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The 2018 Public Safety Canada terrorist overview: ok, but….

I guess it is that time of year.  No, not the holiday season – the appearance of the annual Public Safety Canada terrorist threat overview!  As the Minister of Public Safety himself – Ralph Goodale – wrote, this is “part of our commitment to being open and transparent through a balanced and frank assessment of the current threat environment.”  So kudos to the government for issuing this paper as the alternative is not good. Nature, after all, abhors a vacuum and vacuums tend to get filled with all kinds of things, and not necessarily good ones.

I used to work at Public Safety in the National Security Directorate, right down the cubicle from those that pen these annual pieces, so I know how the ‘sausage is made’ so to speak.  I had issues then and have issues now with those who write the document – they are not necessarily terrorism experts – but I am confident that they rely on those who are.  The overview is of course unclassified because it has to be but I do think it does reflect what those agencies tasked with foiling terrorism , i.e. CSIS and the RCMP, think about terrorism so that is good.

Overall, I like that the document opens with these statements: “…this year’s threat update is similar to those of the recent past. The threat posed by those espousing violent interpretations of religious, ideological or political views persists, but has remained stable. The National Terrorism Threat Level – a broad indicator of the terrorist threat to Canada – remains at Medium, unchanged since 2014.”  This is very important as many would conclude, after seeing what is happening around the world, that we are collectively going to hell in a terrorist handbasket.  We are not, at least not in Canada, and we need to remind ourselves that terrorism is serious and real but not existential.

Having said that, there are a few items I want to comment on.  It is a long piece so I will be selective.  Some readers may see this as nitpicking, but I do think that there are problems with the document.  To wit:

  • can we please stop using ‘Daesh’ to refer to Islamic State (IS)? Yes, I know that some see the juxtaposition as ‘Islamic’ and ‘state’ as an insult to Muslims (common refrain: IS is neither Islamic nor a state) but this is really just political correctness.  Daesh is Arabic for, wait for it…Islamic State, so by using it you are referring to IS as Islamic State, just in a foreign language.
  • ‘Canadian Extremist Travelers’ (CETs)??  Is this the current buzzword for jihadis who go abroad?  Seriously?  Whatevs.
  • The framing of last April’s van attack in Toronto is cited as an example that “violent acts driven by extremists’ views are not exclusively-linked to any particular religious, political or cultural ideology.”  A little premature in my view.  There is no consensus that Alex Minassian’s possible incel-infused act was terrorism.  It may have been a hate crime or something else.  I fear this was included just to balance the fact that the #1 fear is Islamist extremism.  In addition, since when did ‘cultural ideology’ become a grounds for terrorism?  That term is nowhere to be found in the Canadian Criminal Code definition.  
  • The inclusion of Sikh extremism, with no real evidence, is a curious one.  I happen to agree that Sikh extremism never really went away, and that it is a concern in Canada (in fact, my upcoming fifth book “When religions kill” has a whole section on Sikh terrorism), but it stands out for its unclear inclusion (when was the last time it was put in an annual report?   Does CSIS know something we don’t?  Probably!).
  • The report says that IS’ clearly unsupported claim for June’s shootings in Toronto reflect “an effort to project strength and influence to counter its decreasing support and size.”  Most analysts – present company among them – think the obituary on IS has been prematurely written.
  • Here is an interesting phrase: “In the past year, attacks that were carried out by individuals who are not formally connected to any terrorist group continued to occur… These individuals, often inspired by other attacks, adopt terrorist methods when carrying out a violent act.”  I am not sure what this implies but it is worth watching. Are those who ‘adopt’ terrorist methods ‘terrorists’ then?
  • With respect to those CTEs (I really do not like that term), “fewer Canadians are seeking to travel abroad to support groups like Daesh or AQ. A small number of individuals maintain intentions to travel and some have made attempts.”  This is indeed a good finding but we might want to not pop the champagne cork just yet.  As I wrote in The Lesser Jihads, there are far too many conflicts in the world that could act as magnets for the next generation of Canadian jihadi wannabes.  Regarding the larger section on CETs I will refer the reader to my previous blog on the Canadian approach to this challenge.
  • “Traditionally, in Canada, violence linked to the far-right has been sporadic and opportunistic.”   Yes!  We really have to nip this ‘right wing extremism is coming to kill us’ myth in the bud.  Obviously it is of concern and needs to be monitored but it is not as big as people fear.  At least not yet.
  • The section on ‘Shia extremism’ strikes me as an unnecessary one.  There is no doubt that Hizballah has raised, is raising and always will raise funds in Canada but to call this ‘Shia extremism’ is not that accurate in my mind (i.e. it is not Shia-led in the same way Islamist extremism is Sunni-led).
  • The report contains a part called “Threat Methods and Capabilities Observed Globally in 2018”.  I did not find much new in this discussion that has not already been said elsewhere, even in previous Canadian government overviews.
  • The final section “Canada’s Approach to Countering Terrorism” is a useful summary of what the government is doing on a whole bunch of fronts.  It will serve as a good source for researchers and journalists.

Overall the document is a solid one and I congratulate the government again for its openness.  I would prefer that CSIS be the author since it is best placed to speak to the terrorist threat but that ain’t gonna happen any time soon.  As a second choice, however, Public Safety is a good one.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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