The perils of ‘terrorism prediction’

No one can predict the future and that includes terrorism ‘experts’.

No one can foretell the future, and that includes where terrorism is going.

OTTAWA, CANADA — Everyone wants to know where we are headed. The ‘future prediction’ industry has been around since the dawn of time, and only the tools used to foresee the unseeable have changed. Once augurs used animal entrails, now we use sophisticated ‘models’. None are very good.

You see, the future is by definition unknowable. Unless we are talking about a physical/chemical process (say, what will happen if you add substance A to substance B), you cannot state with any degree of certainty that something will transpire X number of days from now. This is especially true of anything to do with human behaviour, which is, always has been and always will be, subject to variation that precludes any surefire predetermined outcome.

And yet smack dab in the middle of COVID-19 we are inundated with confident sounding prognostications on just about everything: the economy, society, health, next year’s Stanley Cup winner – ok, maybe not that last one, although I think I am on solid grounds when I say I don’t think it will be the Ottawa Senators.

The Globe and Mail’s Andrew Coyne wrote a stellar piece in today’s (April 11) paper in which he rightly points out that this pandemic will not necessarily “change everything as we know it”. Nevertheless, Mr. Coyne points out several dire future scenarios, to wit:

And so on and so on. But, to quote Mr. Coyne:

You will perhaps have detected a certain skepticism of this thesis. But given how signally we have failed to predict the virus’s impact as far as a few weeks ahead, first dismissing the threat even as it was bearing down on us, only to hit the collective panic button as it started to subside, a little humility would seem to be in order when it comes to the eternal.

Touche sir!

The same hubris extends to terrorism. I have lost track of how many articles I have read claiming that violent extremist acts will increase. One Canadian ‘national security expert’ stated that nobody should be surprised that extremists would want to exploit the pandemic to advance their goals, as “At the end of the day, violent extremists are opportunistic.”

There is so much hogwash in this view

Yes, terrorist groups are ‘opportunistic’ – whatever that means – but so what? Would these groups have taken action if COVID-19 had not happened? Probably. Will they take action now that COVID-19 is a reality? Probably. So, what does COVID-19 have to do with terrorism? Nothing.

I will concede one point: I do worry that the pandemic is affecting all of us, including my former colleagues in security intelligence and law enforcement agencies, meaning they are probably not at full strength. This may have a negative impact on investigations and monitoring (more on this in a later blog).

But if my reading of terrorism over the past two months is accurate we have had one – ONE! – attack the West since this whole situation began. ONE! That was a knifing in southern France in which a Sudanese refugee killed two and wounded five. If I have missed something, please enlighten me.

Yes, we have seen lots of attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Somalia, but how is this ANY different than what we saw pre-COVID-19? Not a whit. These actors were active then, are active now, and will be active in the future. In other words, steady as she goes. There have also been arrests here and there of right wing extremists, especially in the US, apparently planning attacks. But were these attacks predicated because of COVID-19? I am skeptical.

Some will counter that many extremist groups are talking about taking advantage of COVID-19 to carry out deadly action. This is highly problematic. You see, relying on terrorist ‘chatter’, i.e. propaganda, is really dangerous. Terrorists say all kinds of things to get into our heads, to make us fearful. Their words are seldom tied to upcoming acts. Best to remember that.

I really dislike predictions and that is why I don’t make them. I have yet to locate a reliable crystal ball and I would sure like to know where those who boldly tell us events to come have procured theirs.

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.

3 replies on “The perils of ‘terrorism prediction’”

This is a very sensible column. Regrettably, our political masters insist that our Intelligence agencies provide inter alia predictive intelligence. In those cases where we do have sufficient good information, it will be difficult to refuse them. If however our intelligence estimate is more assessment than evidence, this must be made clear to them – that we are making an informed guess. Of relevance here is a view of Robert Gates, a former Director of (US) Central Intelligence, who distinguished between secrets and mysteries. The former may be acquired by Intelligence organizations. The latter however are not hidden in some safe, waiting to be stolen. In 1990, the question of whether the USSR was going to collapse was a mystery, not a secret.

Hi Phil:
Happy Easter to you and your family. There are no clear crystal balls. None. I gave up all predictions years ago in my profession. I was wrong nearly all of the time.
Andrew Coyne’s column yesterday was excellent. The best one can do is have a method of assessment, work with probability, change one’s mind when the facts change, and most of all, maintain humility, an open mind and willingness to change when necessary.

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