Extremism expert: ’We shouldn’t be shocked’

A Q&A with expert Phil Gurski, a longtime analyst at Canada’s spy agency, on the allure of terrorist groups like ISIS
PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 14: The Eiffel Tower is closed for security reasons on November 14, 2015 in Paris, France. At least 120 people have been killed and over 200 injured, 80 of which seriously, following a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital. (Xavier Laine/Getty Images)
Police officers arrive at the scene of a shooting in Paris, France, 13 November 2015. A shooting occurred in a restaurant late 13 November in Paris, with newspaper Liberation reporting several dead. Explosions have also been reported near the Stade de France.  (YOAN VALAT/EPA/CP)
Police officers arrive at the scene of a shooting in Paris, France, 13 November 2015. A shooting occurred in a restaurant late 13 November in Paris, with newspaper Liberation reporting several dead. Explosions have also been reported near the Stade de France. (YOAN VALAT/EPA/CP)

Long before the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for Friday’s coordinated massacres in Paris, the terrorist group had called for that very brand of attack against western targets—Canada included. Parliament Hill gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was among those who appeared to answer that call last October, declaring in a pre-strike cell-phone video: “We are retaliating, the Mujahedin of this world.” Two days earlier, a fellow Muslim convert, Martin Couture-Rouleau, unleashed his own ISIS-inspired “lone-wolf” attack: driving his car over two uniformed soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., killing one.

Numerous other Canadians have traveled overseas to join the ranks of Islamic State militants in Syria and northern Iraq—and if the reports are accurate, more than a dozen have been killed in battle. In the meantime, the country’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), says it’s keeping a close eye on nearly 130 “foreign fighters”—including 80 who have since returned home—while the RCMP has launched more than 60 criminal investigations targeting radicals who have either joined, or attempted to join, terrorist groups outside our borders.

In other words, the ISIS threat is nothing new to Canada’s anti-terror apparatus. As the National Post reported last week, border agents were recently warned to be on the lookout for “disillusioned, traumatized foreign fighters” trying to sneak back home.

An expert on violent extremism, Phil Gurski spent three decades as a strategic analyst in the secretive world of Canadian intelligence, including 15 years at CSIS. Now the president of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting, he is the author of The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-Inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West.

Q: You were actually in France yesterday, and took off just a few hours before the attacks?

A: I was in France for two weeks with my eldest daughter on vacation. I decided to take a couple weeks off after my book was published, and we were touring all the World War I and World War II sites, seeing where Canadians fought. We left Paris at 1 o’clock yesterday afternoon. I found out about the attacks when we landed, and the more we’re hearing, it’s absolutely horrendous.

Q: We can be horrified about what happened. But should we be shocked?

A: No. This isn’t the only attack. We have short memories. It was a decade ago we had a massive attack on the metro system in Madrid: 191 killed and almost 1,600 wounded. Two years later, we had the attack in London: 50 killed and 700 wounded. So we shouldn’t be shocked. We should be horrified, but we shouldn’t be shocked. Certainly the group that is likely behind it had warned us. They said it’s going to come, so when it actually happens we shouldn’t be surprised.

Q: As information continues to trickle out, what will you specifically be looking for?

A: It’s 99 per cent certain this was the Islamic State, but it’s not 100 per cent. So what I’m looking for, as a former intelligence analyst, is definitive proof. Can they provide us information that indicates quite clearly they were behind it? Do they have names? Do they know where these guys lived? Do they have photographic proof that they trained them? Do they have time-stamped information that shows that they were with them on such a date? That would show me, quite convincingly, that they were in touch with these people and that they had some kind of a directional role. But as it stands now, it could range anywhere from Islamic State-directed to Islamic State-inspired to homegrown radicalization—and anything in between.

Q: We certainly saw that with Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau. They were inspired by more than directed by.

A: In actual fact, the Islamic State is saying that very thing: ‘Don’t wait for us to tell you what to do. You know what to do. Here are some ideas.’ And we’ve seen the propaganda: ‘Don’t come here. We don’t need you here. I mean, it would be lovely to have you, but you’re just as effective there as you are here.’ It’s like the Nike form of terrorism: ‘Just Do It.’

Related: Why ISIS is more dangerous than ever

Q: Again, we have endured “lone wolf” attacks. But when people see such carnage on their television screens, they inevitably ask: Is it only a matter of time before this kind of coordinated, mass-casualty attack happens in Canada?

A: That’s a great question. I think, thankfully, the highly organized, highly planned attacks seem to be few and far between. But there were two things that struck me about last night: the scale of organization was remarkable, and the diversity in the targets.

Q: We have heard a lot about threat levels over the past 24 hours. Reports say Britain may raise its official threat level from “severe” to “attack imminent.” Do we have similar levels in Canada?

A: There is a threat level. The Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC) is responsible in Canada for issuing threat levels. They monitor the information coming in, they work with partners like CSIS and the RCMP, and they say: ‘OK, what are we seeing? Do we see concrete intelligence of attack planning? Do we see concrete intelligence of something else?’ And they assess that information to determine: ‘Does this warrant a rise in the level? Do we see an imminent attack? Do we see clear signs that something is being planned?’ Then they use a method to determine whether the threat is high, medium or low.

Q: What is it at now?

A: The last time I checked it was at medium.

Q: Is that typical?

A: I think generally speaking, in this post 9-11 environment, it would rarely go below medium. You’re well aware, that we’ve had six plots in Canada over the past 15 years: four were foiled, two were successful. We’ve had any number of Canadians go to join groups like Islamic State or Al-Shabab or other groups like al-Qaeda. So I would be surprised that the level goes below medium anytime soon. What would warrant it going higher? I don’t have access to that information, but it strikes me that something a little more concrete—if you get some kind of intelligence that says someone is actually planning something—that would probably bump it up. But there is a whole process it goes through to determine those levels.

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Q: What kind of ramped-up activity goes on inside CSIS and the RCMP after a major attack like this. Are you double-checking targets you’ve been shadowing?

A: Absolutely. First and foremost, what you want to do is go through what you know with a fine-toothed comb to see if anything was missed. Was there something we didn’t pay attention to, or that at the time wasn’t clear? Obviously, we want to help our friends and partners in determining who these guys were, who they had contact with, what they were sharing online, etc. The government, and the people of Canada, also want to make sure this doesn’t happen here, so you go through everything. ‘What do we know? What investigations do we have ongoing right now? What have we learned? What have we not learned? What do we still need to find out about?’ Trust me, it’s never a dull day. But after an event of this enormity, it’s even less dull.

Q: You mentioned the overall success rate, despite the two attacks last October. We’ve seen high-profile plots disrupted in the past, from the “Toronto 18” to the Via Rail case, as well as many other cases that the public never hears about. How confident should Canadians be in their intelligence community, which by its nature is ultra-secretive?

A: I think Canadians should acknowledge that the job CSIS and the RCMP and its other partners are doing is phenomenal. The vast majority of plots have been thwarted. We had the two attacks last October, they were tragic, and we should never forget Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo. But at the same time, we have to congratulate ourselves that we’ve only had two attacks in the past decade-and-a-half, and those two attacks were very minor in nature. We’re not talking about 200 people dead, like what happened in Paris or in Mumbai or in Madrid. Again, I’m not belittling the deaths of two members of the Canadian Armed Forces, but let’s put it in perspective. We haven’t been faced with a large-scale attack. That’s not to say we won’t; I can’t say if it’s likely or unlikely. But we have to acknowledge that the agencies we have, they do their jobs very, very well, they do it very professionally, they do it efficiently—and because of them, we’re safer.

Q: In a liberal democracy, must we simply accept the fact that no matter how sophisticated our counter-terrorism program is, no matter how many resources are put into it, you can’t see and stop everything?

A: 100 per cent. I’ve already seen the term posted within hours of last night: intelligence failure. ‘The French missed it.’ People who say those things never worked in intelligence, I can tell you that. To me, it’s unfair to expect perfection from intelligence agencies when you don’t expect the same level of perfection elsewhere. We don’t expect law enforcement to stop every murder, we don’t expect doctors to save every life, we don’t expect plumbers to fix every leak. The expectation is that you’re going to bat 1.000, and that is unrealistic. If a lot are getting through, you may want to look at what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. But here in Canada we’ve been incredibly successful in intelligence-gathering and investigations, to the point where these people are well-observed, and at the end of the day arrests are made. So I think Canadians should accept the reality that terrorism happens in the same way that car accidents happen, in the same way that murders happen: you do your utmost to stop them from happening, but to expect perfection is simply unreasonable.

Q: But people do expect perfection. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on anti-terrorism measures, and Canadians expect to be safe.

A: They do. But again—and I don’t mean to sound elitist or arrogant here—but you have to realize what working in an intelligence environment is like. First of all, it’s not about connecting dots. That is the stupidest analogy out there. It’s not like when you’re in kindergarten and you’ve got a piece of paper with 20 dots on it and you join them to make a pumpkin. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got masses and masses and masses of information. We call it ‘drinking from a fire hose,’ because that is the reality. Any given day, you’re inundated with information from a variety of sources and you’ve got to determine the reliability and the the accuracy. And then you’ve got to say: ‘OK, what more do we need to know? Can we get more from that particular source of information?’ And you’ve got finite resources. You’ve got so many people on the ground. You’ve got so many Federal Court warrants. With finite resources you get finite work—and I don’t know why people expect us to do it infinitely.

Q: We’ve seen Canadians go off to join ISIS, and we’ve seen Canadians inspired by ISIS. What is the allure?

A: It’s multiple. Some are simply horrified by what the Assad government is doing: they’re killing their own people with barrel bombs, there are people starving, refugees, families being slaughtered. Some of them buy into the ideology that the West isn’t a good place to live for a Muslim, and that a true Muslim has to leave and go to an Islamic country—and what better country than Islamic State, because they’ve established a caliphate. The caliphate is a draw—even if it’s fake, even if it’s not real. They can claim: ‘We have territory. We have a regime. We have a system of laws. We have a system of banking.’ They can say: ‘Look, we are the true Islamic State, and if you a true Muslim you should come and join us.’ For some people, it can just be a sense of adventure. And for some people, there is also a sense of the end of time. The Islamic State is big on apocalyptic messaging, and some people are inspired by it. ‘If I’m going to die, what better place to die than on the battlefield where good finally defeats evil?’

Q: What is the lifespan of this Islamist threat facing the west?

A: Let me get my crystal ball out. I’ve always said this threat had 20 to 50 years left in it—and now I’ll say 10 to 40, because I’ve been saying this for ten years now. It’s not going away. We certainly saw the al-Qaeda threat appear to wane post-9/11 because of the invasion of Afghanistan. We kind of mopped up al-Qaeda—we thought—and then the Islamic State came. Where did the Islamic State come from? The invasion of Iraq. So these things can come from directions you don’t anticipate. The ideology doesn’t seem to be on the wane. The ideology seems to be quite strong. Whether or not the Islamic State is going to last another six months, I have no idea. The attacks in Paris may lead to an incredible international response that just decimates these sons of bitches, but the ideology will still be there—and that is the thing that’s worrisome. If the ideology is still existing and still appealing to some people—for whatever reason—then you can get the next stage.

Q: Reports have surfaced today that at least one of the Paris attackers may have arrived amid the wave of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. Poland is now saying it will not accept Syrian refugees in light of the Paris attacks, and some believe Canada, poised to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year, should rethink its plan. What do you say to those people?

A: From my perspective, they are abusing a tragedy for their own purposes. I’ve said it on my blog quite frequently: we have to do it right, and CSIS is the agency responsible for screening refugees under its legislative mandate. It will be a challenge to do that, but I have every confidence in the job that CSIS does. The vast majority of people who were radicalized in Canada and took part in plots in Canada were born and raised here. They didn’t come here through the immigration system, so shutting the doors does not preclude radicalization. To me, I find it an unfortunate and hateful response to what happened in Paris. Is it possible that one [terrorist] is going to come through? Absolutely. As I said, you can’t expect perfection from our security and law enforcement agencies. But this country was built on immigration, and saying we can’t [bring in refugees] because of an attack on Paris is unjustified.

Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that Canadians should consider as they follow the news coming out of Paris?

A: Canadians should go to bed tonight safe and secure that, generally speaking, this is a safe country to live in. We’re not under any kind of existential threat to what Canada has stood for and always will stand for. Put your trust in the security agencies. They do a damn good job.

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