When is fear acceptable?

As the number and lethality of terrorist attacks appear to be on the upswing (whether they are or not in reality is not important since perception seems to trump facts when it comes to terrorism), fear is also rising.  I have already blogged about the decision by an Alberta school board to cancel international trips  in the wake of Paris (Keep calm and carry on).  And we are fed a daily diatribe of inaccuracies and outright lies by buffoons such as Donald Trump (New Jersey Muslims celebrated 9/11 and the Donald claims he saw them.  Really?  In what parallel universe was he residing at the time?) which compounds the anxiety.

At the same time there is a real threat from terrorism in the West.   In my experience as an intelligence analyst, a day didn’t go by in which there wasn’t some intelligence on a terrorist threat somewhere in the world.  Whether or not the intelligence was accurate is another, albeit crucial, issue.

Information received sometimes leads to drastic action.  Case in point the decision yesterday to close all Los Angeles schools in the wake of an e-mail threat to carry out an attack like the one in San Bernardino a few weeks ago.  One e-mail, 640,000 students miss school.  Pretty good bang for the buck, no?

Unlike officials in New York, I have no intention of upbraiding school board officials in LA.  Reports say they consulted with the FBI on whether the threat was genuine and I assume that after some consultation the decision to shutter the schools was made.  That works for me.  Better safe than sorry, right?  Absolutely…but.

We may never know whether this e-mail was linked to a true plot or was a hoax.  Regardless, an important lesson lies here, both for us and for the terrorists.  For our part, we need to take all necessary action to protect our societies, in keeping with civil liberties and rights, and by making sure we have examined and analysed all purported threats to the extent possible. We have to realise that not all specific threats are real: we learned yesterday that a teacher in France who claimed to have been slashed by an IS supporter lied about the incident, perhaps because he wanted to avoid a school inspection (yes, his reason may have been that stupid – see story here).  Our actions need to be commensurate with the threat, neither too little nor too much.  Erring on the side of caution may be ok, but if we panic too often there is a strong possibility that we may be faced with a boy who cried wolf syndrome eventually.

The terrorists, on the other hand, have also learned a valuable lesson.  All it takes is an e-mail threatening an attack and a whole city shuts down its educational sector.  The extremist doesn’t even need to have a solid plan in mind to have a disproportionate effect.  I am reminded of an incident several years ago when the US put sail to its entire fifth fleet from its harbour in Bahrain when word of a threat was received prior to 9/11.  Similar incidents happened after and I recall a satirical piece written by someone impersonating Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden chortling over his ability to move an entire navy by hinting at an attack.

Decisions surrounding what action to take when terrorist information is received are difficult ones, let’s not minimise this.  A decision not to close LA schools followed by an attack would be unforgivable.  But if we act rashly whenever a whiff of danger is sensed, we risk transforming our societies in ways that are unwelcome.

I don’t have an answer to this dilemma.  I wish I did.

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