Dec 03, 2017

Yes, the threat from returning jihadis may be small but it is very real

And so the debate continues.  Arguments range from the alarming view that those who fought with terrorist groups  like Islamic State will return to wreak havoc and death on an epic scale to an Alfred E. Newmanesque ‘What me worry?’ response.  As with pretty well everything in life reality is somewhere between those two extremes.

The Globe and Mail devoted an entire editorial to the subject of returning foreign fighters yesterday and its take is very clear right from the outset: “Don’t exaggerate the threat from returning Islamic State fighters“.  The paper takes those who seem to be panicking to task and criticises the ‘enforcement’ approach, stating that ‘studies’ show that ‘counseling and therapy’ for returnees can be effective.  They even quote two people, terrorism scholar Amarnath Amarasingam and legal scholar Craig Forcese. to add to their skepticism over the government’s take on the problem.

This op-ed piece misses the point and by doing so needlessly underestimates the threat.  Normally we hear of inflated threat, and there are certainly those who have created too much fear on this issue, but here the opposite is true.

It is unfortunate that the Globe did not talk to anyone actually working – or who has worked – the foreign fighter problem.  Messrs. Amarasingam and Forcese are both very smart people and, full disclosure, acquaintances of mine, but their views suffer from two important shortcomings.  Neither has ever worked in counter terrorism or intelligence and neither has access to classified, current information.  I say this not to dismiss their views nor to present mine as superior – although I did work counter terrorism/intelligence for more than thirty years and did have access to a tonne of secret info (but alas no longer do), thus being aware of both the power of intelligence and the fact that in areas like terrorism most things are never known publicly.  The two scholars do a good analysis based on what they have seen but must acknowledge, using an iceberg analogy, that there is a lot under the waterline they will never cast eyes on.

The simple truth is that the threat from returning foreign fighters was never going to be an existential one to Canada.  Our numbers are relatively small (hundreds) in comparison with our closest allies, let alone what Tunisia and the Central Asian nations have to deal with (thousands).  And it is true that of those that stupidly elected to join groups like IS a good percentage will die in theatre, some will go elsewhere (see my latest book The Lesser Jihads on this eventuality) and some will come home.  Of this last cohort some will be disillusioned, some will be very radicalised and recruit others to the cause, some will come home for a change of underwear before heading to the next jihad and some will carry out terrorism as we saw in Paris in November 2015.  And yes some of those we need to worry about will be women and children, as the head of German intelligence just rightfully noted.

In the end it does not matter whether the number who have returned is 10, 60 or 100 (or more).  Regardless of how many make it back the threat is real and we need to deal with it.  CSIS and the RCMP will be sorely tasked to keep tabs on the really dangerous ones.  Just determining who poses a threat is the first challenge: someone who says they are ‘disillusioned’ may be lying.  There is no algorithm that will reliably help place the right person in the right category. As for ‘rehabilitation’ it is a grand idea in principle but no one knows what works in the long term.  Mr. Forcese correctly points out that prosecution will be a challenge, but that does not mean we should not try.  The Crown may lose cases, which it is loth to do, but the experience will add to jurisprudence and lead to better legal strategies.

Mark my words, we will see a plot devised by a returnee or small group of returnees in Canada over the next few years.  We must hope that our protectors are on to the jihadis before they strike so that no one is killed or wounded.  And yes we must consider the ‘softer’ options but be realistic regarding their outcomes.  Most importantly, we have to stop seeing returnees as victims: they are Canadians who consciously chose to join a terrorist group, irrespective of whether they took up a gun, planted an IED, beheaded a man, or just ‘drove the bus’.

The unfortunate reality is that even if the threat is ‘small’, one is too many.  Canadians will not take solace in the fact that the government did what it could to manage the danger.  A failure is a failure no matter who was at fault.  The real pressure is on CSIS and the RCMP to stop the next attack and I know that there are critics waiting in the wings to pounce on any misstep.  By all means let’s not act as if the sky is falling but at the same time agree that there are clouds on the horizon.

  • Ken

    Phil – always great blog posts, much appreciated. Question: what’s your opinion on Canada (or any country) saying publicly “We can’t have a zero-risk policy. One will probably get through the net. Therefore, Canada accepts that every 18 months we will have one terror attack. If it’s only one and others are foiled, we define that as successful.” Or do you think we zero-risk is possible?

    • Phil Gurski

      Thanks Ken! No, zero risk is impossible at least with the system of gvt and society we have. Our guys will stop most but not all plots: October 2014 demonstrated that.

      • Ken

        Thanks for the response Phil. Not sure about you, but I get the impression that citizens expect zero-risk. And then when an attack happens, there’s shock and blame is attributed to the wrong people. I wonder, if society were to reject zero-risk, perhaps they/we would be more resilient. Then we wouldn’t succumb to the hate-mongering which leads to cascading polarization etc.