The white face of violent extremism

As readers of my blog and books will well know I consider myself, and am considered by some, an expert (I prefer specialist) in terrorism.  More specifically Islamist extremism as that scourge was the topic of my four books thus far as well as my career at CSIS.  Indeed, I have studied many aspects of this particular manifestation of terrorism for going on two decades now.  If that is not enough time invested to become knowledgeable than I don’t know what is.

For some the phrase ‘if the only tool you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail’ might apply to me.  In other words, given my concentration on Islamist terrorism, I might be susceptible to the idea that this is the only form of violent extremism out there.  Au contraire.  I may not be as deeply conversant on other types of terrorism but I do know that there are other types out there.

As an aside, however, I still strongly maintain that Islamist extremism continues to pose the single greatest threat to public safety in many countries around the world- albeit a relatively minor and certainly not existential menace.  My conviction stems from what has happened over the past 3-4 decades, what is happening now and what will in all likelihood what will continue to happen for the foreseeable future.  Those that say that other forms of terrorism are more dangerous have not proven, at least to me, that this is the case.

Nevertheless, there ARE other forms of terrorism and these cannot be ignored.  Whether what transpired in a Quebec City mosque on January 29, 2o17 is seen as terrorism or not it was beyond doubt an act of mass violence perpetrated, as we are learning more and more each day, by a young white man obsessed with immigration, a hatred for Islam and Muslims and a perverted sense that he had to take action to protect Canada from future terrorism.

Yesterday (April 18), a Wichita, Kansas court found three men from Garden City guilty of plotting to bomb an apartment complex that was home to a large number of Somali Americans and a mosque. The three extremists were members of a local militia and wanted to kill as many people as possible (shades of Alexandre Bissonnette in Quebec) to ‘send a message that Somalis were not welcome in the US’.  Authorities had investigated the trio for eight months as they had stockpiled guns and explosives in preparation for the bombing: a defence attempt at claiming entrapment failed.

Had the attack succeeded it is not certain how  many would have died (apparently 120 Somali Americans lived in the complex).  It could very well have rivalled the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by another white militia-linked violent extremist, Timothy McVeigh.  Is it a coincidence that both attacks were planned in the US Midwest and that both were the ideas of militia members?  No, I am not lumping all militia members in the same category but…

What lessons do we draw from the Kansas case?  Three come to mind immediately:

a) thanks to competent law enforcement agencies no one died.

b) there are a frightful number of citizens in Canada, the US and elsewhere that feed off toxic, hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric online and in mass media.  We really have to get a handle on this and put  into place laws that, while respecting free speech, prohibit the demonisation of certain groups and call for attacks on them, whether these calls are overt or easily implied.

c) we need to look more into non-Islamist extremism. I have no idea where the resources are going to come from but if we want to prevent more Quebec Citys and Garden Citys we need to ensure that security intelligence and law enforcement organisations have the necessary men and women to carry out investigations, make arrests and bring these cases to court.

Most importantly we need to remind ourselves that terrorism does not have a ‘face’.  Anyone is capable of becoming consumed with hate and a desire to kill, regardless of faith, race, background or any other ‘defining characteristic’. We ignore this fact at our peril.

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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