New Canadian Media

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

The Globe and Mail featured a fascinating story in its weekend edition (August 12) on suicides in Toronto in which people throw themselves in front of subway cars. This has to be a particularly gruesome way to take one’s life and I really feel for the drivers of the subway.  I have heard that they go through serious trauma at having been witness to a death for which they bear no responsibility but in which they play a critical role. 

From the article I learned that:

  • There have been more than 1,400 suicides and suicide attempts in the Toronto subway system since it opened in 1954.  This works out to approximately 22 a year or two a month.
  • There are no ‘obvious links’ tying together the worst stations.
  • It is impossible to determine what drove the poor souls to take their own lives or why they chose the particular station where the deed was done.
  • The worst stations over the past 25 years are very different from one another: a mix of high density ones, less-used ones and even one in a ritzy part of Toronto.
  • According to a psychiatrist who works on suicide prevention with the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) suicide prevention is inherently difficult.
  • Suicide by train remains a rare event.
  • One teen who committed suicide in April 2015 was described as smart, sociable, and active, got good grades and was a competitive swimmer.  Her family only realised she was in pain and felt unable to ask for outside help after they read some of her private writing following her death. 

Why am I talking about suicide prevention in a terrorist blog??  Because as I read the article I saw many parallels with 'violent radicalisation’.  Allow me to explain.

Like subway suicide attempts, radicalisation to violence is rare. I would not go so far as to put a number like twice a month on the incidence rate but it is a relatively infrequent event.  Yes it only takes one violent extremist to cause pain and destruction, but there is zero evidence to suggest we are dealing with a pandemic in Canada.

Analogous to suicide,  we cannot reduce violent radicalisation to a small number of causes pointing to ‘why’ they did it.  In a way, radicalisation to violence, is just like suicide, a choice and not something imposed from outside.  The same tired old ‘explanations’ – alienation, poverty, discrimination, psychological illness – keep getting hauled out and none of them are satisfactory or comprehensive.

The ‘where’ of radicalisation varies as well.  In the mid-2000s the Salaheddin Islamic Centre in Scarborough, east of Toronto, was a ‘hotbed’.  Calgary also saw a disproportionate number of foreign fighters join Islamic State.  None of this is necessarily helpful in predicting the next ‘wave’ of violent extremism.  People from ‘high density downtown neighbourhoods’ as well as the ‘well-heeled parts of north Toronto’ can embrace violent extremism.  There is no ‘vaccine’ for suicide or radicalisation.

Sometimes those who opt to become violent extremists show every sign of being ‘normal’: successful, well-adjusted, popular people with promising futures like that teen in Toronto.  It is important to get at the hidden signs to determine if there are things happening under the surface that should cause concern.  I have always maintained that there are ALWAYS signs, if you know what to look for. It is this belief that led me to write my first book The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization and terrorism in the West (Rowman and Littlefield 2015). 

I have found analogies to be a useful learning instrument and I hope that this post helps you understand a little more about violent radicalisation.  It is also fascinating that seemingly disparate issues like suicide and violent extremism have a lot in common.  After all, according to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;  there is nothing new under the sun”.  Maybe we should bear that in mind when we try to understand phenomena like violent radicalisation and terrorism.


 Phil Gurski's latest book The Lesser Jihads: Bringing the Islamist extremism fight to the world is available for pre-order on Amazon. 

Published in Commentary

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Sometimes, small things point to large changes.

During my short visit last week to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of that country’s leading political scientists to talk about terrorism and PVE – i.e. Preventing Violent Extremism, the newest iteration of CVE – Countering Violent Extremism.

We had a wide-ranging chat in his book-lined office and I also learned that he had studied at Carleton University in Ottawa just before I became a sessional instructor in linguistics at that institution.  Small world indeed. Our conversation was very illuminating, especially when it came to the topic of a shift in Islamic influence in Bangladesh.

So, what was that ‘small thing’?  You may see this as insignificant, but I think it speaks volumes.  There is apparently a tendency in Bangladesh these days to replace the everyday phrase ‘khoda hafez’ (literally ‘may God protect you’ but colloquially used to mean ‘goodbye’) with ‘allah hafez’. 

The difference, of course, is the substitution of the Arabic word for God (‘Allah’) for the Persian one (‘khoda’). 

This tiny shift is nothing less than a sign of the invasion of conservative, intolerant Sunni Islam into the former East Pakistan (more on that later).

The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.

Bangladeshi Islam has traditionally been Sunni of the Hanafi school with an important influence from Sufi interpretations of the faith.  The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.  Several terrorist attacks and assassinations have been attributed to Salafi jihadists in the past few years. 

The victims have come from communities which the Salafis see as enemies (in truth, a very long list): Sufis, Shia, non-Muslims (Hindus, Christians), gays…  Perhaps the most serious attack – in what has been called Bangladesh’s ‘9/11’ – was the July 1, 2016 massacre of non-Muslims at a cafe in Dhaka, an operation masterminded by a Canadian terrorist from Windsor, Ontario.

The uptick in violence has many Banglas worried.  Everyone with whom I spoke – government agencies, the UN, academics – are all concerned about where this violence is headed. 

And, it is not only among the Salafi jihadis that violence is being promoted.  Political parties too are jumping on the bandwagon.  It does not help that power in the country has been seesawing over the past decade between two female-led parties that routinely gang up on the other once in office.  The current government, led by the Awami League, has also given in to some outrageous ideas by radical Islamists, such as a demand to remove a statue of Lady Justice from the grounds of the Supreme Court. This ‘dalliance’ with extremists is not helpful.

The apparent sanction of violence in the name of religion threatens to lead to more deaths. 

Bangladesh faces a difficult decision in the run up to national elections next year.  The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can continue to do deals with the Salafis in order to court their support, but this will only cause more hardship and maintain the transformation of tolerant Bangladeshi Islam to intolerant Salafism. 

At the same time, the regime has to confront the serious Islamist extremist (i.e. terrorist) threat, but must do so while keeping human rights in mind.  The elite Rapid Action Battalion, a counter terrorism body, has been criticised by some rights groups for extra-judicial killings and disappearances.

Bangladesh was born in a bloody civil war in 1971 when the former East Pakistan split from what we now call Pakistan.  The powers that be in Islamabad were not too happy with the independence desires of the eastern half of a country – geographically separated by India in between – and engaged in a slaughter whose victims are estimated at anywhere from 300,000 to three million people. 

In fact, trials of those responsible for the massacre are still being held these days.  It would be truly tragic if another wave of violence is on the horizon. 

But back to that change in ‘goodbye’.  Salafis hate the Shia more than any other group and believe that the only good Shia is a dead one.  Their intolerance has even extended to rejecting a Bangla phrase that contains a Farsi (Persian) word (recall that most Persians are Shia Muslims) for an Arabic one (NB linguistically this  makes little sense: Bangla and Farsi are related Indo-European languages whereas Arabic is a non-related Semitic language). 

This may sound silly and trivial, but sometimes we do have to pay attention to the small things in life.


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, 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
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