New Canadian Media
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
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 19:42

Mr. Reyat, Please Do the Right Thing

Commentary by Suresh Kurl in Richmond

Time passes, sometimes leaving behind only a knot of hurtful memories. Thirty years have gone by waiting for the news, when the living victims of the Air India tragedy would hear, feel and spend the rest of their days with some sense of justice. It seems like they will never realize their hopes.

Just ask those whom destiny left behind only to mourn loved ones lost on June 23, 1985.

The Air-India Bombing was not a car accident caused by a drunken driver on an icy Canadian road. It was a well planned, well financed and well executed aviation mass murder of 331 individuals. They had no idea before and after they boarded the plane that they were being taken – not to meet their relatives – but to the end of their own lives. Eyes still get moist and tears still roll down the cheeks when someone or something reminds Canadians of that dreadful day.

Inderjit Singh Reyat, the designated technician-cum-schemer of the 331 murders, made the bomb, tested the bomb and handed it over to his associate master-minds to execute the rest of the plot, to shatter the plane over the Atlantic Ocean. They did this rather effectively, leaving the Irish authorities scooping dead babies, lifeless adults, packed suitcases, floating dolls and pieces of the broken airplane for evidence.   

Two wrongs don't make a right

The Air India Bombing was plotted and executed to avenge the wounded honour of the GoldenTemple, a respected seat of worship and devotion. This temple assault, referred to as "Operation Blue Star" by the New Delhi government, had the approval of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and was no less evil than the bombing of the Air India flights that followed.

Mrs. Gandhi could have chosen some other political and peaceful solution to resolve the national crisis, but she did not, just as Mr. Reyat and his associates could have adopted some other peaceful path to achieve the Sikh separatist agenda. But they did not, because they, especially Mr. Reyat, the designated technician, must have believed, "Two wrongs equal one right."

Co-incidentally, there are a few similarities between Mrs. Gandhi and Mr. Reyat. Both of them have the same derivative Sanskrit root, "in-" meaning, stubborn, determined, bold and energetic. 

Second, both of them suffered the consequences of their Karma (behaviour). PM Gandhi was assassinated at the hands of her trusted body guards. Reyat was doomed by his loyalty to his co-conspirators.

Not a solo plot

Who will ever believe that such a plot was the work of one person?  

Moreover, Mr. Reyat ended up protecting, insulating and covering his criminal associates through his own "perjury".  I call it destiny.

Third, their actions were a response to the demand for the creation of a separate nation, "Khalistan'.

Fourth, no one seems to admire them for the violence soaked sacrifices they made to  attain their objectives.  

Last week, Mr. Reyat was released from federal prison; technically, "paroled out". Where Mr. Reyat is going to live or with who he is going to live with is not of significance. What is significant is that he could never be free from the prison of his own guilt.

He might not even be able to sleep soundly. He might even suffer vivid nightmares of exploding planes and falling dead babies from the sky: all because he is unwilling to reconcile with the truth, compassion and honesty and universal love, the tenets of every religion, including his own religion.

Redeeming himself

Spiritually speaking, Mr. Reyat can only redeem himself of his portion of sins by disclosing the names of those who were involved in plotting, financing and executing this crime, which put him and him alone away in prison for a long time and caused him to suffer, socially, financially and spiritually.   

Mr. Reyat is a Sikh. If he believes in God, he must also believe in Karma, its consequences and rebirth.  If all this is true then the only option Mr. Reyat has is to pray for peace and strength to tell the truth and cleanse his conscience. Truth sets us free. Truth heals our wounded spirit. Truth prepares us to face our Creator.

As a spiritual human being, I am asking him to do the right thing for his soul and for the sake of his children and their children. He alone has the power to offer the gift of justice and peace to those he has victimized.  

Mr. Reyat, leave this world with your head high with pride, not bending low, burdened with the weight of lies and a guilty conscience. 


Dr. Suresh Kurl is a South Asian Community Activist, a former university professor, retired Registrar of the B.C. Benefits Appeal Board (Govt. of B.C.), a former Member of the National Parole Board (Govt. of Canada), a writer and public speaker.

 

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

Commentary by Phil Gurski 

There have been many times in history where statements made publicly have turned out to be somewhat less than true. Remember the famous "Dewey defeats Truman" headline in the 1948 US Presidential election?  What about then CIA Director George Tenet's claim that intelligence pointing to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a "slam dunk"?

Then we have German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's 19th century boast 'God is dead', meaning that He no longer represented a source of morality or inspiration for humans. Time magazine repeated the statement in question form on its cover in 1966. In light of the wave of terrorism motivated in part by religion (largely, but not exclusively, Islam) over the past 40 years I think we can safely conclude  that this belief is about as accurate as that made by the Chairman of IBM in 1943 when he confidently said that "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers".

God, in whatever form people conceive him, continues to give billions of people hope, guidance and joy. Yes, religion has led some to incredible heights of creativity and art (listen to a Bach mass and tell me you're not moved) but it as also driven us to the lowest depths of horror and slaughter. There are far too many examples to list here. In any event, it appears highly likely that God and religion are here to stay.

Insulting a faith

An interesting question is raised, however, over what we as societies and governments should do to protect the right of all to worship in whatever way they so choose. A lot of Western states have this right enshrined in their constitutions and a few go on to say that the State shall neither choose an 'official' religion nor favour one over another. This is all well and good but to what extent should the government go with respect to perceived (or blatant) insults to one particular faith?

I am referring here to blasphemy laws. Most, if not all societies, had active blasphemy legislation or practice for centuries, although it is rare for any Western country to lay charges in this area these days. In other parts of the world, the practice  is still in place and large segments of the population take blasphemy seriously. Very seriously. 

The Indonesian governor of the state of Jakarta has been charged with insulting Islam (he is ethnic Chinese) and large crowds have called for his ouster – and worse. 

And in Pakistan, a Punjab governor was assassinated by one of his bodyguards (who was subsequently treated as a hero) for his criticism of the country's blasphemy laws. Don't forget the late Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa calling for the death of UK author Salman Rushdie over his alleged religious faux pas in his book The Satanic Verses back in 1989.

The other day the Danish government  laid blasphemy charges against a 42-year-old man who filmed himself burning a copy of the Quran in his backyard.  The move recalls a very different decision not to take similar action against the Danish newspaper that published infamous 'Muhammad cartoons' back in 2006, an act that led to several terrorist attacks.

Does it make any sense to charge a citizen with blasphemy today? In a word, no.

Antidote for ignorance

I have often criticized those that willfully and ignorantly make fun of religion – like the American woman who placed pieces of bacon between the pages of the Quran – not because I think they should be punished but because their actions strike me as childish and little more than attention seeking. I have seen little to suggest that the majority of those who pull these stunts are making any serious point about freedom of anything beyond the freedom to be stupid. 

If they want to put themselves out there and incur both the wrath of true believers, as well as the attention of terrorist groups, they should be free to do so.  But I'd like us to stop using the power of the State to regulate this form of expression and I'd like religious groups to ignore the morons and not react so predictably to each attempt at insult and infuriate, let alone serious scholarship that challenges deeply-held convictions.

Charging someone with blasphemy achieves little. It only provides more media and more publicity for the attention seekers and is almost always counter-productive. I recall the Catholic protests over Monty Python's Life of Brian which only made the film more popular.  There is no room in the West in 2017 for this kind of legislation.  We have hate laws, which are controversial enough and hard to prove as I noted in a recent blog, and we should use that tool where warranted (which I think is rare). I would also suggest that no country needs these laws, but am neither in a position to advise nor influence what happens in Pakistan or Indonesia.

As in most things, as I have stated before, the best antidote to ignorance is knowledge. Those who get their kicks poking fun at or viciously attacking religious beliefs should be argued with, not censured.  And for those that end up getting killed by terrorists who claim to be acting in the name of their deity, while I cannot ever condone that action, neither can I feel sorry for the victims.  Sometimes stupidity masking itself poorly as social commentary has its terrible consequences.

We cannot make being an ass illegal. If we were to do so, we'd have to build a lot more prisons. We need to address the lack of knowledge with knowledge, not State sanction.


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 the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

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

Commentary by Phil Gurski

IF there was any doubt about what a Donald Trump presidency means for the U.S. over the next four years, and by extension for all of us, there is little doubt now. In the first week alone, a flurry of executive orders have been signed on a whole bunch of issues that Mr. Trump promised he would act on. 

Of interest to me is, of course, the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The Trump administration is selling this as a national security issue – a way to keep America and Americans safe.

But is it?

On the one hand, yes.  Terrorists from those seven nations will be unable to enter the U.S. and carry out their heinous plots against innocent people.

The question, however, is: how many individuals who have carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. after 9/11 came from those countries (or from any country for that matter) to execute their plans?  To my knowledge, the answer is precisely – zero.  Every attack has been perpetrated by either U.S. citizens or landed immigrants who radicalised almost entirely in the U.S.  Hence, a ban on citizens from the listed countries would not have stopped a single incident.

Fact is, immigration has zero relationship to terrorism, absolutely zero.

As an aside, it is of interest that several countries are not on the list – i.e. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  Given that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi, would it not have made sense to put that country on the list?

Immigration a lifeblood

Some would argue that since a few people who went on to commit terrorism in the U.S. were born elsewhere, a ban on Muslim immigration (Mr. Trump’s denials notwithstanding, his act is exactly that) is justified.  Perhaps, but immigration is a risk at the best of times. 

How do we ensure that an immigrant does not become a murderer?  A rapist?  An embezzler?  A wife abuser?  A tax cheat?  As there are no guarantees, maybe we should have no immigration at all. 

I am kidding – immigration is the lifeblood of a society and the few negatives do not measure up to the many positives.

It is highly unlikely that this move by the new U.S. government will have any real effect on terrorism.  Attacks will still be planned by those living in the U.S.  A small number of Muslims will continue to be radicalised to violence in the U.S.  Terrorism will remain a very rare tragedy.

Propaganda bonus

We must also not discount the propaganda bonus this gives actual terrorist groups like Islamic State.  IS has long said that the West hates Islam and that Western governments do not want Muslims to live in their countries.  As a result, Muslims must perform hijra (migrate) to a Muslim land.  The Trump move underscores and supports what the terrorists are saying.

I am happy that Canada’s Trudeau government is not going down that path.  Canada is proudly a nation of immigrants, including Muslim ones, and will remain so, I hope.

Terrorism is real and requires real solutions.  The Trump administration immigration ban is not one of them.

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, 16 January 2017 11:37

Novel Explores Road to Radicalization

Book Review by Phil Gurski

Belief is a novel by Mayank Bhatt, a Mumbai-born resident of Toronto.  It tells the story of the son of Indian immigrants to Canada who cooperates with terrorists to identify Canadian places to bomb, in part to avenge the death of Muslims in Afghanistan by Canadian soldiers. 

The book parallels to a certain extent the 2006 case of the “Toronto 18”, a terrorist cell that planned to explode truck bombs in Toronto and at a military base in eastern Ontario to punish Canadians for the decision to deploy the Armed Forces in Afghanistan after 9/11.

This work of fiction is billed as a look into what “makes young people give up their sheltered, secure lives and take up causes that are sure to lead to catastrophe, for others as well as themselves”. 

It does not quite achieve that goal, but does contain a good look into the effects of terrorism on a family. We see the devastating effects on the mother and father, immigrants who fled violence in India to seek a new home in Canada, but had to struggle to make a new life in a new land.  We see the anguish of a pregnant sister whose husband’s promotion may be canceled because of Rafiq’s actions.

We see a South Asian police officer, Ravindar, who tries to help the family but who is not trusted completely, perhaps because of his role as a representative of the law.

The book does delve slightly into what has often been put forward as the ‘causes’ of radicalization to violence in Canada.  There are references to the slaughter of Muslims in India and to discrimination and bias against immigrants in this country.  

Neither theme is developed in this novel. It also does not explore other reasons why individuals go down the path of radicalization.

The mastermind

Early in the novel the author includes excerpts from emails sent by the terrorist ‘mastermind’, a man named Ghani Ahmed, to Rafiq, the young man arrested and accused of participating in a terrorist plot.  These excerpts are full of the rhetoric most commonly associated with terrorist recruiters: innocent Muslims are being killed and no one is doing anything to stop it.  Ahmed appeals to the faith of Rafiq and tries to convince him that fighting back is a religious obligation.

Ahmed is an intriguing character and more could have been written about him.  Who was he?  Where did he come from?  Who else was involved in his plot?  How did he identify Rafiq as a willing participant? .

The one character who remains an enigma is Nagma Khala, a woman who runs a Muslim crèche and who had an extraordinary influence on the young Rafiq.  She is deeply religious, but it is never clear whether her faith contributed in any way to Rafiq’s openness to radicalization.

Flashbacks to India

I welcomed the introduction of two officers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), although their portrayal is superficial and unsatisfactory. It would have been interesting to introduce a main character from CSIS and show how that person was trying to understand the scope of the terrorist plot and Rafiq’s role in it.  That may have been beyond the author’s expertise, though.

The book contains many flashbacks to life in India and provides interesting background into the lives of the protagonists, although the link between these episodes and Rafiq’s decision to become a terrorist is not obvious.  They do provide insight into the circumstances behind the parents’ choice to leave India, but these are tangential to the book’s primary plot.

Throughout the book the author seeks to present Rafiq as an unwilling dupe whose involvement in terrorism is peripheral.  While Rafiq regrets his choice, he also seems to minimize his role. 

It is only at the end of the novel, when Rafiq learns of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (in 2008 – a real event) that he grasps the enormity of what he was part of in Canada and (spoiler alert!!) tries to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.  The author’s attempt to paint Rafiq as a character to be pitied does not come off strongly, even when he writes of the bullying Rafiq received at the Maplehurst Detention Centre in Toronto.

Overall, the book flows and reads well, with the exception of the flashbacks. These occur at times at unexpected intervals and detract from the story.

The book does a good job at showing the destruction of a Canadian immigrant family when one member becomes involved in terrorism. The emotional responses of the characters are believable and compelling. 

As long as the reader does not see this novel as an actual book on homegrown terrorism in Canada it is a good read.

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 the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

The book Belief  is published by Mawenzi House

Published in Books

Commentary by Phil Gurski

I have just returned from Oslo where I was thrilled to catch up with one of my favourite terrorist experts, Thomas Hegghammer. Hegghammer and his colleagues at the FFI – Norway's Defence Research Establishment – have published some amazing work over the last decade or so and I have personally learned much from them.

In the course of a discussion about resource allocation to confront terrorism and terrorists, he made an interesting comment. He noted the fact that all over the world law enforcement and security services have redeployed resources away from some files (organized crime, drugs, etc.) to terrorism. 

More importantly, within the terrorism sphere, money and people have been concentrated in one direction – Islamist extremism – thus leaving other kinds of terrorism – right wing extremism, for example – relatively unwatched.  In this light, Hegghammer noted that we should be surprised that there has not been more right-wing terrorism, especially attacks that kill many.

Undetected plots

Think about this.  The fact that we have overloaded men, women and energy on Islamist extremist files has allowed us to stop so many plots.

The more people you have watching something, the more intelligence and evidence you can gather. The more you know, greater the chances of disruption.

The other side of that coin is that fewer resources devoted to right-wing extremism could imply that more plots go undetected and hence are more successful.  And, yet, that is precisely what is NOT happening. A good question at this point would be: why?

Mass casualties

First, we have to, of course, acknowledge that there have been right-wing attacks in the recent past and some mass casualty ones: Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011 and Timothy McVeigh in the U.S. in 1995 are two good examples.  Aside from these, we might want to throw in the attack on a church in South Carolina in the summer of 2015, but truth is there are not very many.

When you compare right-wing and Islamist extremism, you immediately see that the latter has carried out mass casualty attacks (9/11, 7/7, Madrid, Paris, Istanbul, Nice, Brussels, the list goes on and on) at rates which are very much higher.

There are a few suggestive ways of looking at why.  Maybe, the right-wing world does not embrace mass casualty attacks as much as jihadis do. 

There are all too many e-zines and social media propaganda that cajole and encourage these operations within Islamist extremism, but perhaps not as many in right-wing circles. Maybe, there is an inherent difficulty among right-wing extremists in justifying such attacks. 

Perhaps, the leadership is just not there. To be honest, I simply do not know, in large part because I don't follow these kinds of terrorists so closely. 

Whatever the reason, you cannot escape the fact that we have not seen mass casualty attacks and having our attention tied to the jihadis has not opened the door for the far right.

Of course, things can change and we may see such strategies develop.

There certainly is justifiable concern over the rise of the violent right in parts of Europe (and in President-elect DonaldTrump's America?) and we will have to turn our gaze in that direction (or hire more people to do so). 

Nevertheless, it is important not to use past events as predictors of future ones. We may never see waves of 9/11s carried out by the far right.

Let's hope so.

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 the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski  

The surprise – at least to some – victory by Republican candidate Donald Trump over his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton in Wednesday’s U.S. presidential election has already led to speculation over what a Trump administration means at both the domestic and international level.

At home, he has been hawkish on immigration and may try to deport millions of undocumented American residents. Outside the U.S., he has vowed to tear up trade agreements like NAFTA and impose tariffs on trade partners such as China.

On the environment, he has expressed skepticism about global warming and threatened to cancel the US commitment to the Paris Accord.

But what about terrorism? What can we expect from a Trump presidency on the international and U.S. “war on terrorism”?

Future policies are difficult to determine and much can change, although we can guess some of the incoming administration’s moves based on statements made and positions outlined during the campaign, even while recognizing that these are rife with inconsistency.

A few of Trump’s possible approaches will have a near-term positive effect on our collective battle against violent extremism, but on balance they will make things worse. Here are a few things to watch for:

  • On defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS), Trump vowed to go on the cyber offensive and recruit NATO to “invade IS strongholds in the Middle East and ‘knock the hell out of them’”. Assuming that he orders a more robust military response to the terrorist group, the effectiveness of that response will depend on the precise measures deployed. Special forces raids on identified high priority targets – think the successful killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad in May 2011 – are the least likely to result in collateral damage or raise much objection. After that, it gets less easy. Drones are one tool, although the effect on innocent bystanders is probably higher than reported. Airstrikes are even less targeted. The worst scenario is a boots on the ground invasion as in the case of Iraq in 2003, which would give IS or others a new base of support (invasions tend to do that). In the short term, terrorist groups lose territory and influence but, in the longer term, the ideology underpinning these groups simply finds a new home. IS has already celebrated the Republican’s victory and stated that the “billionaire fool” will ruin the US and allow IS to take control of the country.
  • On allying with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Trump could leverage combined assets to speed up IS’ demise. The down side is that Russia is also targeting groups with which the US is allied. More importantly, Russia is trying to keep the Assads in power and a continued Alawite regime will invite more terrorist opposition down the road.
  • On immigration, Trump has vowed to stop the immigration of Muslims “until we figure out just what the hell is going on” and to refuse entry from countries associated with terrorist groups. He has also criticised any intake of Syrian refugees and would submit those who do come to “extreme vetting”. While this policy could prevent some terrorists from infiltrating the U.S., it does not cover those who come from otherwise “safe” countries such as France, Germany or the U.K.. It should be stressed, however, that the number of terrorists using the immigration/refugee system is dwarfed by the true “homegrown” threat of those born and radicalized to violence entirely in the U.S .(and for which there is no immigration or citizenship revocation “solution”). Furthermore, Trump has essentially made Muslims, including those born in the U.S., feel like unwanted citizens and this helps to feed the extremist narrative that the West hates Islam and does not allow Muslims to practice their religion freely (hence the call for hijrah to Muslim areas such as IS’ Caliphate).
  • Current U.S. President Barack Obama was big on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and even convened a summit on this issue in February 2015. It is highly unlikely that President Trump will have much time for CVE, seeing it as “wimpy”. This is unfortunate as CVE, while not a panacea, is an important part of counter terrorism strategy. Conversely, were the President to support CVE, it is hard to see how American Muslims buy into the administration’s efforts in light of Trump’s vilification of them.
  • On the domestic terrorism front, Trump has actually paved the way for an increase in the threat level, but not in a direction assumed by most Americans. The greatest terrorist menace in the U.S. comes not from Islamist extremists, whether foreign or domestic, but from a variety of right wing groups ranging from sovereign citizens to radical militias to white supremacists. The Trump campaign gave voice to these actors and it is likely that we will see a continued spike in the activity of such groups. It is ironic that a huge increase in the existence of these extremist organizations during the Obama years, as reported by the U.S. Southern Poverty Law Center, may be surpassed under a Trump administration. This, together with Trump’s avowed support for the Second Amendment and desire to protect gun rights, could make the U.S. a much less safe country. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan have already welcomed a Trump presidency and are likely to feel emboldened under his rule.

All in all, it is difficult to see any long-term pluses on counter-terrorism under President Trump. Initial successes against IS and others through military action will more than adequately be offset by his propensity to provide ammunition for future supporters and groups through his position on Islam and immigration.

The Trump presidency – whether one or two terms – will possibly leave us in a worse position vis-a-vis terrorism than the one we find ourselves in now.

Should he choose his advisors wisely and build on existing successful approaches, we may collectively be better off. And yet, a significant terrorist attack on U.S. soil attributed to a foreign actor – inspired, planned, directed or executed – would create a whole new set of variables and responses. Let us hope that such a scenario does not transpire.

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 the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

 
Published in Commentary
Thursday, 27 October 2016 16:11

Do Returning IS fighters Deserve an Amnesty?

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Historically, amnesties have been offered to former combatants in an attempt to stop the violence and allow a country the chance to rebuild itself. 

A really good example where an amnesty seemed to work would be in South Africa where it was part of that nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission post-Apartheid.  On the other hand, amnesty for fighters was rejected in the recent Colombian referendum on ending the half century war with the FARC.

Amnesties can be hard to sell.  Conflicts where hundreds or thousands of people have been killed by insurgencies or guerrilla movements or terrorists can result in acrimony and long memories where populations are unwilling to let those responsible for the violence get off lightly.  This is what appears to have happened in the narrow defeat of the Colombian referendum.

A question that is being asked by some is whether we should consider offering an amnesty to returning foreign fighters with Islamic State.  One such proposal was published recently by David Wells (full disclosure: Wells is an acquaintance and, like me, a former intelligence analyst).  He wrote that by offering a "plea bargain" to those who are coming home disillusioned, security intelligence and law enforcement agencies could focus their limited resources on those who pose a real threat to their homelands upon return.

Brutality and inhumanity

Wells does offer a few cautionary statements about the difficulties of carrying out such an amnesty and I want to build on those (NB: more in my forthcoming book Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security).

To my mind, the single greatest obstacle to social acceptance of any form of amnesty for those who joined IS is the sheer brutality and inhumanity of the group's actions.  Whether we are talking about beheadings, immolations, throwing people off roofs, raping girls or selling women into slavery, the depravity so rampant among IS members puts them in a special level of hell. 

No one will want to see these animals get any break on the punishment they so richly deserve.

Compounding this problem is determining who did what in theatre. Aside from the really stupid ones who posted videos online boasting of their lust for violence and those even more stupid to return home – assuming they have not been Hellfired into oblivion (the best case scenario really) – we will probably not be able to determine who the worst actors are.

Gathering evidence

States will want to prosecute those guilty of war crimes, but unless we have posted videos as evidence, this will be very difficult.  Gathering such evidence in a conflict zone like Syria is unquestionably a challenge and it is not as if we can rely on Syrian authorities for help (besides, given recent cases of Syrian-Canadian "collaboration" in several alleged torture incidents, Syrian assistance would be politically impossible even if it were offered).

Furthermore, what do we do with the confessions/denials of some returnees? While it is probable that there are legitimate instances of those who are disgusted with what they saw and may not have actually contributed to the horror, how do we make that determination?  Whom do we believe?

In the end, the fact that these individuals have left Canada (or many other countries) to join IS (or other groups) is a criminal offence and it is in the interest of the state to pursue legal action where the evidence is available.  Each case will have to be judged on its merits and there may be ones where an amnesty – or the decision not to take to trial – can be considered.

"Forgiving" populations

We do have one instance of this already in Canada when the Crown chose not to charge three young women from the Toronto area after they unsuccessfully tried to travel to Syria to join IS (they were interdicted in Egypt thanks to excellent police work on this end).

We also have to bear in mind that some of these ex-combatants will still pose a threat to our societies. We have already seen attacks carried out by returnees and we will see more.  It is not unreasonable to predict that over the next five years or so our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies will be very busy trying to stop future attacks by returning terrorists.

I suppose that amnesties are feasible where there are at least some people on both sides of the conflict who can see the perspective and justification of violence from the other's point of view.  And, yet, it is impossible to imagine a scenario where anyone views the actions of IS this way. 

There are also significant differences in the nature of conflict where amnesties appear to have had a positive effect – say South Africa – versus ones where the "forgiving" population has not been beset by direct warfare in their own backyards.  If you are not from Syria or Iraq, you have not witnessed the daily carnage caused by IS and are thus less willing to take a chance to end it by offering amnesty.

I fear that anyone who proposes forgiving returning terrorists will have a very tough job ahead of them.  And, I am not sure that this is a good idea in the first place.

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 the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 06 October 2016 15:19

Consulting Citizens on Anti-Terrorism Policy

Commentary by Phil Gurski  

Should governments seek public approval on counter terrorism policy?

By now, I am sure that you are aware of the fact that a referendum carried out by the Colombian government on a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas was narrowly defeated.  The difference between those in favour and those opposed was razor-thin, something like 50.2-49.8%  In other words, the vote could have gone either way.  My reading is that the low turnout was due in part due to bad weather and perhaps some complacency since everyone had predicted a comfortable margin of victory for the yes side (again showing that you can’t always rely on polls).

In a previous blog I argued in favour of a peace accord but also recognized that there were many valid reasons why some Colombians had a hard time accepting an agreement under which terrorists would walk away relatively scot-free after decades of human rights violations.  In the end, those opposed won the day, and while both the government and the rebels have said that they will honour an existing ceasefire, the lack of a way forward does not bode well as many want the conditions for amnesty toughened.

Fundamental question

But, I think there is a more fundamental question that needs to be asked: should the government have gone with a referendum in the first place?  Should Colombians have had a say in the matter?  More broadly, should governments consult their electorates on counter-terrorism policy?

My late father-in-law once told me something very profound.  He had made the acquaintance of the Speaker of (Canadian) Parliament who was an MP from my father-in-law's home riding. The speaker and my father-in-law were once talking about how often governments should ask the opinion of voters on a variety of issues. 

My father-in-law replied, very wisely I thought, that governments do exactly that – every four years.  This consultation is called an election.  Parties put out their platforms and voters cast their ballots, in part, on whether they like what they hear.  We then trust, perhaps naively, in those politicians to do what they said they would. 

In other words, they don’t have to ask us for our views on every little matter.  My father-in-law believed it to be a huge waste of money for our officials to spend on asking us what we think: he felt that they were being paid to make decisions.  He may have been a foreman at Stelco (a steel company in Hamilton) but he had a lot of wisdom to impart.

Nothing gained

What does any of this have to do with terrorism? A lot, actually. Governments seem to think that they need to run counter-terrorism policies by their citizenry before implementing them. This may be admirable, but it is neither efficient nor helpful.  With all due respect to my fellow Canadians, they are not experts in terrorism, nor should they be.  After all, were the government to plan a new strategy to fight cancer, would it ask its citizens to comment on the technical merit of the science involved?

There are opportunities for input aside from elections every four years.  Experts can be brought in to voice their opinions and this is exactly what is done both in parliamentary or Senate hearings and within departments.  Canadians with something to say have ample time to do so.

The fact is that our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are competent and know how to tackle the terrorism problem. They are constrained in what they do by both laws and policies and there are mechanisms (maybe there should be more parliamentary oversight) to register complaints.

I am not sure what is gained by seeking public approval for counter-terrorism strategy, a position adopted by the Trudeau government with its green paper on national security.  Nor am I certain why the Colombian government opted for a referendum on the peace process with the FARC.

I am not trying to be elitist.  It’s just that we elect governments to do a job and if we don’t like the job they do we kick the bums out of office.  That is how democracy works.  Perhaps, we should leave counter-terrorism strategies to the professionals: those who disagree with how it is being done can always try to sign up and effect change from within.

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 the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

Published in Policy
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