Two sides of the Atlantic, two very different terrorism problems

If there is one cardinal rule about the study of terrorism that everyone should commit to memory it is this: do not extrapolate unnecessarily and unadvisedly from one region to the other.  While there are certainly some fundamental commonalities to violent extremism and to particular groups or brands of terrorism, it is usually a bad move to assume that the circumstances and phenomena of one country are the same in another.  Terrorism feeds on local conditions and those conditions will vary – that’s why we call them local.

I was reminded of this very important lesson when I read an account on a Norwegian news site about a study done by the PST – Norway’s equivalent to CSIS (actually it is not an exact match since the Norwegian service is a police one while CSIS is strictly civilian with no powers of arrest despite what some Canadians may think).  In this report it was noted that the PST had looked at those it considered Islamist extremists and made some interesting findings:

  • one in five of the target set is a convert to Islam
  • all were under the age of 40
  • nearly 90 % were not ethnically Norwegian and more than 30 nationalities were represented
  • nearly 90 % were men (no surprise there) and of those two-thirds had a criminal past
  • the data set were disproportionately under-employed, of low education level and had some substance abuse

Thanks to the study, the PST now can more easily “keep track of potential individual threats, primarily individuals with criminal records, school dropouts and people with substance abuse issues and only sporadic participation in the labour market.”

Being able to narrow your potential target set is always an advantage and I have to congratulate the PST for their work.  In fact, it was probably the only agency in Norway with the requisite data to be able to complete such a study.  What I wouldn’t give to see the whole document.

And yet I feel a little uneasy that the service will use their findings to help determine where to devote precious and limited resources.  Studies like these are great aids but they are snapshots in time.  Circumstances change and if you have decided that a certain target set is the one to follow you may miss a lot.  I am not trying to criticise the PST – I have met some of them and I have a great deal of respect for them – but it is always a good thing in intelligence to constantly challenge  your assumptions.

Furthermore, the results of the PST analysis are remarkably different from those that my colleagues at CSIS and I found between 2005 and 2013.  Where Islamist extremists in Norway were lowly-educated, poorly employed convert criminals (I am simplifying of course), ours are well-educated, well-employed born Muslims with no criminal background (again I am simplifying since we did have examples like Norway, just not in those numbers).  Still, the data since 2013, as analysed from open sources only, may suggest a shift in Canada towards a picture a little closer to the Norwegian experience.

What the PST did not do, at least as far as I can tell, is ascribe any causation to the data they collected.  This is indeed wise since no one has shown that contributing factors are causational.

In the end, the differences between Norway and Canada should not surprise us.  Islamist extremists come out of the communities they are raised in.  I don’t know the situation of Norwegian Muslims as well as I know that of Canadian Muslims but I do know that ours are – generally – well educated, employed and not normally criminals.  If the majority of a country’s Muslims exhibit certain characteristics, the tiny number who are violent extremists will likely exhibit the same characteristics.

It was nice to see that the PST is carrying out research of this nature.  At the same time it did make me pine a bit for the years I spent engaged in the same vein of investigation and analysis at CSIS.

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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