Why it is important not to miss the terrorist forest for the trees

When we discuss terrorism and the extent of its reach we really should ensure that numbers play an important part in our analysis

As we continue to debate what terrorism is and what it is not, regardless of whether we ever get to a consensus, it is vital that we allow the numbers to inform our analysis.

It should come as a surprise to no one over the past few years that the conversation on terrorism has shifted. The phenomenon itself surged to the top of the agenda in the aftermath of 9/11: terrorism of course predates that tragic day – by at least a century and a half – but it was the enormity of the loss that day that made it the topic du jour.

Equally not surprising is the reality that when we have been talking about terrorism we have been focused to a large extent on what we call Islamist extremism (aka Salafi jihadism). Why no surprise there? For the simple reason that the vast, vast majority of attacks around the world over the past two decades have been executed by actors that subscribe to that range of ideologies. That is a fact with which it is impossible to argue.

I’ll get back to facts in a bit.

More recently, however, the conversation has shifted, especially in the West. Many now state unabashedly that the #1 terrorist threat no longer originates in the jihadi world but rather is best described as the ‘far right’, a grab bag term that includes, among other things, neo-Nazis, white nationalists/supremacists, conspiracy theorists, even incels (involuntary celibates). These people point to what happened on January 6 at the US Capitol as emblematic of this new threat.

There is, alas, a big problem with this position: there is little ‘there’ there, at least when it comes to actual attacks. By this I mean actual plots that lead to actual victims.

Note that I am NOT dismissing RWE, as these actors are often abbreviated, as a threat. They most certainly are! The question which overhangs all of this is: just how serious are they are how do they compare with the terrorist threat posed by jihadis?

RELATED: Borealis discussed the RWE threat vs that of other forms of terrorism

To my mind, the answer to the second question is: not well. Jihadis kill thousands of people around the world every year (if you don’t believe me read the Global Terrorism Index published annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace). RWE actors kill dozens – at most. The facts don’t lie.

Even here in the West, where all the attention is laser-focused on RWE, the jihadis aren’t done yet. Yes, the majority of their victims live in Africa and Asia, but attacks still unfold in Canada, and the US, and New Zealand.

Here are THOSE facts:

  • A week ago Saad Akhtar was sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole eligibility for 25 years for the February 2020 killing of a woman in northeast Toronto on behalf of ISIS‘;
  • The FBI in the US is investigating whether a Texas man accused of fatally shooting a female Lyft driver and then opening fire in a police station was inspired by “foreign terrorists” (US speak for Islamist terrorists) – he had been investigated from 2010 to 2013;
  • Police in New Zealand shot and killed a “violent ISIS extremist” after he stabbed and wounded at least six people in an Auckland supermarket; he too had been on the security service’s radar in 2016.

These are all recent events and they mirror what we have seen over the past five years in Spain, France, the UK, Germany and elsewhere. They are also very much in keeping with jihadi ideology. What with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan again we should we VERY worried about an upsurge in these events.

In conclusion, the next time someone tries to tell you that the only terrorist threat left in the West is that from right-wing extremists, show them the facts.

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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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