Who decides what is terrorism and what isn’t?

It is still a debatable issue whether ‘incels’ are terrorists or just occasionally violent people, as is what is the best way to detect and stop them.

EDIT BY THE AUTHOR – I am reposting this blog from yesterday, not because we have learned anything more about the nature of the attack that occurred in Toronto in February and which is now being called a ‘terrorist incident’ perpetrated bu an alleged ‘incel’ minor (i.e. under the age of 18 in Canadian law), but because of the reaction I got.

Unlike any other post, this one drew a lot of attention, mixed between hatred and support. Some people have accused me of being:

a) a bully
b) anti-feminist
c) an old white guy
d) unprofessional

and other such things. For the record, only c) is true: I am indeed an old white guy.

Why this tirade of reaction? To my mind it is for two primary reasons. One, I called into question the notion that incels are terrorists and should be treated as such (i.e. like jihadis and white supremacists for example) rather than as hateful misogynists. Two, I questioned – again – the value of the Canadian government’s move to ‘gender-based + analysis’. My position has remained the same: good analysis is good analysis whether you are male, female, transgender or from the inner moons of Jupiter.

I have had some people challenge my position as Director of the Security Program at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. I apparently suffer from a ‘lack of awareness of my privileged position as a white male’, whatever that is supposed to mean. Someone tweeted “Power structures dominated by men don’t require malice or incompetence on behalf of individuals to have blind spots.” I think you get the point.

Well, I have bad news for those who took to social media to criticise me: I ain’t going nowhere. I love what I do. I love debate (polite debate, that is). I derive enjoyment from keeping up on world events, sharing them with my followers on social media and weighing in with my thoughts, based on 32 years in security intelligence in Canada, five peer-reviewed books on terrorism, and a general fascination with all aspects of violent extremism. As I tell everyone, I will keep on as long as I am having fun, snide remarks and baseless assumptions notwithstanding. When this stops being enjoyable, I will stop doing it. That day is not here and I cannot predict when it will arrive. As someone told me a few months ago ‘Illegitimi non carborundum’ (look it up).

One last point before I let yesterday’s post stand on its own merits. I have looked at the reaction unscientifically and found something very, very interesting. Those who hated what I wrote were mostly academics and students. Those that supported my thoughts were mostly practitioners or former practitioners (law enforcement, security intelligence, etc.). In other words, those who are actually tasked with stopping terrorism are not sure calling incels terrorists is a good idea. Am I biased – you bet your sweet bippie I am (look that up too). Here’s an idea…when you want someone to stop a terrorist attack who ya gonna call (apologies to Ghostbusters): an academic who can tell you about the socioeconomic roots of terrorism or CSIS/the RCMP? Just saying.

On with the blog…

A recent ‘incel’ killing in Toronto is leading to a fascinating debate on what is terrorism – and may point to some hidden agendas.

OTTAWA, CANADA — OK, full disclosure. I am an old white male (rapidly approaching the age of 60). I am confident in my heterosexuality but not judgmental of other sexual mores (I have friends who are gay and have never had any problem with their lifestyles/choices/biological proclivities). I think I am a ‘sensitive male’ – whatever that means – but am also a beer-swilling, profanity-using pick-up hockey goalie who engages in locker room banter, taking it as well as I can dish it out.

And, apparently, I am part of the ‘white male powerful people’.

This is a direct quote from a former colleague of mine at CSIS, Jessica Davis, with whom I have had interesting exchanges – and disagreements. Here it is in full (taken off her Twitter feed @JessMarinDavis)

I guess I have been put in my place

Is it just me or is there something behind this rush to list incel as terrorism? I myself never specialised in this area of violence – I was a jihadi kinda guy – but I know (because I looked for it) that there is a literature out there, albeit one in which there is much variation in analysis (thanks fellow Canuck Mia Bloom for pointing this out!). Is there an agenda here, something I got from reading Ms. Davis’ tweet?

Is this tied to what is called ‘gender-based + analysis’, a current darling within the Canadian government (I will not repeat what I wrote earlier about this fad)? I find it VERY interesting that in the latest CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service, where I was a senior strategic terrorism analyst for 15 years) public report violent misogyny is recognised as a form of ideological extremism. To this, another former colleague of mine, Stephanie Carvin, was quoted as saying “in this way, there is a maturing of CSIS’ understanding of terrorist violence.” Is it just me, old white powerful guy, or is this statement of ‘maturity’ an arrogant example of hubris? Do we really need this kind of comment? She also said “CSIS has put some thought into how it handles violent extremism.” Really? CSIS can think?? Sorry, that was snarky.

For the record, the CSIS annual report takes MONTHS to write (and I happen to know this based on my time there). There is a constant back and forth between the authors and the operational branches on what to say and how to say it, and there is always much disagreement. That it happened to come out in the wake of the decision to charge a 17-year old with terrorism for an alleged ‘incel’ attack in Toronto in February is a coincidence. Suffice to say that someone inside CSIS is giving this some thought.

Or was there outside pressure brought to add this category of violent extremism (and no, I am NOT a conspiracy theorist)? It may very well be that the Service has been investigating this phenomenon for a while: they sure were not when I left, but that was back in 2015 and a lot may have changed. I have no idea why the decision was made to include this now. Maybe others do.

Agree to disagree

We can agree to disagree whether incel movements constitute terrorism – I still do not think the underlying ‘ideology’ is as robust as that of the jihadis or white supremacists, etc. but I acknowledge this is debatable – but calling it such does have implications for CSIS. If, as Ms Davis says, we should have that agency and others “deploying the counter-terrorism toolkit“, where does all this lie in terms of priorities? Where do the resources come from? Take them from other counter terrorism investigations like Islamist extremism (bad idea)? Take them from counter intelligence and counter foreign interference investigations ( we did this twice before – in 1989 and after 9/11 – and that too was a bad idea)? Resources are limited and does anyone think that in a post-COVID era CSIS and its partners are going to get MORE resources? If you are of that mind, I have some swampland for you in Kanata.

It is still a debatable issue whether ‘incels’ are terrorists or just occasionally violent people, as is what is the best way to detect and stop them.

Referring to white male power structures and taking a shot at the ‘maturity’ of CSIS are not useful arguments. We can all agree that incels occasionally (very occasionally? I have read where that vast, vast majority are as capable of killing as are the vast majority of the wanker jihadis I studied, i.e. not at all) use violence and that we have to get a better handle on this to identify the dangerous ones and stop them. Whether that is through CSIS or law enforcement is an open question. Let’s continue to have that debate – politely – and not resort to name calling.

Yours truly.

Old white guy.

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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