What we have learned about San Bernardino – so far

Most Canadians have heard of the “Toronto 18”,  a group of homegrown extremists who were arrested in the summer of 2006 before they could detonate truck bombs, an act that could have killed and maimed thousands.  At the time, and probably to this day for that matter, it was the largest and most complicated terrorism investigation in Canadian history and it is thanks to CSIS, the RCMP and other law enforcement agencies in the GTA that the plot was stopped in time.

The investigation lasted about a year – I know because I worked on it as an analyst at CSIS.  When you have a chance to follow and learn about a group of extremists over such a long period of time you get a very good understanding of who they are, what their motivations are and what the ideology underpinning their mindsets is.  My involvement in this case had a profound impact on my grasp of violent homegrown Islamist extremist radicalisation and eventually led, with other inputs of course, to my book The Threat From Within.

A case like this is the perfect teaching device: lots of information from a variety of sources, time to make sense of it and, probably most important of all, 18 subjects from a wide variety of backgrounds, allowing me and my colleagues to propose and reject all kinds of hypotheses about who becomes radicalised and how.  And the best result of all – no one died or was injured.

Let us now turn to San Bernardino.  This is a very different beast for two main reasons: the terrorist couple was not subject to investigation prior to the attack and people died and were injured.  I have no intention of playing the “intelligence failure” card or delving into hindsight.  But I do want to comment on some of the findings that US law enforcement agencies have announced recently as well as some general items.  Understanding radicalisation post facto is way harder than ante factum.  Trust me I have had to execute similar analysis.

As already noted, the fact that two otherwise normal, integrated, and successful parents radicalised and killed 14 people should really sound the death knell to the incorrect notion that violent radicalisation is all about disenfranchisement and alienation.  It isn’t.  Just because some terrorists are losers does not mean all are.

Secondly, I am not so sure that nailing down exactly where the radicalisation process took place (Saudi Arabia?  A girls’ school in Pakistan?) is the most important question here.  Unless is was locally and authorities can hunt down a radicaliser and stop him/her.  The sad reality is that radicalisation can happen ANYWHERE.

Thirdly, we are learning that Farook and his convert friend Marquez (who has just been charged in the plot) were radicalised as long ago as 2007 and had discussed attacks as early as 2011.  But Farook and his wife elected to act only two weeks ago.  Why the delay?  What was going through their minds in those intervening years?  What was the trigger?  Was there a single noticeable trigger?

Lastly, it is clear that the radicalisation process predated the rise of IS.  This should put Malik’s (she was Farook’s wife) pledge of allegiance to the group in context: IS was NOT the primary driver of their descent into violence.  But dedicating oneself to IS rather than to say, AQ, shows the reach and influence IS has today.  In addition, the writings of US-Yemeni citizen Awlaki were found.  This is no surprise as I do not remember a single case in Canada where the dead terrorist (he was killed by a US drone in 2011) was not sought as a purveyor and interpreter of Islamist extremism.

The scary part about this and other cases is that it is highly likely we will never find all the answers.   We seldom do, which does not mean we should not try as any insights help our general understanding of radicalisation.  In any event, we will not get enough information to create a model of radicalisation because there is none.

So best of luck to my US colleagues.  I look forward to their findings.  And I know that, unfortunately, they’ll have more cases in the future to dissect.


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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