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When states delay calling acts of violence terrorism

Governments often do whatever they can to control messaging that reflects poorly on their mandates. This should not be of surprise to anyone as, like ruling parties, most of us do not want information that casts us in a negative light to gain wide exposure. With states it is a little different as these are, at least in some cases, elected people who serve at our pleasure and who have to practice transparency in their work. In this regard we have to thank the many investigative reporters who uncover these efforts to hide the truth.

When a state is faced with a successful terrorist attack it runs into the challenge of how to deal with it and how to announce it. After all, an attack shows that something went wrong, someone did not do their job, or that there is a serious problem with the country’s counter terrorism apparatus. Citizens demand to be kept safe and look to their government to provide that safety.

What is curious then is the delay that occurs on occasion in the wake of an attack. State-controlled media sometimes refrain from labeling it terrorism in the immediate aftermath. Two recent examples can be found in Thailand and Egypt. In the former the government took several days before it said that a series of small bombs in Bangkok were likely the work of Islamist terrorists active in the southern part of the country (I wrote about this at length in The Lesser Jihads) while in the latter a bombing that killed at least 20 and wounded dozens of others in Cairo was first called a ‘traffic accident’ before it was admitted that a car on its way to commit a terrorist attack had exploded prematurely.

I have to be careful here and acknowledge that it is indeed possible that the reluctance to call terrorism what it is may be linked to a lack of information. It is true that in the minutes and hours following what looks like a terrorist act we often are not certain as all the facts are not in and we have to allow investigators the time to gather these and make an assessment. In this sense it is understandable why states hold back before proclaiming that a terrorist incident has actually occurred.

At the same time, however, it is not as if these countries are rookies at terrorism. The so-called ‘southern insurgency’ has been simmering in Thailand for three decades and the bombs that went off in Bangkok are the hallmark of these terrorists. In Egypt Islamist extremist terrorism, some of it linked to an Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, has been raging for several years. In both cases, then, terrorism is a frequent-enough phenomenon such that it would not have been injudicious to speculate that these two events were terrorist in nature. In a way the default position is to assume terrorism and backtrack if it turns out not to be.

I suppose that some regimes may think that obfuscation can protect them from an angered electorate. This is not necessarily the case and Spain is a good example. In 2004 a series of bombs went off in the Madrid metro system killing almost 200 people and wounding another 2000. The government of the day blamed ETA – the Basque terrorist group – an assertion that just about everyone saw as laughable. In fact, it was an Islamist terrorist attack possibly tied to the Spanish military deployment in Iraq. The ruling party lost an election three days later. I am not oversimplifying the election results and claiming that an effort to hide the truth on the carnage was the #1 reason for the loss but I wonder what was the overall role of the attack on the electorate.

In the end does any of this matter? I suppose not a lot. Terrorists will continue to hit us whether we call their acts what they are or not. Nevertheless it is important to be accurate in our analysis. We cannot get better at preventing terrorism if we fail to acknowledge it. States have to swallow their pride, admit that either mistakes were made or the terrorists ‘got lucky’, learn lessons and move on. You cannot stop what you refuse to see.

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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