really like on the inside.  There is no predictive modeling as to who becomes a terrorist and why. Furthermore, there is no guaranteed predictive modeling (and never will be) on who moves from commitment to a terrorist ideology to action.  We deal on a daily basis with the incertitudes of terrorists’ human behaviour and decision making.  Our intelligence is usually very good – obtained from a variety of sources (human agents, surveillance, court-ordered intercepts, allied information) – but is seldom if ever complete, robust enough and adequate on which to make time sensitive decisions on counter actions to take.

We are also now faced with the Nike ‘Just Do It’ form of terrorism where some individuals no longer need to be part of cells of likeminded fellow travelers who engage in months’-long planning and execution but instead pick up a knife and rush into a crowd or get behind the wheel and pile into pedestrians.  Combined with continuing guesswork surrounding early intervention and disruptions, we are left with  many more gaps and questions than we are answers.  Taken altogether, it is somewhat short of miraculous that we stop as many plots as we do.  The fact that the track record of our protectors is as good as it is is testimony to the dedication and professionalism of the men and women that work for these services.

So, yes, in theory and in hindsight any attack is preventable.  And yes we must hold our security services to account and demand that they do their utmost under the law to keep us safe. We of course can learn from mistakes and shortcomings to become better.  Yet we must not hold our spies and cops to unreasonable standards and rush to point fingers when bad things happen.  Terrorism will continue for a very long time and our security services will come out on top most of the time.  When they do not perhaps we need to accept that nothing in life, including counter terrorism,  is perfect.

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