The terrorist attack that wasn’t – probably. Part two

Last week a devastating fire broke out in the popular Byward Market area of Ottawa and caused significant damage to several restaurants, including one of my favourites. The fire took hours to get under control in part due to the connectedness of the structure and the fact that some of the buildings date back to 1872 (I am going to assume that fire retardants were not around back then). Initial investigation determined that the conflagration was both accidental and preventable: maintenance work was being done on the roof when the blaze started.

Fast forward to yesterday’s inferno at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The 800+-year old iconic church was also undergoing restorative work when the fire broke out, destroying the spire and roof, as well as several stained glass windows. According to Paris prosecutor Rémy Heitz there’s no evidence of arson in the fire and officials are working on the assumption that the blaze was an accident, although he expects the investigation will be “long and complex.”

Two tragedies, two similar causes, or so one would think. None of this stopped Fox News from splashing the headline “Notre Dame Cathedral fire being investigated as accident for now, prosecutors say” on its Web site, implying that it may have been a terrorist attack. In fact Fox went on to write “Paris police will investigate the disaster as “involuntary destruction caused by fire” and have ruled out arson and potential terror-related motives for starting the blaze, officials said.” To me that suggests that the chances of this having been a terrorist attack are only slightly north of zero – never say never mind you – but since when did facts get in the way of a (good?) story at Fox?

It is true that Islamist extremist groups and individuals inspired by them have called for attacks on Christian institutions and a few such attacks have occurred (the worst was probably in 2016 in Normandy where terrorists slit the throat of an 85-year old priest who was celebrating mass). To this we have to add many such incidents against Coptic Christians in Egypt by the self-styled Islamic State in the Sinai.

Some analysts drew a parallel between the upcoming Easter season – Christianity’s most important feast – and the Paris fire, noting that terrorists wanted to have an impact at such a time in the liturgical calendar. Except that there is no evidence for a link at this time, even if IS did put out messages praising the event as ‘retribution”. To the best of my knowledge no one, including IS, has claimed responsibility for setting the blaze. Even if a group did, how would we know that this was nothing more than bravado?

Propaganda for IS and other terrorist groups is their lifeline. They want to be on the front page, at the forefront of our thinking so as to convince us that they still matter and that we should be afraid – very afraid – of them. When news outlets give these fanatics oxygen by speculating that maybe they were involved, despite the absolute lack of information in that regard, they are doing the job of the terrorists for them.

I do not think that this was a terrorist attack. Most terrorists want lots of people dead: if this was one of their acts they failed miserably (only one firefighter was injured apparently). Then again maybe I am completely wrong and will have to eat humble pie tomorrow.

My point is that we have to wait for more information before stumbling blindly ahead with the kind of sensationalism all too common at Fox News. In a world where terrorism – real terrorism – is all too depressingly common, do we really need to invent attacks?


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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