What 9/11 did, and did not, bring us

The 19th anniversary of 9/11 should make us take stock of where we are and convince us that terrorism is notr as dire as some say it is.

Anniversaries of major events are always good opportunities to look back, and forward.

NB I apologise for the delay in writing this perspective. I had wanted to get to it last weekend but, as British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan once famously said, I was sidelined by “Events, dear boy, events!” Such is the life of a terrorism blogger/podcaster!

Last week, ok nine days ago, we arrived at the 19th anniversary of 9/11. Normally the 19th anniversary of anything is not a big deal: we seem to mark 25, 50, 75, 100, etc. 19th seems slightly out of place.

Still, I did find a lot of attention paid to memory of the catastrophic events of that Tuesday in September this year. I was asked by several Canadian news networks to weigh in and agreed to do so, even if I was a little confused by the plethora of requests and the level of interest.

The National Post‘s Jonathan Kay also penned a lengthy op-ed piece entitled “After 9/11, I never thought we’d end up here”. I read it as a) I read as much as I can about terrorism and b) I tend to read Mr. Kay’s work, even if I do not always agree with him.

Anyway, I found his overview of where we were then and where we are now very interesting. I quite liked it. Here are some excerpts (but you really should read the whole article):

  • contrary to our worst fears, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon didn’t signal a wave of endless, apocalyptic terrorism in our cities
  • As someone who began his career in journalism around the time when Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants began plotting 9/11, I have access to an electronic record of my thoughts — including all the many things I got shamefully wrong about the nature of the threat we faced.
  • My biggest mistake was that, like many fellow conservatives (as I then self-identified), I assumed that the post-9/11 landscape offered a new kind of Cold War, with Islamism neatly taking the place of communism. All over the world, authorities were uncovering terrorist plots rooted in local Muslim communities. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that these communities needed to be closely scrutinized so we could protect ourselves from future attacks — just as it wasn’t unreasonable for Muslims to see this as bald-faced Islamophobia.
  • One reason why Islamist terrorism isn’t a major problem in Canada is that Muslim communities proved to be much more resilient toward extremism — and much more patriotic and law-abiding — than conservatives feared.

There are a few things in this I would like to comment on. Those of us in the intelligence community (in Canada at least: I cannot weigh in on other nation’s services) were certainly on guard for other attacks as we were not certain when, or if, the ‘other shoe would drop’. It soon became quite clear that this was not to happen and that 9/11 was truly a once in a lifetime spectacular assault. Thank God for that!

Terrorism has always been

But, and here is where I part ways slightly with Mr. Kay, while it is true that Canadian Muslim communities are “much more resilient toward extremism”, there have been exceptions. Serious exceptions. My colleagues and I at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) were kept very, very busy in the 2000s and 2010s investigating very real terrorist plots hatched right here in Canada by Canadian Muslims (Toronto 18, etc.) as well as hundreds of cases of Canadian Muslims who traveled abroad to join terrorist groups like Islamic State (ISIS) and/or carry out lethal action outside the country.

Yes, these numbers were small and in no way reflective of the vast, vast majority of “law-abiding and patriotic” Canadian Muslims, but they did occur. And, had it not been for the efforts of CSIS, the RCMP and other partners, hundreds if not thousands of Canadians could have been killed or injured in very real terrorist attacks.

Related – September 11, 2001: Attacks in New York and Washington

Citing Mr. Kay I cannot say whether some Canadian Muslims may have seen our actions as “bald-faced Islamophobia” but it was nothing of the sort (NB I know that real Islamophobia does exist in Canada and must be challenged). We had a job to do and we did it. We had reasonable – and as it turns out justified – grounds to suspect and investigate these Canadians. All Canadians as a result neither died nor were injured because of that.

19 years later there appear to be different threats dominating the headlines. White supremacists. Neo-Nazis. QAnon. Antifa. The list seems to be ever growing. And yet we risk several unwise consequences if we make the same mistakes now that we did then. To wit:

  • just as 9/11 was neither existential nor ushered in a new era of ‘war against Islamism’ neither do the aforementioned threats. They are serious and cannot be dismissed but let us not over embellish them and magnify the small effects they are most likely to have on our societies;
  • despite the attention paid to these ‘new’ (NOT!) challenges, the old ones are still with us. ISIS and Al Qaeda (AQ) as well as a bevy of similar groups are out there, planning attacks in dozens of countries. Taking our collective eye off that ball would not be a good idea; and
  • the constant menace of tiny acts of violence from all sides of the ideological spectrum cannot drag us down the road of us vs them, causing us to distrust each other and take our minds off the one thing that really matters: collectively solving global warming and working together to build the post-COVID Canada and world we want and need.

Terrorism has always been, is now, and will in all likelihood always remain a blip on our screens. Our protectors will do what we ask and expect of them but we too have our role to play. Letting the bad guys (i.e. the terrorists) ‘win’ is not the kind of direction I want to move in.

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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