This piece appeared in The Hill Times on April 1, 2019.
If you are like me – and I really hope you are not for many, many reasons! – you probably read the news with a certain slant and through a certain filter. In my case, I read almost everything via a terrorism lens – except maybe the comics – since I write about terrorism every day. When I read news from around the world I seek out those stories that have something to do with violent extremism, which I then share via Twitter or turn into a blog or podcast. There is indeed a sad angle to this as there are lots of positive things I could – and probably should – focus on.
It is within this framework, then, that I listened to a news story on my car radio on Wednesday that had just unfolded in, of all places, Ottawa, where I live. A man who hijacked a University of Ottawa van drove recklessly around and through campus, hitting cars and bollards before crashing. Thankfully no one was hurt.
So, where did I go with this? Why, straight to terrorism of course! Was that initial reaction a reasonable one? Absolutely! You don’t have to be a terrorism specialist or amateur aficionado to know that over the past couple of years terrorists, largely but not exclusively Islamist extremists, have driven cars, vans and trucks through crowded pedestrian areas (Edmonton, London, Barcelona, Nice, Berlin, Barcelona…) with the aim of killing and maiming as many as possible. And if you are a little more informed about terrorist groups you know that Islamic State and others have been encouraging this kind of ‘do it yourself’ terrorism.
Except that the Ottawa incident had nothing to do with terrorism. The alleged culprit may have been drunk and screamed at arresting officers to kill him, suggesting some personal crisis or mental health issue.
Now let’s move on to the Netherlands city of Utrecht where a man shot and killed three people on a tram on Monday and fled the scene, leading to a city-wide shutdown and manhunt. When it was announced that the suspect was Turkish, many leaped to the terrorism motivation I bet. As it turned out, the man was known to police for petty crimes and rape and was later arrested. We then learned that police were indeed pursuing a possible terrorism angle (I wonder if my friends at the AIVD – the Dutch version of CSIS – had something on him?).
And here is one more. A driver hijacked a schoolbus outside Milan on Wednesday and threatened to kill more than 50 children on board before setting fire to the vehicle, claiming revenge for migrant deaths at sea. No one was hurt thanks to the actions of the Carabinieri.
What does this leave us with? Three events, two of which were most definitely, at least based on what we know so far, not terrorism and one that might have been (stay tuned to Dutch news for more on this). And what is the lesson? Just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck does not always mean it is a (terrorist) duck. We must reserve judgment and withhold ‘conclusions’ until we learn more. Quick decisions are often not just wrong – the case of the Danforth shooter in Toronto is a very good example of an assumed terrorist (probably because he was Muslim) that was incorrect – but sometimes lethal: an American Sikh was murdered on September 15, 2001 by a man who thought he was Muslim and wanted to seek revenge for 9/11.
More information is always better than less. We who try to put context into what is happening, whether it is terrorism or not, should always remember that.
Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. His most recent book is ‘An End to the War on Terrorism’.