Terrorists are not lonely, even in wolf form, and neither are counter terrorism practitioners

As a former practitioner in the security intelligence world I have, as do many others, a distinct bias. My understanding of many different social phenomena is informed and framed by the job I did and the particular kind of information I had access to for more than three decades: i.e. classified secrets.  In light of that classification it should surprise no one that data of this type is closely guarded and not generally available to the public. I was privileged.

This matters on some occasions and perhaps no more importantly than in terrorism studies.  What was once a niche area of inquiry has now become a booming industry (maybe ‘boom’ is not a great word when talking about terrorism!), especially in the post 9/11 world.  Whole new journals have sprung up, universities have added programs, and thousands of people have migrated to terrorism studies as a field of interest.  As with all things this is a mixed blessing.  Some new scholars are wonderful, some not so.  The subject matter suffers greatly, as those immersed in it rightly acknowledge, from a lack of good data.  Whence this lack?  See above note on secrecy.  That is why.  Nevertheless, despite this challenge a lot of wonderful work has been carried out and when I was still “on the inside” I tried my best to keep up on this academic area.  Now that I am out I’d be doing the same if it were not for the damn paywalls constructed by just about every terrorism journal.  Hint, hint to the scholarly community – do a Reagan-to-Gorbachov and “tear down this wall!”

I was reminded of this tension between practitioners and academics the other day when I gained access to a paper by UNB professor David Hofmann (thanks for sharing it David!).  Entitled ‘How “Alone” are Lone-Actors? Exploring the Ideological, Signaling, and Support Networks of Lone-Actor Terrorists’ the paper is a good one in addressing an important myth in society, i.e. that so-called ‘lone wolf terrorists’ are truly single actors that are all but unstoppable.  Think about it.  If a person is truly that isolated and communicates with no one, how can agencies like CSIS and the RCMP even find them, let alone investigate and stop them from carrying out acts of violence?

In truth, those of us on the inside never bought into the lone wolf theory anyway.  Thousands of investigations had told us a lot about radicalisation and terrorism and we knew that ‘no man is an island’.  We knew that no one radicalised in a vacuum and that there are ALWAYS opportunities to find and watch these terrorists.  That some succeed – one of the two case studies Dr. Hofmann discusses is Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the Canadian terrorist that killed Nathan Cirillo at the National Cenotaph in Ottawa on October 22, 2014 and unsuccessfully stormed Parliament a few minutes later- is not proof that some people are ‘uninvestigatable’ due to their solitude but rather a consequence of finite resources.  Zehaf-Bibeau had crossed tripwires: there was simply too much else to look at at the time.

In fairness to Dr. Hofmann his ‘policy recommendations’ are solid but they are also unnecessary as everything he advises is already being done, in keeping with the aforementioned resource allocation and availability.  Then again, as an ‘outsider’ he would have no way of knowing that, would he?

This is the crux of the matter.  Academics seldom, if ever, gain access to what those of us ‘in the business’ know or what we are doing about it.  While secrecy considerations will always be an issue security intelligence professionals have to do a much better job of communicating, within obvious limits, what we have learned.  Sharing can only enhance the understanding of both parties: it is certainly something I am trying to do as an ex-spy, although I realise better than most that I have a shelf life and every day I spend outside the security intelligence community weakens my insight into what is going on in today’s terrorism world.

I’d like to end by giving recommendations of my own, at the risk of sounding arrogant.  I know that terrorism studies especially have this perceived need to be ‘policy relevant’ (do other fields have the same outlook?).  The gaining of knowledge does not seem to suffice here.  So, a word of caution to academics.  Given that you will never have a full idea of what is happening in the lives of practitioners, phrase your recommendations carefully.  No one wants to be told what to do, particularly by well-intentioned but by design not fully informed outsiders.  By all means continue your excellent scholarship but add in a dose of humility.  Heaven knows that humility is a required trait in the intelligence world even if it is not always so overt.  When you chase terrorists for a living your reputation is good only until your next failure.  By the way, oh dear ex-colleagues of mine at CSIS, that bears remembering.

In the meantime let’s continue to strengthen the practitioner/policy wonk- academic bond.  We have a lot to teach each other.


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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