When does violent thought become worrisome?

There is obviously a difference between thought and action.   While it is generally true that most actions are preceded by thought, save I suppose rash emotional or instinctive/involuntary acts, it is also true that many thoughts do not lead to action.   If you think about all the thoughts you have in a given day – rational thoughts, daydreams, fantasies, etc. – and map those that can be tied to specific acts you would probably find that most go nowhere beyond your mind.

We also know that terrorism is serious violence predicated on ideological motivation, i.e. thought.  That is what makes it quite different from other types of serious violence and why we tend to treat it differently in our legal systems (for instance in Canada section 83.01 of the Criminal Code deals specifically with terrorism despite the fact that much of the content is also covered elsewhere in the code).  We have decided that these types of offences should be seen in a different light.

So what do we do in cases where individuals are thinking about (or writing/blogging/tweeting/what’sapping about) terrorism?  Is it ok to post a tweet in praise of Islamic State?  Is it ok to share a copy of AQAP’s Inspire magazine?  Is it ok to say that Canadian foreign policy is anti-Muslim and that Canadians should be punished for the actions of their government?  What if these words never translate into action?

Herein lies the challenge facing security intelligence and law enforcement agencies.  They come across all kinds of information in the course of their legitimate duties and we expect them to identify and thwart threats to our safety.  And yet when we learn that they have launched an investigation based on someone’s FaceBook postings we cry “thought police”!

As an aside, it should be pointed out that there is a small but important distinction between spies and cops.  The former require “reasonable grounds to suspect” a threat while the latter require “reasonable grounds to believe” a crime will be committed.  The former collect intelligence (well, at least in Canada: in other countries intelligence agencies act more like law enforcement) while the latter collect information to an evidentiary standard that can be used in court.  In essence, spies can look at someone before cops can.  That is why many cases that eventually result in criminal convictions start as intelligence probes before they are handed off to the police.

If we consider the development of a terrorist act we will see that it almost always starts with people who are angry at a perceived injustice, associate with like-minded individuals, and ramp up their desire for action within an ideological envelope well before the bomb goes off or the gun is fired.  That preparatory phase – the “thinking about terrorism” phase – can either be someone’s initial radicalisation process or a further deepening of an already existing one.  In either case there is a lot of “jaw-jaw” before we get to “war-war” (I know this is a stretch of a Churchillian quote but I hope you know what I mean).

When, then, should the responsible agencies get involved?  Too soon and it does indeed smack of a Kafkaesque violation of freedom of thought; too late and there may not be enough time to foil terrorism.  It is a delicate balance and one that those agencies consider carefully.  Some might say in the post 9/11 era that we should be better safe than sorry and just investigate them all but do we really want to see unnecessary efforts that waste precious resources and will at a minimum alienate innocent people, let alone be a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

These questions are being asked yet again in light of the UK’s announcement that the government will modify its counter terrorism strategy to include “extremism” that is not necessarily violent and a request by the Swedish intelligence service SAEPO to “register” people who sympathise with groups like IS.  You could also tie in the Canadian government’s consideration of “glorification of hate/terrorism” legislation.  Where is the line in all of this?

Maybe authorities should direct those who are merely talking about violent extremism to so-called counter-radicalisation or early intervention programmes and not subject them to investigation.  Perhaps, but there are far too few of these programmes around and there is still a lot that is not known about what works in them or even whether they work.  Sometimes it is too late to go with the preventative option.  In the words of a senior officer in the RCMP’s K Division (Alberta) a few years back (paraphrased): “We always prefer to go with intervention but in some cases a serious threat to public safety dictates otherwise.”

There are no easy answers to these questions.  Anyone who says there are is lying.  We will have to continue to identify as early as possible those who believe violent extremism is justified, divert those we can and investigate/arrest those we can’t.  Our safety depends on it.


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.

Leave a Reply