The UK and Canada: polar opposites when it comes to the terrorist threat

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on June 11, 2018.

All is takes is a cursory glance at the news on any given day to conclude – erroneously as I hope to show – that Islamist extremist terrorism is a daily event that threatens us all.  We read of bombings in Afghanistan, beheadings in Libya, vehicular attacks in Barcelona and shootings in Kashmir and the fear factor rises exponentially.  Terrorism, we believe, is a ubiquitous, common occurrence and it does not appear that this situation will dissipate in the immediate future, judging by recent history.

On the one hand this fear is justified: indeed there is on average a terrorist attack somewhere every day.  When we look closer, however, it becomes clear that some places are beset by terrorism more than others.  Those places should come as a surprise to no one: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and Nigeria.  In fact, were you to read some of the excellent analysis carried out by centres such as the START center at the University of Maryland ( you would realise that the countries just listed are the targets of a disproportionate number of attacks every year.  So no, terrorism is not a daily scourge everywhere.

If we narrow our gaze to the West (Europe, North America, the Antipodes – heck, let’s throw Japan in the mix) it is obvious that while terrorism does occur it does so at rates that are small percentages of those found in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.  It is also a very interesting question as to why this is so, given that most terrorist groups justify their acts of violence by blaming the West for everything, but this is beyond the scope of a small op-ed piece (although I intend to return to it soon).

Even within the West though we see disparate rates of terrorist incidence.  France and Belgium, for example, have more plots, successful and foiled, than, say, Italy and Norway.  The reasons for this are not clear and cannot be reduced to immigration or economic disparity, commonly offered explanations.  There are also very few attacks in Eastern Europe, and none that I can recall in Portugal.

If we focus our scope further to the Anglophone world a very interesting picture emerges.  New Zealand has yet to suffer an attack and Australia has had a handful since 9/11.  The US has seen some large-scale attacks (Orlando, San Bernardino, Fort Hood) and that country’s security agencies have been busy disrupting others.  Nevertheless, to me the most fascinating comparison is that between the UK and Canada.

According to a recent article in The Independent, the UK’s  intelligence and law enforcement organisations have foiled, on average, one attack a month since March 2017.  In addition, several plots have succeeded: Manchester and London on multiple occasions.  The UK Security Service (MI5) has identified 23,000 people who have been radicalised, of whom it has the resources to watch 3,000.  A very terrifying scenario indeed.

What of us here in Canada?  By my count, since 9/11 CSIS, the RCMP and their partners have foiled four attacks while another six have been successful, all of which were minor in scale.  It is important to point out that not all of the six are seen by everyone as terrorist  in nature, as the recent acquittal in Toronto demonstrated.  In addition we have to add the attack on a Quebec City mosque in January 2017 as terrorism and the van rampage in Toronto a few weeks back is already being labelled terrorism despite much evidence in that regard.

These figures are telling: a dozen or so attacks both carried out and thwarted in 18 years.  This works out to an attack every 18 months.  The UK has had as many plots in 18 months as we have had in 18 years, more or less.  A disparity like this demands an explanation.  Alas, I do not have one and I am skeptical anyone else does.

We cannot lay the blame at the feet of the respective security agencies.  The UK equivalents to CSIS and the RCMP are as competent if not more so than our protectors.  Is it a question of immigration?  That is hard to say as both nations are open to newcomers from around the world, including areas where terrorism is endemic.  Is it that Canada does a better job at integrating recent arrivals?  Can we blame foreign policies?  Military interventions?  Colonial histories?  All very good ideas with no easy answers.

What we should take away from this is that we in Canada are not faced with an implacable enemy that seeks to terrorise us on a regular basis.  Yes, Islamist terrorism is a threat that cannot be ignored and we must ensure that the agencies tasked with investigating and neutralising it are adequately staffed and funded.  At the same time we must keep the threat in perspective and not let irrational and unjustifiable fear lead us to unsustainable and counter-productive policies.  Canada remains a safe place to live and this shows little signs of changing soon.

Phil Gurski worked as a senior strategic analyst at CSIS from 2001-2013, specializing in al-Qaeda/Islamic State-inspired violent extremism and radicalization and as a senior special adivser at Public Safety Canada from 2013 until his retirement from the civil service in May 2015.

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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