Truth or consequences – the terrorist version

I am fairly certain that many people are getting sick and tired of hearing about terrorism.  IS this.  AQ that.  Some guys called Boko Haram.  The Taliban.  Etc.  Etc. Etc.  The so-called war on terror (a terrible description as I have said before) has been going on for 15 years or so.  When will it end?  When’s the parade?

Scarcely a day goes by without a story about some atrocity somewhere in which self-styled, “divinely mandated” mujahedin are yelling Allahu Akbar while burning babies alive in huts.  Heroes? – not quite.

And there is no question that this onslaught of news is having an impact on everyday people.  They are becoming afraid.  The threat from terrorism is seen by many as immediate and imminent.  Everywhere.  IS is under your bed, according to some.

In response to this fear, governments can take one of two paths.  They can exaggerate the threat, as Israeli PM Netanyahu did in the last general election or some Conservative MPs did in Canada during our last election campaign (interim leader Rona Ambrose still calls IS “the greatest threat to humanity”).  This just compounds the fear and results in fractured, distrustful societies.  Trust me leaders, this is not helpful.  It may win votes but it is underhanded and will cause more ill than good in the future.

Or they can underestimate the threat by declaring, in essence, victory.

I thought about this practice of calling it a day, if you will, when I read that the Nigerian government, which had promised that Boko Haram would be defeated by last Christmas, stated that the group was “effectively” dead.  I am not sure what “effectively dead” means but the Christmas pledge was eerily reminiscent of statements back in 1914 that the war in Europe would all be over before the New  Year and our boys would come home.  Four ghastly years later, over 60,000 of our citizens died in the mud of the Western Front and a continent lay in ruins.

In another ray of optimism, Jordan’s Interior Minister recently noted that there are no sleeper cells active in his country (see story here).

Now the Jordanian minister may very well be right, but I don’t think Boko Haram is “effectively dead” if recent events are anything to go by (for a gruesome account of the group’s latest evil click here).  Yes, they may hold little territory but they are very lethal and will likely remain so for some time.

I understand why governments make these kinds of claims.  No country one wants to admit that it is losing a war, whether a conventional one or the war on terror.  Such admissions can deflate confidence at home and lead to calls for the war effort to cease (Vietnam anyone?).  Better to tell your citizens that all is well and there is no need for panic.

In a way, though, underselling is better than overselling.  In the latter, irrationality reigns and fears beget hatred and intolerance (for a lesson in this just watch the Republican presidential nominee spectacle).  There are enough things to be afraid of without adding terrorism.  As I write this blog I am in Australia where they have 7 of the top 10 poisonous critters in every category you can name (snakes, ants, spiders, etc.).  Believe me, I am more worried at trampling unsuspectedly on a brown snake than I am in meeting Jihadi John on the streets of Brisbane.

Claiming that the threat is not so great achieves the goal of putting terrorism back where it belongs: in the category of low frequency high impact events.  Note the first part – low frequency.  Unless you live in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, northern Nigeria, Pakistan or Afghanistan, terrorist acts are rare. If you live in the West, even in Europe, they occur on the same scale as tornadoes, earthquakes, heat waves and major blizzards.  And how do we react to these dangers?  You don’t see anyone calling for a war on snow, do you?

In addition, government proclamations that terrorism is waning have little impact on the people we trust to deal with it – our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies.  Unless those same governments slash the budgets and personnel of these counterterror organisations, they continue to do their job in the capable, professional and effective way they always do.  Most plots will be detected and thwarted.  A tiny few will succeed.  Life will go on.

I choose to see terrorism for what it is – a rare occurrence that we need to deal with and which we are handling as best as we can without altering our societies for the worse.

Besides, I really want to enjoy my time here Down Under before I return to winter in Ottawa.





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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