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What can we actually ‘predict’ when it comes to terrorism?

Our obsession with future-casting on all matters, including terrorist trends, may be understandable but that does not make it viable.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could predict the future? I mean REALLY predict it in ways that would make the world a better place?

Not so that you can guess what the next Lotto 649 numbers will be or who will win the Stanley Cup. No I mean important things like:

  • will this year’s weather ruin crucial crops worldwide?
  • will a coup lead to mass murder and chaos?
  • what will the next ISIS (Islamic State) terrorist group be?
  • will an asteroid hit the planet and kill us all (NB no worries here as we have Bruce Willis to save us!)
NASA plans to launch study of asteroid that could destroy Earth
Bruce! We need you!! Stat! (Photo: Shutterstock)

It is thus unfortunate that prediction, REAL prediction, is hard. REALLY hard. Weather systems and political movements are complex entities with a lot of moving parts that defy definition, let alone reliable mapping. Terrorist groups (and individual terrorists) arise for all kinds of reasons. And Bruce Willis is getting old: he’s 66 and asteroid hopping is a young person’s game!

Still, we as humans like to pretend that we can tell with a high degree of confidence what is going to happen, be that tomorrow, next week, next month or…20 years from now. I hate to say this, but a lot of this is hubris.

Especially in intelligence circles.

When I worked for CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) I remember taking part in a ‘futures’ project in which we strategic analysts were told to write a paper on what would transpire in ten years’ time in our area of specialisation (mine was terrorism, and more narrowly the Islamist variety). I seem to recall we were piggybacking on a CIA idea.

My first reaction: I have no idea what I am going to have for breakfast tomorrow (yoghourt? bacon and eggs? cereal?) let alone ten years from tomorrow. And yet I had no choice but to be part of the exercise. I have no recollection of what I wrote or how it turned out: I can tell you most definitely I did NOT predict the rise of ISIS, one of history’s more heinous bunch of jihadis! Neither did anyone else to my knowledge.

Why, then, do we do this?

Well, because we do I guess. But of what use is it? Does it feed policy and decision making? If so, how confident are we that our ‘predictions’ are the right ones? What if we are wrong? What if the policies are useless or, worse, counterproductive?

You may ask what led me to weigh in on this today. Well, a few things that have crossed my plate in recent days have led me to opine on this. To wit:

a) someone asked me about the ‘5th wave’ of terrorism (NB this is a reference to the wave theory of terrorism of David Rapoport – I interviewed him last fall). I said that we are still very much in the 4th wave (i.e. jihadis) and there is no end in sight to those players so why are talking about an ensuing one?

RELATED: Borealis’ conversation with David Rapoport on the wave theory of terrorism among other topics

b) I came across a fascinating article in Nautilus from September 2015 on war gaming over the centuries and how hard it is. One phrase did leap out at me though: in 2014 and 2015, the Atlantic Council conducted ISIS war games that concluded the terrorist organisation was essentially impervious to U.S. forces: world peace was in fact more elusive than ever.

c) In a recent New Scientist piece, co-founder of the AI Now Institute Kate Crawford expressed concern over a tool that has been marketed for shopping malls that looks at people’s faces to see emotions that will indicate that you might be about to steal from shops. Seriously? In this same vein a recent Economist piece hit the nail on the head:

In any case, the constraints facing AI in intelligence are as much practical as ethical. Machine learning is good at spotting patterns—such as distinctive patterns of mobile-phone use—but poor at predicting individual behaviour. That is especially true when data are scarce, as in counter-terrorism. Predictive-policing models can crunch data from thousands of burglaries each year. Terrorism is much rarer

d) US intelligence analysts have just come out with Global Trends 2040 – enough said (full disclosure: I have not read the entire document but the mere fantasy that anything meaningful can be said about the world in two decades is, well, mere fantasy).

I understand the desire for these tools and these abilities.

After all, a state or entity which masters this kind of forecasting would have an immense advantage over others. I am also not saying that we as humans should NOT weigh in on what we think COULD (not WILL) happen. Still, we have to be cognizant of the fact that there is so much uncertainty, variability and unknowingness (is that even a word?) that will always undermine predictions.

We in the intelligence world had an advantage in that we had access to information (SIGINT, HUMINT, imagery…) that others did not, although that data gap has narrowed since I entered the spook world in 1983. You would think, however, that those ‘in the know’ would push back against the requests for future gazing.

We didn’t and if the US report is any indication the IC (intelligence community) still isn’t.

The takeaway

It is time to stop pretending we can surmise what will take place in the days and years to come. This is not the same as sitting back and waiting for things to happen as there is much that can be done today to be in a better position to face what life throws at us tomorrow (hello pandemic preparations!!). It is just wiser and more mature to stand up and say, when asked, ‘we don’t know, and we don’t think anyone else does either’.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of Nostradamus here are my ‘predictions‘ on terrorism. Check back with me in 20 years to see how I did.

  • terrorism is not going away;
  • the demise of Islamist terrorism has been greatly exaggerated and it is not going away either;
  • the far right does pose a threat but to what extent is simply indeterminable (my gut says nowhere near the jihadi one but there is undoubtedly a lot of local variation);
  • the vast majority of people who sound like terrorists (online, IRL…) are not and will never pose threats, but separating the terrorist wheat from the wanker chaff is next to impossible;
  • terrorism will remain a blip in most places around the world and we will not need to devote more resources to combat it (I am LEAST sure about this one).

That is as far as I am willing to go. Now it is time to see if my crystal ball is ready at the magicians’ repair shop!

Read More About the Intelligence Community

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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