The challenge of assessing threat

Not all threats are equally dangerous and people tend to get their relative sizes wrong.

I was putting stuff in the trunk of my car this morning when an old friend stopped by on his bike. We played hockey together for years as did our sons. After the usual chit chat and banter he posed an interesting question to me:

So, what has proven to be a greater threat, COVID or terrorism?

The question took me aback. But I think I have an answer.

Now before I give you that answer you might think that as I am a terrorism analyst, spent 15 years at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) as a counter terrorism specialist, have written five books on the subject and continue to blog, comment and podcast on this phenomenon on a daily basis that my response would be obvious. After all, I have a brand to protect and future clients/contracts to pursue.

So, my reply is… of course it is terrorism.

Except that is NOT the correct anwer.

By a long shot, by orders of magnitude, COVID represents a threat that terrorism will NEVER reach (he says, hopefully). The sheer scale of the damage wrought by the novel coronavirus – worldwide as of August 1, 2020 there have been more than 17.6 million confirmed cases (most likely a gross undercount), more than half of which have recovered – is unprecedented in recent memory. Deaths are reaching 700,000 (more than 150,000 in the US alone). The cost to the worldwide economy is probably indeterminable, but ranges from stock market dives, to rising unemployment, possible recessions and some industries – like airlines – that are on the verge of collapse.

So, how does terrorism compare to this?

Well, like COVID-19 it is an international threat in that it happens everywhere, at least some of the time. According to the Global Terrorism Index just shy of 16,000 people died at the hands of terrorists in 2019, representing a continued decrease in recent years. 16,000 vs 700,000: not even close.

Terrorism never achieves this

The other significant difference is that COVID-19 has posed a larger, more pervasive threat to all countries SIMULTANEOUSLY. Terrorism never achieves this, despite the propaganda claims terrorist groups make. COVID also is completely indiscriminate in its targeting: terrorists do aim their actions at certain groups at certain times for certain purposes.

Interestingly terrorists recognise the importance of COVID, with some calling it a ‘punishment from God’. There has also been some analysis that terrorists can, or will try to, take advantage of the COVID upheaval to launch attacks. In essence, then, these actors are riding on the coattails of COVID, not vice versa.

By a long shot, by orders of magnitude, COVID represents a threat that terrorism will NEVER reach. The sheer scale of the damage wrought by the novel coronavirus is unprecedented in recent memory.

The differences between the levels of death and destruction arising out of COVID and terrorism should serve as a reminder that the former will ALWAYS pose a greater risk to us. Pandemics have historically caused so much misery as to topple civilisations and it is quite possible future ones could do the same. Terrorists can only dream of having a similar impact. The bottom line is that terrorism is a small challenge, not a large one.

None of this should be seen as my renunciation of what I do. I will continue to comment on this scourge and weigh in when asked. And we still need our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies to stand on guard for us.

But we need to pay attention much more to COVID and similar diseases. If anything is going to lead us to a dystopian hellhole it is this threat, not terrorism.

Phil Gurski

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