New Canadian Media
Thursday, 20 July 2017 08:27

Suffer the Children of Islamic State

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

If there is one searing image of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe it is that of the orphanages of Romania. The regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed both contraception and abortion.  As a consequence, thousands of women left babies that were either unwanted or those that they could not care for at state institutions.  These institutions were understaffed and underfunded. 

When the wall fell  (Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day 1989) the world got a look at these orphanages and what it saw was beyond shocking.  Children were often tied to cribs, rocking back and forth in repetitive ways that spoke of a lack of human contact.  Food was insufficient and the care devoted to life’s most vulnerable was largely absent.  A global effort to help these kids ensued and while some undoubtedly ended up okay, thanks probably to the amazing resilience of the human body and mind, many did not and never recovered from their tragic start in life.

We are now faced with a similar situation in Iraq and Syria now that the parody of a state that called itself one – Islamic State – is sinking fast.  Thousands of ‘fighters’ have died at the hands of airstrikes, in battle and in the flames of suicide attacks.  Tens of thousands of civilians in cities like Mosul, taken by IS and ruled with an iron fist, have also died.  And then there are the children.

One of the most striking aspects of the social Frankenstein that was IS was their effort to create an actual self-sustaining society.Unlike other jihads (Somalia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya…), IS went out of its way to create an image of a normal, functioning state.  Men were encouraged to leave their homes in the West and elsewhere to take up arms to ‘defend Islam’.  Women were encouraged to come and marry those men and help create future generations of IS ‘Islamic Utopia’.  Out of that arrangement came children, naturally, including young boys IS called the ‘lion cubs of the Caliphate’ (the men were the ‘lions’). 

Some of these children were urged (coerced?) to take part in truly heinous acts of violence such as executions and many more were present at public beheadings.  There was even one case of an Australian jihadi who posted a picture of his son, who appears to be between 8 - 10, holding a severed head.  Truly disturbing.

To me all of this is a no-brainer.  These children deserve our help.

Now that IS is all but defeated as a functioning group, what do we do with these children?  We know that war is hell in all cases and that children suffer disproportionately when exposed to death and brutality.  In some cases kids in Iraq were kidnapped by IS and either raped or forced to do terrible things. 

There is already one case of a Yazidi mom in Winnipeg who has learned that her 12-year old son is still alive: she wants him back with her.

To me all of this is a no-brainer. These children deserve our help. Professionals with seasoned experience in dealing with the trauma of war need to be found and persuaded to assist in this regard.  It won’t be easy: just as in the case of Romania, some children will be scarred for life.

We can both hate the barbarity that is IS and feel for the children that are its product. These young people are not at fault and we should do whatever we can to provide them with the best chances to achieve a normal life.  If anything positive can come out of the enormous tragedy that was Islamic State maybe this is it. 

Phil Gurski worked in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years.  His latest book, The Lesser Jihads, will be published on September 15.

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 06 July 2017 09:42

Let’s Shout these Far-right Losers Down

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

As I have stated on many occasions, the threat to Canada from Islamist extremist groups represents by far the single greatest priority for our security services – CSIS, the RCMP and provincial and municipal police forces. 

We have seen around a dozen plots, both foiled and successful, since 9/11, the most recent one being the attack at a Canadian Tire in Scarborough on June 3.  Thankfully, even in the cases where people subscribing to hateful and loathsome interpretations of Islam were able to set in motion their terrorist intent, few have died. 

To date, only Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent (October 20, 2014) and Warrant Officer Nathan Cirillo (October 22, 2014) – RIP gentlemen – have lost their lives in terrorist attacks. Three terrorists have also been killed by law enforcement so far in Canada (Martin Couture-Rouleau, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Aaron Driver).

At the same time we cannot ignore other manifestations of the terrorist threat.  For instance, we have been witnessing a worrying spike in demonstrations and antagonism by self-styled ‘patriot’ groups (is it just me or does this sound very American?).  A few examples will help illustrate my point:

On July 1, a group of people belonging to the Quebec groups La Meute (French for ‘the pack’) and Storm Alliance showed up at the Vermont-Quebec border to protest the entry of asylum seekers into Canada.

Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) has warned that the ‘Sons of Odin’ are not afraid to use violence and may engage in ‘anti-immigrant vigilantism‘.

Five serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces participated in a Proud Boys crashing of a First Nations protest at the Edward Cornwallis statue in Halifax. Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance is not impressed.

And these are just three samples of late. In addition a Vice.com article recently provided a useful overview of anti-Islamic groups in this country.  The reading is not comforting.  So what’s up?

Ignorance and hate, that’s what’s up. 

These groups hide behind some self-styled notions of patriotism and nationalism in their claims that they are protecting Canada from a litany of ills: Muslims, illegal immigrants, uppity First Nations… They often shroud themselves in our flag as if they are somehow the only ones that ‘get’ what it means to be Canadian. 

They usually show up wearing black, looking all fascist-like and give off strong signs that they are willing to resort to violence to make whatever point they are trying to make. Some appear to be channeling some inner Norse god fetish (Sons of Odin).

What level of threat they truly pose is unclear. La Meute claims on its Facebook page that it has more than 8,000 members: the ‘World Coalition Against Islam (WCAI)’ claims 12,000.  While these numbers are astonishing it is unclear what a ‘member’ means. 

I am not saying that we should ignore these people, but I am not sure what effort needs to be leveraged to monitor them to keep their potentially violent acts in check. We need more data and more analysis on what this is all about.

In any event I suspect that neither CSIS nor the RCMP have spare resources to adequately carry out national security investigations against these people to determine just how dangerous they are. The Islamist extremist threat is still using up the lion’s share of officers as it should. Maybe both agencies need a boost in personnel to deal with this new menace.

One thing is certain: we Canadians have a role to play. We need to shout these losers down.

Just as the vast, vast majority of Canadian Muslims regularly denounce acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam, so must all Canadians say loudly and unreservedly that these folk do not represent anything but hate. They are not devoted to our ‘protection’. Their activities are neither welcome nor tolerated. We must express our rejection of their bile, as counter demonstrators did in Calgary.

Hate is hate, irrespective of motive, and we have a duty to say we will not stand by and allow it to fester.

Phil Gurski spent more than 30 years in the Canadian intelligence community.  His latest book "The Lesser Jihads" is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 27 June 2017 08:59

Embers of Sikh Extremism

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Parliament Hill in Ottawa is one of those treasures found only in liberal democracies.  Anyone can show up and lobby, protest, shout his lungs out or carry a placard peacefully and silently, no matter what the cause.  It is also a great place to watch the fireworks on Canada Day as long as enjoying the sights and sounds with 50,000 strangers does not bother you.

Sometimes, the ‘Hill’ is the site of demonstrations by groups that are not entirely acceptable.  At times, even listed terrorist entities have marched back and forth: a good example was the 2009 mass turnout by Tamil Canadians over the civil war in Sri Lanka at which Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) flags were seen. The LTTE is a banned terrorist organisation in this country.

On June 11, approximately 200 Sikhs gathered on Parliament Hill to commemorate the anniversary of the 1984 attack by Indian forces on the Sikhs’ holiest site, the Golden Temple or Darbar Sahib.  Demonstrators chanted ‘Long live Khalistan’ and demanded that India allow a referendum on the creation of an independent Sikh state in the Punjab.

Khalistan is of course their word for this homeland and the 1984 siege led to the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182 which killed 329 people off the coast of Ireland: the bomb was placed on the aircraft by Canadian Sikh extremists and was the single largest terrorist attack in history prior to 9/11.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.

We don’t hear a lot about Sikh extremism these days, which could lead some to believe that it is no longer an issue.  It is fairly certain that Sikh extremist activity is at a nadir, the recent protest in Ottawa notwithstanding.  As I have written before, however, it would be a mistake to assume that the movement is dead.

India for one does not think it is. During an April visit to his native Punjab province, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was accused by a high-ranking Indian official of being a ‘Khalistani’.  That official, Amarinder Singh, said there were other ‘Khalistanis’  in the Trudeau cabinet and that he would refuse to meet with any of them.

This gets complicated as Minister Sajjan’s father was a senior official in the World Sikh Organisation the purpose of which was the pursuit of an independent Sikh state. It is not as if the Minister has not had enough problems of late, ranging from his exaggerated claim to have been the mastermind of a 2006 Canadian military operation in Afghanistan (codenamed "Medusa") to what he knew or didn’t know about the transfer of Afghan detainees to local authorities.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.  I know of no link between the Minister and banned terrorist organisations and, as a Sikh, he has every right to favour independence for his people through peaceful means.

There may very well be vestiges of Sikh extremism in Canada: the long-awaited "Khalistan" never materialised and no doubt some are not willing to allow the political process to unfold gradually. Yet, we also have to take into consideration the nature of the current Indian government.  Whatever you think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you cannot deny he has ushered in a wave of xenophobic and hateful Hindu nationalism that has been responsible for some very violent acts in India. 

It would not surprise me if some of these extremists were a little oversensitive to any whiff of Sikh independence. 

We must be vigilant in Canada to the possibility that we harbour individuals willing to create a "Khalistan" at all costs.  But we must be equally vigilant in subjecting accusations in this direction to careful scrutiny.

Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world. 

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 08 June 2017 01:47

What to do About Afghanistan?

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

I have come to know the journalist Michael Petrou over the past few years.  He would sometimes call me to seek my views on terrorism when he was with Macleans magazine and I relied heavily on his book ‘Renegades’ – the story of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War – for a section of my second book on Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.  I happen to think he is a great writer and a solid scholar.

In a recent piece of analysis on the CBC Web site Michael noted that Afghanistan is ‘teetering on the edge of a dark abyss’ and that Canada, which lost 158 soldiers in its decade-long post 9/11 deployment, ‘should join its closest allies and return to Afghanistan.’  He argues that much progress has been made in Afghanistan since 2001 (infant mortality, a fledgling democracy, female school attendance) but that true advancement will be measured over decades.  For his part, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to be leaning towards a peacekeeping mission in West Africa (possibly Mali) although even there the government is waffling.

And so the question remains: should Canada recommit to Afghanistan?  Great question with no easy answer, especially in the context of the bombing in Kabul on May 31 that killed over 150. I will play the classic Canadian card and straddle the fence (joke: why did the Canadian cross the road? A: to get to the middle), providing views to supporting both a yes and a no response.  It is not that I am normally wishy-washy: it’s just that there are solid arguments on both sides.

Afghanistan needs  the help of the international community and that community must respond.

I fully believe that we cannot abandon Afghanistan. We tried that once – after the ragtag mujahedin kicked Soviet ass (with oodles of outside help it must be added) – and look where that got us.  Warlordism, brutality and the arrival of the Taliban, which in turn played genial Afghan hosts to Al Qaeda.  Afghanistan became a de facto failed state (it is hard to describe the Taliban regime as a ‘state’) and we know that failed states are prime real estate for terrorist groups (Somalia, northern Nigeria, Iraq, Yemen, etc.).  If we don’t want to see the rise of yet another terrorist organisation on the scale of AQ we might want to keep our presence there robust.

Besides, don’t the Afghan people deserve a normal life? Given that the Afghan government appears incapable of providing the conditions for one shouldn’t we offer, on humanitarian grounds if nothing else?  We will still run into the problem of Western ways clashing with Afghan culture but surely there are universal principles we can help maintain.

On the other hand, Afghanistan is not known as the ‘graveyard of empires’ for nothing.  Many have tried to tame and control the country and none have succeeded.  In addition there is the problem of how long. We were there for more than ten years and while, as Michael points out, some progress has been made the place is still a mess and may be getting worse. Will we need to establish an open-ended mission? How much will it cost?  Are Canadians willing to accept more casualties in a country far away and little understood?  Is the Canadian military equipped (materiel and human resource-wise) to continue multiple tours for our men and women in uniform?  What is the end game?  How do we measure our success?  What is our exit strategy?  Does anyone have an answer to these?  Carleton University’s Steve Saideman has an interesting blog on lessons learned the first time around.

I fear that this conundrum falls into the ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t category’.  We cannot turn our backs on Afghanistan even if we seek to measure it solely through the lens of national interests and security. Afghanistan needs  the help of the international community and that community must respond.

And yet those questions are still there.  Furthermore why Afghanistan and not Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Central African Republic?  Aren’t they as worthy?

Canada may be taking its time with this decision, and that may be frustrating to some, but a sober second thought is indeed required in this instance. If we are both to honour the deaths of those 158 soldiers and prevent 158 more we need to think this through.

Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world. 

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Here we go again.  I have lost track of how many articles I have read over the last few days, all written in an accusatory tone that when you distill comes down to a very simple claim: British intelligence should have known that Salman Abedi was a terrorist and should have stopped him before he acted. Here is one such article.

The premise goes like this. MI5 was aware of Mr. Abedi’s extremist ideology. Concerned Muslims called authorities on several occasions to register their fears. The government did not act and hence 22 people, including many teen and tween girls, are dead.  Hence the government blew it and we have yet another example of ‘intelligence failure’. 

What is surprising, at least to me (even if I am biased) is that few if any of those casting the stone of blame have any background in intelligence or terrorism. Think about that for a moment. By analogy, political scientists should blame doctors for losing patients and soccer moms decry generals for losing wars. Make sense? I didn’t think so.

I have long complained that much of the commentary on what to do about terrorism is written or spoken by people with little firsthand or frontline experience on the subject, so I won’t repeat that here. What I will do, however, is attempt to provide an accurate picture of what really happens on the ground and put that into the context of the U.K. 

At any given time, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are engaged in a number of investigations (for our purposes we will limit the discussion to terrorism cases). These investigations are driven by what they know and a need to learn quickly what they don’t in order to assess risk. Not all cases are equally important and not every subject poses a serious threat, but you don’t know the answer to either problem until you carry out the investigation. 

There is no model or paradigm to tell you where to focus your efforts because of the high degree of variability and idiosyncrasy. 

So no, Manchester was not an ‘intelligence failure’.  It was a tragedy and a horrible act of terrorism.

On top of this, these organisations have finite resources and are unlikely to get substantially more soon (the heyday of the post 9/11 period where money and staff were limitless are long gone). In this light, you have to make decisions on the fly. Most of your decisions are good ones as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of terrorist plots are thwarted (well above 95% I would guess).  Some are not; attacks are carried out and people die or are injured. 

So here is a simple way to explain Manchester. Mr. Abedi was ‘known’to MI5 (the U.K. equivalent of CSIS). That puts him among anywhere between 3,000 and 23,000 similar people (I have seen a wide range of estimates in open source). 

'Known’ does not necessarily mean ‘investigated’. MI5 has approximately 4,000 staff. That figure is a total number: not all 4,000 are investigators/intelligence officers (I would be surprised if the percentage of those running cases topped 1,000).  It takes anywhere from 20 - 40 people to investigate/follow one subject of interest.  Do the math. 

Even at the low end of radicalised people, you need between 60 and 120,000 officers to investigate them all. MI5, one of the best, if not the best, domestic security services in the world, is hard pressed to carry out 40 investigations at a given time.  Remember that terrorists do not always advertise their intent and that risk assessment models are tools, some better than others, not predictors. 

That, dear New Canadian Media readers. is the reality. Intelligence services like MI5 are going flat out 24/7, 365 days a year to keep U.K. citizens safe in a very challenging environment.  And as for those tips from the community – a great thing by the way – in 2016, the U.K. Channel program, a government counter-terrorism strategy, received almost 4,000 referrals.  Do the math there too please.  These numbers speak to a serious problem in U.K. society, one that goes way beyond MI5.

So, no, Manchester was not an ‘intelligence failure’.  It was a tragedy and a horrible act of terrorism. It was not MI5’s fault. It was not the U.K. government’s fault or the fault of British foreign policy.  It was not the community’s fault.  It was not Islam’s fault.  It was Mr.Abedi’s fault (plus those who aided, radicalised or inspired him).

We need to stop pointing fingers in the aftermath of attacks.  And the peanut gallery really needs to do one of two things: a) become more knowledgeable about terrorism and the challenge of preventing it, or b) shut the hell up.  The choice is yours.  Choose wisely. 

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

 
Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

My late mother had a lot of great advice for me, much of which I followed and much of which has helped me immensely in life.  One maxim that she shared with me has been ignored however.  That would be the time she said it is a good idea never to engage in conversation on religion or politics, as both topics tend to lead to argument and acrimony.

Sorry mom, that one I have ignored in my career as an intelligence analyst and my post civil service activities as an author and public speaker.

Religion is obviously a sensitive issue and one that many people take seriously to heart.  As a matter of faith and not fact, it is hard to speak objectively and dispassionately about religion and easy to offend and insult the deeply-held feelings of believers and practitioners.  Furthermore, there are often significant differences within a given creed: how can we expect to gain agreement as holders of different religions when those who on the surface subscribe to the same fundamental convictions cannot?

The 'true' interpretation of Islam

One thing is certain: there is no monopoly on what is the 'true' interpretation of Islam.  There are several reasons for this.  First, it should surprise no one that a faith that is over 1,400 years old has spawned different views.  Second, as a global religion Islam has been and is practiced by billions of people from different cultures, histories, language families and experiences.  Furthermore, over a millennium and a half a few dominant sects have arisen: the majority Sunnis, the minority Shia, and a few others (Sufis, Ahmadis, Ibadis, etc.), each of which with their own traditions.

When it comes to the link between religion and terrorism no faith dominates the headlines like Islam.  Opinions on the role Islam plays in violent extremism range widely from 'Islam is a religion of peace' to 'Islam is inherently violent'.  As with most things in life the truth is somewhere between the extremes.

At the risk of gross oversimplification one particular brand of Islam has become very problematic.  That brand goes by several names – Salafi, Wahhabi (the latter is a subset of the former) – and one state in particular has been very active over the past few decades in exporting this ultraconservative, intolerant and hateful version around the world: Saudi Arabia.  Countries with long moderate traditions – Bosnia, India, West African nations, and Indonesia among others – have seen their citizens enveloped by a faith that is foreign to their lands.  There is a very real connection between Salafist Islam and violent extremism: no, one cannot be reduced to the other but there is a link.

Making a change

Thankfully, at least one nation is hitting back. The youth wing of the Indonesian group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic mass movement on the planet, is seeking to re-interpret Muslim laws and practices from the Middle Ages to have them better conform to the 21st century.  This move should be welcomed and supported.

NU has a tough road ahead of it. The Saudis and their allies have a decades'-long head start and oodles of cash.  Nevertheless, this is indeed good news. 

There is a battle for the soul of Islam and we should all hope and pray that the majority moderates (i.e. normative Islam) comes out on top.  The further marginalisation of Salafi jihadism will suck some (but not all) of the oxygen from the terrorists and perhaps lead to better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.  Besides, I think we can all agree that seeing less of the self-styled yet clownish preachers of hate like the UK's Anjem Choudhury on our screens and tablets will be a very nice change indeed.

I wish the Indonesian efforts every success.  The world certainly needs less hate.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/ 

Published in Commentary
Sunday, 23 April 2017 12:15

We Can Choose Not to be Afraid

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

We live in a world where fear is easy to spread.  There is no shortage of evidence that bad things happen and that there are some bad actors in a lot of places. 

The rise of the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of social media have a lot to do with this. Sometimes, this fear is disproportionate to reality. The fear of violent crime is a good example: statistics in this country and others show pretty convincingly that violence of this nature is at historic lows and yet people still rank fear of violent crime high on their list of anxieties.

Terrorism fits here as well, as I have often said. 

While there is no doubt that terrorism exists and we are reminded of it daily (less so in the West and more so in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia), we still have to maintain an objective perspective.  Even if terrorism occurs more frequently today than it did, say, 40 years ago (although historical analysis might even differ on that point) it is still a rare event. 

It is impossible to claim that terrorism is more rampant than non-terrorist crime for instance (shootings, domestic violence, etc.) let alone other kinds of death (disease, car accidents, etc.).

"Manufactured" fear

Terrorism is different from other forms of violent deaths because of its inherent ability to cause fear. That is why we call it terrorism – it instills terror and fear.  That in essence is what the terrorists are trying to achieve, making us afraid of what they can do so that we will make decisions about things (foreign policy is a primary goal) under duress, decisions we would not normally make.

Some fears are natural – fear of snakes or spiders – and may go back a long way in the history of humanity. Others are manufactured. War and terrorism would fit here. If a fear is manufactured there must be a manufacturer and an audience (or recipient) of that fear.  The audience, I would argue, has a choice of whether to accept or embrace the fear. It is as simple as that. 

In other words, we play an enormous role in our own freedom from fear. We can simply choose not to be afraid.

Defeating terrorism

I am not trying to oversimplify the terrorist threat or the challenge in dealing with it.  This is indeed a hard problem that has always defied, and will most likely always defy, simple solutions. We will not 'defeat' terrorism anymore than we will 'defeat' crime in general. 

But we can 'defeat' the goal of the terrorists by refusing to be cowed by their actions and their propaganda.  We can decide not to allow them to make us afraid.

I'd like to end with a quote by the Swedish Prime Minister in the wake of this month's terrorist attack in Stockholm (an Uzbek terrorist drove a stolen beer truck into a pedestrian mall, killing four and wounding 15) as it really sends a strong message about fear: "I believe today’s [gathering] was a clear message from Stockholm and Sweden that we intend to keep our open, warm and inclusive society. That was the message. Terrorism will never defeat Sweden.”

Would that we all elected to not give in to fear and terror and tell the terrorists that they will never win.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

Published in Commentary
Monday, 27 March 2017 10:20

Why Do We Keep Missing The Terrorists?

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa  

I am sure you have all read the stories. In the aftermath of an arrest of a mass murderer (or a terrorist), neighbours, friends and colleagues are interviewed about what they knew about the suspect. 

Here is what they tend to say:

  • I never saw it coming!
  • He was the nicest guy!
  • I can't believe that he would have done such a thing!

In the wake of the London attacks, neighbours of the terrorist who was shot dead on the scene, Khalid Masood, told reporters that "he had been the model suburban neighbour: keeping to himself, washing his car, mowing his lawn, even passing on a few footballing tips to the local kids".  Here is another offering from a man who stayed in a hotel with Masood: "Nothing in his demeanour or his looks would have given me any thoughts that would make me think he was anything but normal."  That description is not consistent with someone who ran over pedestrians and tried to storm the British Parliament.

In the case of a Belgian man believed to have prepared to strike people with a vehicle in Antwerp – possibly inspired by terrorism (an attempt that occurred the day after the London atrocity) – a friend told the media 'I am almost 100 per cent sure that this person – in my eyes – was not capable of committing a terror attack".

So, what gives?

Telltale signs

Simply stated, people do not know what to look for. I say this not out of arrogance or elitism but rather out of experience.  I have interviewed the parents of children (now dead) who have expressed complete bafflement regarding what happened to their offspring.  And yet when the signs of problematic behaviour and telltale ideology are presented to them, a light goes on and they bemoan the fact that if they had known then what they know now, they would have been in a better position to take action (at a minimum challenge their offspring to justify the attitudes they held and at a maximum get outside help).

I am not so certain that this lack of insight is limited to cases of terrorism. There are most probably similar, yet different, signs that surface when a person abandons long-held beliefs and behaviours and opts for a new direction that brings them trouble (drug use, gang membership, general criminality).  And unless you know what those signs are, you are not in a position to do anything about it.

No template

What, then, is the answer?  It is simple actually: training and awareness raising.  And a good place to start, if I may be so bold, is to have a look at my 2015 book The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization and terrorism in the West (Rowman and Littlefield).  In there you will find an entire chapter on signs to take note of when someone is probably going down the path to violent extremism. The book was based on a decade-and-a-half of research carried out while I was at CSIS, so it is heavily data-driven.

When it comes to what to do about someone about whom concerns have been raised, that is a little bit trickier.  Parents/siblings/friends/religious leaders have to decide whether the individual in question can be reasoned with and deflected from a bad end or whether the case is serious enough – i.e. there is a threat to national security – to involve CSIS or the RCMP.  That call can only be made on a case by case basis: there is no template to help in that regard.

In the end, there are always overt signs of violent radicalisation.  Always.  It is just a matter of knowing what to keep an eye out for.


Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

Published in Commentary
Sunday, 12 March 2017 20:25

Creeping Hopelessness in Terror Fight

Commentary by Phil Gurski

We seem to be having a hard time figuring out what to call our struggle with terrorism. Leaving aside the belief, held by me and others, that framing counter terrorism in terms of war is a bad idea, it is clear that we keep changing our minds about what we are really involved in. 

After the clumsy misstep by U.S. President George W. Bush to label it a “Crusade”, we moved from the ‘war on terrorism’ to the ‘long war’ to the ‘global struggle against violent extremism (GSAVE) to ‘countering violent extremism’.  The latest iteration, which I read today in a New York Times op-ed, has me worried, as much for its pessimistic tone as its psychological effect on all of us.

According to Brian Castner, a formal explosives disposal specialist in the U.S. Army, some in that country’s military have begun to refer to the fight against terrorism as the ‘Forever War’.  This is not a good development.

War imagery

Let’s think about this phrase for a moment.  Forever.  That’s a long time.  And, what is worse, is that forever has no end.  In other words, we will be fighting terrorism and terrorists in a war with no termination.  No victory.  No truce.  No surrender.  No resolution.  Just war, interminable war.

In some ways we should have known this from the start.  Wars against abstract or common nouns don’t end because these nouns don’t reflect tangible entities.  Terrorism is no more a defined object than are drugs, poverty and cancer.  These ‘things’ are either tactics (terrorism), social ills (drugs, poverty) or natural phenomena (cancer).  They don’t have armies – yes Islamic State has a pseudo army with quasi soldiers – or uniforms or well-delineated structures.  You might as well declare war on mist. Yet we frame all kinds of social causes as war.

Don’t get me wrong, I do see a role for the military in counter terrorism measures, even if I disagree with the war metaphor.  But that role has to be constrained and carefully deployed.  Against IS or Boko Haram in northern Nigeria there is space for the army.  After all, however, this fight is for security intelligence and law enforcement agencies on the one hand and civil society on the other.  The former are tasked with taking care of those who wish to do us harm, while the latter look after addressing the conditions under which people turn to terrorism so that, in the end, fewer make that decision.

Accepting death and destruction

We must stop using war imagery when we talk about terrorism.  Aside from the reasons just cited, if those in the armed services are seeing this as the ‘forever war’ what does this mean?  If means that a hopelessness has entered into the minds of those we send to confront terrorists. 

Hopelessness not only breeds depression but it serves as an obstacle to other possibilities. If we convince ourselves that this war is eternal and that we will have to keep killing terrorists, iteration after iteration (Al Qaeda, IS in Iraq, IS, Al Shabaab, AQAP …) we consign ourselves to a non-solution.  I can think of little more futile than accepting death and destruction as the only way forward. There has to be a better way – I think a lot of people are involved in alternative approaches already – and we have to find it and implement it now.

The First World War was once called the ‘war to end all wars’.  We all know how that phrase ended up.  We need to get smart about terrorism before the Forever War becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

For our own sakes as well as those of future generations.


Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield).

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski

On rare occasions I pick up a copy of the National Enquirer or World Weekly News when I shop for groceries.  It's not that I am particularly a fan, but they are strategically located at the checkout counter with their flashy, outrageous headlines.  Some are truly unbelievable. I think my all-time favourite was 'Titanic survivor found on ice floe, vows never to eat fish again.'

These periodicals deal in what we now call fake news, albeit with a difference: the stories were never intended to be taken seriously and it is hard to believe that anyone could be influenced by their stark departure from the truth.

We are now living in a very different time where outright lies are taken seriously and they do affect the views and opinions of some people on very serious issues. The claim that crime is up (when it is down in many places) has led to calls for 'law and order' campaigns.  The belief that vaccinations lead to autism (this was debunked years ago and the scientist making the claim shown to be a fraud) has made some parents eschew life-saving vaccines, causing outbreaks of diseases we thought we had beaten, like measles.

In Canada, there is another onslaught of fake news that centres on our Muslim communities and supposed links to terrorism and clandestine efforts to take over our country.  Several Canadian cities have seen demonstrations that appear to have coincided with a motion by a Liberal backbencher to call on the government to look into and report on Islamophobia and other forms of hate.  Among the allegations made by some of those demonstrating in Canadian streets are:

  • M103 (the Liberal MP's motion) is an attack on free speech
  • there is a secret campaign to bring Sharia law to Canada
  • legitimate dissent is in danger in Canada

Reasonable limits

One of the great things about living in this country is that we are all free to express our views and opinions to a tremendous degree.  There are limits, though, and these limits are both legitimate and necessary.  If someone calls for violence, whether against a specific group or in general, that constitutes a crime (we'll leave aside the difficulties in prosecuting these offences).  Incitement to beat another person to a pulp should not be ignored and I am confident that all Canadians would agree with this.

No, M103 is not a blanket on free speech, it is a reasonable call for looking into a worrisome rise in hatred online and on certain radio shows.  Neither is it focussed solely on Islamophobia, although the highlighting of this particular form of potential hatred is not surprising in the wake of the awful massacre at a Quebec Islamic Centre a few weeks ago.  The State has both a right and a duty to investigate individuals and groups who, through their actions or their language, can reasonably be seen as urging others (or themselves) to use violence against anyone. To ignore these actions would constitute State negligence.

Persistent myths

While I support the fundamental right of the Islamophobes and the anti-immigrant lobby (thankfully small) in this country to voice their opinions, I also feel it necessary to address the 'alternative facts' they use to make their arguments. I will limit my comments to three here:

a) no, immigrants are not a drain on the system, commit more crimes than native-born and they do not steal 'Canadian' jobs.  Study after study after study has shown that immigrants are a net bonus to their adoptive societies and that most integrate within a generation. Those that veer towards criminal acts will be dealt with by the same authorities that deal with all others who engage in crime.

b) no, there is no 'creeping Sharia' campaign in Canada. The last time a government (the Ontario Liberals back in 2004) considered allowing limited Sharia for some family issues, the greatest opponents were Muslim women. In the end the McGuinty government changed its mind and also got rid of other forms of religious arbitration, noting that there  is 'one law for all Canadians'.

c) no, the Muslim Brotherhood is not taking over Canadian mosques and planning a stealth terrorism offensive.  Reports alluding to this are comical at best, bad analysis at worst.

Canada is proudly a land of immigrants and it is those immigrants who have built this country and will continue to do so. The vast majority are just average people looking to better their lives as well as those of their families. Yes, there are bad apples, and we will deal with those.

To conclude, here is a great quote I read in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs.  I could not have said things any better:

"Most people around the world now have the same aspirations as the Western middle classes: they want their children to get good educations, land good jobs, and live happy, productive lives as members of stable, peaceful communities."

Amen to that.


Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield).

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary
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