We do not benefit from the whitewashing of terrorism

Looking back at a terrorist plot 15 years later only to force it through the filter of ‘racism’ is just plain wrong and unhelpful.

Every once in a while I come across an article/op-ed that begs for a commentary. I do refrain from responding to every piece with which I disagree as I also have a life that does not focus solely on terrorism and national security. And yet, some cannot go unchallenged.

To wit this piece in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago under the title “The Toronto 18 case still skews our views on ‘radicalization’ and terrorism“. The author, Adnan Khan, I could not pick out of a one-person lineup. I thus know nothing of his background or his qualifications and thus have no intention of going after him personally. Besides, ad hominem attacks are not my style (normally).

There is, however, so much in this op-ed that is inaccurate, misleading and down-right wrong. It also smacks much of what has become known as ‘woke/cancel culture’ which surprises me as it was the Globe that ran it. I remember the days when ‘Canada’s national newspaper’ (their words, not mine) was known as a very conservative daily which focused on business, not culture. We used to tell an old joke that went something like this: “How did coverage of the Titanic sinking differ in the Globe and Toronto Star (a very left-wing paper)? The Globe headline was “White Star Line stocks sink after Titanic disaster” while the Star penned “Crew demands sex from female passengers before allowing them on lifeboats”. I think you get the point.

Before I move on it may be instructive to note I was at CSIS – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – when the Toronto 18 investigation began in the fall of 2005 and have written about it extensively. I had access to all the intelligence we gathered on their intentions and even worked a bit with police afterwards. I have met several of the members of that terrorist cell – in prison and elsewhere – and have become friends with one of the key human sources/agents who helped us and the RCMP – the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – stop these extremists from blowing up parts of Toronto and elsewhere. I therefore humbly submit that I know something about this case.

But if you read Mr. Khan’s article you are left with the impression that it was not a desire to prevent a catastrophic act of terrorism that made CSIS and the RCMP act but rather ‘Islamophobia’, the current buzzword in my country (the federal government has even appointed an Islamophobia czar). Here is some of what the piece says:

  • “When Muslim youth were accused of plotting to kill the prime minister and storm Parliament, it set off a moral panic in the 2000s”. ‘Moral panic’? Nope, but a real concern that Canadians could plan an act of terrorism in our fair land inspired by Al Qaeda (AQ);
  • “Battling accusations that Canada had been soft on terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, the government was eager to do its part.” Wrong, again. CSIS had been looking at terrorism for decades before that, whether it was the Sikh (Air India attack in 1985), Armenian (attacks on Turkish diplomats in Ottawa in 1982 and 1985), Tamil or Islamist;
  • ““Radicalization” became a buzzword with momentum, spawning the global multibillion-dollar Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) industry, involving government, universities and think-tanks, all dedicated to examining “radical” and “homegrown” threats. Yet its usefulness is questioned by its own practitioners. After all that money spent, there is still no clear understanding of what factors will lead someone from being radicalized – holding extreme thoughts, motivated by political, religious or ideological grievances – toward violence.” True…to an extent. No we cannot ‘predict’ the path from thought to action but radicalisation is real and measurable (as my first book The Threat from Within demonstrated);
  • “Six months after the arrests, polling from Environics showed that six out of 10 Canadians believed an act of terrorism by a Muslim Canadian would be imminent. The Islamophobia that cut to the surface in the immediate aftermath of the 2006 arrests stayed.” How is the arrest of terrorists, reflective of a global trend, ‘Islamophobia’? Do the math: jihadis have carried out 99+% of all terrorist attacks worldwide since 911;
  • “The depth of the police informants’ involvement came under heavy scrutiny” – news for Mr. Khan: you don’t recruit Shirley Temple to infiltrate a terrorist cell. The sources/agents have to sing from the same song sheet as the people they are monitoring or they end up dead;
  • “This counted as a much-needed War on Terror win.” Wrong. This is not about ‘winning’; it is about keeping Canadians safe;
  • “Not surprisingly, Mr. Amara and Mr. Abdelhaleem had difficulty obtaining parole.” No shit Sherlock! They were the masterminds of the attack!;
  • “Muslims in Canada feel like they constantly have to prove their worth as Canadians; Muslims are depicted as risky and deviant, unable to adapt to Western society. ” Upon what basis is this statement made? Yes, Islamophobia is real and disgusting, but that has nothing to do with the rolling up of a terrorist cell.

I could go on but I think the point is made. The author has minimised the threat this bunch posed and decided to make this all about racism and discrimination. This Monday morning quarterbacking is not helpful.

So what do we do with the Toronto 18? Do we leave them in jail forever? Some would say yes (and I would agree if, and only if, it was demonstrable that they maintain their jihadi views and hence continue to pose a threat to society). But we in Canada like to give criminals a second chance – if they warrant it. The problem is that ‘deradicalisation’ is as hard as ‘radicalisation’ to define and measure and there is simply no one pill to cure it. Besides, if we get it wrong and an inmate is released only to kill (the 2019 Fishmonger’s Hall attack in the UK is a good example: in addition, Ali Dirie, one of the Toronto 18, was let out only to go to Syria and join a terrorist group there, killing Syrians), then there is a hue and cry among the public: Why in heaven’s name did you let these people out?

We are not well served by retrospectives by people with poor knowledge of what transpired a decade and a half ago. We can and must deal with the ills of our society but that does not mean we have to accept a whitewashing of a real threat we faced, a threat nipped in the bud thanks to our protectors.

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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