Is the violent extremist issue bigger than a shoebox?

Phil Gurski · Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting · Posted: September 14, 2020

While violent extremism and terrorism are real it is important not to over exaggerate them.

Pick up any newspaper or visit any news Website these days and I can guarantee you will come across at least one, and more likely many more than one, story about some act of violence we describe as political, ideological or religious in nature. In other words terrorism: the three adjectives in the previous sentence are all used in the Canadian Criminal Code‘s definition of terrorist activity (section 83.01).

In this light it would be simple, and convenient, to presume that terrorism is rife in our society. And, to be true, there is indeed at least one act of terrorism somewhere in the world every day of every week of every month of every year. It is also true that some nations suffer far more than their proportionate share of terrorist attacks (Afghanistan, Iraq/Syria, Somalia and Nigeria come immediately to mind), although no country is immune, including our own (NB my daily blog ‘Today in Terrorism‘ illustrates just how indiscriminate terrorists are when it comes to where to sow death and destruction.)

Yet are we missing the forest for the trees? Maybe that is not a great analogy. Let me try again. Maybe we see a few trees and extrapolate that the whole forest takes on the characteristics of these few members. In other words, is it not possible that violent extremism is actually significantly SMALLER than many think?

As someone who worked in security intelligence for 32 years, and counter terrorism for 15 of those three+ decades, it might be assumed that it is in my interest (and nature) to oversell, not undersell, the problem. And yet I cannot help to think that there is a tendency to take a few data points and magnify these to construct larger pictures that are not, in fact, representative or even accurate.

Allow me a slight digression to make a more important point. When you work for an organisation like CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service where I was from 2001-2015) you investigate threats to national security (as defined in section 2 of the CSIS Act) where there are ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’ (Section 12) they are indeed threats (this is not the same as law enforcement’s ‘reasonable grounds to believe’). You perform your due diligence and if after a necessary time period you determine there is ‘no there there’, you terminate your investigation and move on to the next potential threat.

If my time at CSIS taught me anything, it is that there are vastly many more individuals who ‘talk the talk’ than ‘walk the walk’. This means simply that most people who ‘sound’ like violent extremists are nothing of the sort and have neither the intention nor the capability to do anything violent. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but that is the topic for another blog!

These days we read all about how many people are active, for instance, on right wing extremist Websites and the numbers are scary: tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions! All these individuals are painted as potential risks to carry out violence and mayhem. What if this analysis is wrong?

I think it is.

A very interesting opinion piece was carried in last Saturday’s (September 5) Globe and Mail by University of Miami’s Associate Professor Joseph Uscinski. He wrote, for example, that the conviction that conspiracy theories (not in themselves violent but possible precursors to the use of violence by a small coterie of believers) are becoming ‘more prevalent’ is based on what he called ‘feelings, guesses and impressions’. He noted, for instance, that claims that the right wing QAnon ‘movement’ has reached a ‘fevered pitch’, and is becoming ‘mainstream’ and is ‘growing’ are not backed up by public opinion polling. So, there does not appear to be ‘any there there’. Or at least not yet.

Professor Uscinski’s comments are largely in relation to the role social media plays in all this. But the larger importance here is that what many see as threats multiplying out of control are nothing of the sort. Yes, there are real threats and these must be held in check, but no these actors are not about to ‘take over’. Real threats remain the purview of the few, not the many, and certainly not the majority.

Just because a particularly hateful tweet or post gets gazillions of ‘likes’ does not translate into gazillions of threat actors chomping at the bit to kill and maim. Sometimes a like is just a like after all. It does not indicate that the ‘liker’ is going to drive a car into a crowd, or carry a gun to a protest, or strap on a suicide vest and walk through a market. All these are real of course, but thankfully rare.

We need at all times to keep threat in perspective. The best placed ones to take care of it are, all biases aside, security intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as those who specialise in these arcane corners of human activity. We are not well served by those screaming from the rooftops that the sky is falling.

What we need is more sober analysis and data-driven considerations, not a bunch of Chicken Littles.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.

Phil Gurski is the Director of the Security Program at the University of Ottawa and a former Middle East/terrorism analyst at CSE and CSIS. 


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