The need to compare terrorists apples with terrorist apples

Just what constitutes ‘terrorism’? Ah, that is a tricky question, the answer to which depends on the respondent. We have legal, common, informed (and uninformed) definitions galore, which makes this issue hard to nail down. And, if you add in the emotional context it gets even more complicated.

We read reports all the time on how certain forms of ‘terrorism’ are on the increase and many of these reports will cite figures to back up their claims. A report by Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens in Canada on the rise in right wing extremism is a very good example. In fairness, Perry and Scrivens write of right wing ‘incidents’ and do not use the word ‘terrorism’ per se. On another front, we have a report that there have been more than 500 ‘attacks’ on Muslims in the US so far this year. The devil, however, is in the details. Many of the ‘attacks’ listed include graffiti and ‘harassment’ – do these constitute terrorism? Not in my books.

If we can at least agree that terrorism is an act of political/ideological/religious violence that results in injury or death (or has the intent of causing either) we cannot call the spraying of a swastika on a synagogue or the tugging of a Muslima’s hijab ‘terrorism’. We can call it a hate crime in certain jurisdictions, but it is definitively not terrorism. None of this suggests we can ignore those who are behind these acts and it is always possible that in a few instances this behaviour can escalate to actual right wing terrorism, as we saw in Christchurch and Pittsburgh.

I am puzzled as to why we are seeing a lot of stories along these lines lately. As many of the authors state quite clearly, it is not as if we have never seen right wing extremism in Western societies: we have suffered from this plague for a very long time. My sense is that some want to remind us of this fact as well as make the point that they feel we have been focusing on Islamist extremism for far too long, all to the detriment of having the necessary resources to attend to the far right.

Not surprisingly I disagree, and not just because Islamist extremism is my specialty. I have yet to see any evidence that we have centred on the wrong threat: if you add up all the major plots (successful and foiled) as well as many of the minor ones over the past two decades where death and injury occurred (or would have occurred if not for the police and security forces) you will find that the vast, vast majority were perpetrated by Islamist extremists. Not far right ones. Yes, this may be shifting and that is significant. But don’t make wide-ranging claims that have no data to back them up.

And don’t refer to harassment as an ‘attack’. A suicide IED is an attack. So is a person with a gun/machete/golf club. Or a person in a van hurtling towards pedestrians. The simple fact is that most of these kinds of ‘incidents’ have been the handiwork of jihadis, not neo-Nazis in recent history. Again, if we are starting to see more of the latter’s work we will have to deal with that change.

It is important that we identify and counter all forms of terrorism, violent extremism and hate in our societies. It is equally important to use comparable language and facts when we make cross-ideological comparisons. Terrorism analysis is not like making a fruit salad – it is best to keep the apples with the apples.

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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