How is the terrorist threat level determined?

One thing we have all gotten used to in the post 9/11 era is the question: at any given time how at risk are we from terrorism?  In an effort to answer this query for a nation’s citizenry a number of methods have been proposed. One of the more famous ones was the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ‘colour-coded’ systems, ranging from green (low threat) to red (severe) threat.  A lot of people made fun of this effort – although to be honest I am not sure why – and it was replaced in 2011 with the ‘National Terrorism Advisory System‘ whereby alerts are be issued when the threat from terrorism is “elevated,” “intermediate” or “imminent.”

In the UK there is a 5-level system which is currently set at ‘severe’, the second highest category.  Here in Canada the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC), a multi-agency fusion centre in Ottawa, sets the level at least every four months or as needed.  It too has five degrees:  very low, low, medium, high and critical (hint: critical is bad).  The level has been set at medium for as long as I can remember.

Some may find this strange, what with all the terrorist attacks in London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin and the US, let alone what happens on a daily basis in Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria.  How can Canadian officials be so complacent?  Don’t they read the news?  Do they not know what is happening out there?  Are we less prepared, and hence less safe, if we don’t raise the alarm?  Some in the Netherlands are also wondering why their government’s security experts are not panicking in the wake of all the carnage in Europe.

This incredulousness belies a fundamental lack of understanding on how these determinations are made.  They rely critically, and I would add for all intents and purposes solely, on intelligence.  Information received and evaluated – for accuracy, reliability and source verification – is analysed and if it is found to be relevant and credible AND relates to something happening in this country, ONLY THEN do the appropriate bodies discuss whether what they have just learned warrants a change in the threat level (up or down).  What happens in Iraq or Indonesia, or in Orlando or Madrid for that matter, really has little bearing on what happens in Canada.  In addition, and this may really confuse people, just because some terrorist on some Web site or some social media platform mentions Canada specifically, either on its own (rarely) or as part of a list of countries ‘deserving to die’ (more frequently), this does not cause intelligence officials to raise the alarm and call out the troops.  Most terrorist propaganda is crap and is far too general to interpret as concrete threat.  Terrorists are really good at rhetoric and issuing flowery warnings and if we reacted to each as if it were a five-alarm fire we would quickly exhaust our already tapped out resources, hence handing a victory to the ‘keyboard warriors’.

So, the next time the threat level changes you can rest assured that it is done for all the right reasons and that those who make those decisions know what they are doing. In the meantime, let us acknowledge that with a ‘medium’ we are doing ok here in Canada and will probably continue along that track for some time.

Happy Canada Day!


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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