Tony Clement, sexting and the NSICOP

This piece appeared  in The Hill Times on November 19, 2018.

I imagine that most Canadians are already very tired of this story and yet here I am weighing in on it, from the perspective of national security.  To sum up this debacle, not that I think anyone does not know the salacious details, MP Tony Clement engaged in what was first a one-off sharing of sexually-explicit material online but which quickly morphed into a series of inappropriate actions.  It also seems that he has been subject to extortion/blackmail on at least two occasions and to his credit he appears to have alerted the necessary authorities fairly quickly, although the old adage ‘once burned twice shy’ did not give him pause to reconsider his actions.

A lot of the discussion over the past few days has centred on two primary aspects of these incidents: what an MP thought he was doing by sending naughty pictures over the Internet and what an MP who serves on the National Security Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), the body that oversees Canada’s spy agencies and hence had access to very sensitive material, thought he was doing by sending naughty pictures over the Internet and thereby opened himself up to extortion.  I will focus exclusively on the latter and leave the former to the moralists.

NSICOP was created in November of 2017 following the passing of Bill C-22, the “National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians Act”.  Mr. Clement was one of eight MPs (in addition to three senators) named to the committee at that time (he has since left NSICOP).  This body is charged with the oversight of some 17 federal government agencies which have a role in national security, including the three heavyweights: CSIS, CSE and the RCMP.  Canada was the last of the so-called ‘5 eyes’ countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US) to create such a review agency.  In light of Mr. Clement’s moves some are questioning the future of NSICOP.

The situation is not as dire as some think but the impact on NSICOP is not irrelevant either.  Firstly, there is no sign in the public domain that Mr. Clement was targeted because of his membership on the committee, was asked by the extortionist for sensitive intelligence or handed over such information.  Secondly, although I am not privy to what NSICOPpers discuss, I’d be very surprised if it consisted of the machinery of sensitive intelligence operations.  Allow me to explain.  Security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are very protective, for good reasons, about two aspects of their jobs: sources and methods.  Keeping both of these secret are the sine non qua of the spy world: disclosing either, which is done rarely and only when absolutely necessary, is disastrous as it leads to losses on both fronts (human sources get killed and adversaries move to other, more secure methods of communicating).  I doubt whether the parliamentary attendees at NSICOP meetings get into those kinds of details.  There is also the overarching ‘need to know’ principle: if you do not need to know something, you don’t.

Still, the committee has taken a hit.  A member has acted egregiously and put both the reputation and mandate of the body at risk.  Spies and cops are already loath to talk about their work to outsiders and Mr. Clement’s escapades could make them more loath.  That would be unfortunate as NSICOP is a necessary group that sheds some much needed light into an otherwise dark world.

Overall, this affair should tell Parliament and the NSICOP secretariat that perhaps a review of security clearances  is in order.  Members should have to undergo the same level of scrutiny I did when I worked for CSIS: it is unclear whether that transpired.  As Mr. Clement’s actions appear to have predated his nomination to the committee it is incumbent on those who selected  him to have known about them and their potential harm to national security.

In the end it does not appear that irreparable damage was caused to Canada’s national security apparatus. The whole thing is embarrassing, yes, but not fatal.  I cannot imagine Canada’s 5 eyes partners are too happy with all this – after all they share with us on the understanding we will duly protect their intelligence – but the alliance is not on the verge of dissolution.  Nevertheless, changes are required to ensure to the extent possible that a repeat is not on the horizon.

Removing citizenship from terrorists is fraught with difficulties

As we continue to freak out about what to do with those of our citizens who stupidly chose to leave the comforts of our lands to join terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda (AQ), Al Shabaab and others, or planned terrorist acts in our backyards, we still need to follow our laws and respect our various charters and constitutions.  Make no mistake, these people are terrorists and guilty of associating with other terrorists, irrespective of what they did or did not do while ‘over there’ or in our countries and must be punished in accordance with whatever laws we already have on the books.  I am no fan of ‘just bring them home’ and reintegrate them into our societies or just ‘de-radicalise’ them.  Nevertheless, it is really hard to collect evidence overseas or domestically that will stand the very real and very justified high standards of most of our courts: that is after all what separates us from the terrorists.

I guess that faced with the aforementioned difficulties and public disgust/demand for justice, some nations are proposing ‘solutions’ that may satisfy such demands on the surface but which are in reality very problematic and may cause more harm than good.  My dear friends in Australia appear to be going down that road.

The Australian Prime Minister stated the other day that his government was considering stripping the citizenship of residents, even if they were born in Australia.  But that is not the end of it.  Normally, a country can elect to remove your citizenship if you have another one on which you can fall back: rendering someone stateless is frowned upon.   What the Aussie leader is proposing is to remove citizenship from those who only have one (i.e. Australian) where “they could ‘reasonably’ be expected to gain citizenship in another country through their parents or grandparents”.  Read that again. Australia might take away your Australian status and force you to find another citizenship tied to that of your parents or grandparents (or great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents, depending on how long your family has been in country).  I am guessing there is no guarantee you will be granted such citizenship.

Is this even legal?  There will definitely be many, many challenges over this.  What if you cannot obtain such ‘familial’ citizenship?  What then?  Are you forced to wander airport terminals a la Tom Hanks in The Terminal??  I hope not.

I get why PM Scott Morrison is pissed off.  Australia has been hit with a disproportionate number of Islamist extremist plots and attacks since 9/11 (probably significantly more than Canada on a per capita basis).  And he may be right that communities are not doing enough to stop radicalisation to violence or report concerns to the intelligence services and police.  But this is a solution that is wrong-headed.

Deporting those born in Australia may ‘feel good’ but it does precisely nothing to stop terrorism in that country (aside, of course from getting rid of one terrorist).  These criminals radicalised in Australia since that is the only nation they have known.  Punting one or two does not undermine the radicalisation conveyor belt: others will replace those removed.  Different actions – investigations, working with communities, trust building, etc. – are required to stem the flow at source.

Besides, is is right to deport someone to a land they know nothing of?  I am third-generation Polish/Ukrainian Canadian.  Were I to do something awful should Canada send me to a country I have never lived in, where I do not speak the language and where I am not guaranteed a welcome, let alone citizenship?  Would Poland and/or Ukraine even accept me (Australia may want to look into international law in this regard)?

We had a similar debate years ago in Canada over gang members who were from Jamaican families.  The government wanted to deport them to the Caribbean even though some had probably been born here.  In any event, getting rid of one gangbanger does nothing to the problem of why we have gangs in the first place in Canada.

So, no, this is not a good strategy for my friends Down Under to adopt.  Counter terrorism and counter radicalisation will continue to challenge us and we need to get smarter at what we do and how we do it, from early identification and intervention to investigation, arrest, trial, incarceration and in-prison programming.  Deportation is not a solution, no matter how much it appeals to the ‘base’.

When intelligence agencies get it wrong cut them some slack please

For those who do not know this I am a hockey goaltender.  I am not a very good one, mind you, but I love playing ‘net’.  This is of course an absurd attitude as a goalie in hockey has to do everything in his or her power to get the body between a hard, vulcanised rubber puck and the goal to prevent it from going in.  Most sane people do not willingly and voluntarily do this.  Hence, my sanity is justifiably under question.

My favourite line when it comes to professional NHL goaltenders was that of the great Jacques Plante (who thank God invented the first mask we all now use!) who when asked to describe what it was like to be a goalie at the highest level in the world said: “How would you like a job where when you made a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?”

Welcome to the world of security intelligence.

Those of us who toiled for our respective spy agencies (I worked for both CSIS and CSE in Canada) do so in the shadows.  And for good reason as the methods and sources we use to collect intelligence on a variety of threats and issues must remain hidden: if they become public they tend to disappear, forcing to go back to the drawing board to find more.  I know that the average Canadian probably finds this frustrating, but this is the way the business has always worked and will continue to work.

When you work in this industry your successes are rarely made known openly.  Government officials will (sometimes) acknowledge the contribution that intelligence made to a decision and we have to be satisfied with that.

Our failures, on the other hand, are usually front page news.  This is precisely what is unfolding in the UK today as MI5 (the British Security Service) has been faulted by the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee for moving “too slowly” to establish how dangerous last year’s Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi really was (22 people died in the terrorist attack).  Abedi had returned to the UK from Libya where he had apparently learned his bomb-making skills and MI5 was blamed for not fully learning lessons from attacks dating back 13 years.  The committee also said that the spy agency had to figure out how to “join the dots” in its investigations on suspects.

I’ll get back to “join the dots” in a second but first allow me to rise to the defence of my British friends.  MI5 has identified 23,000 people of interest when it comes to terrorism.  23,000!!!  No, they do not all pose the same level of threat but if anyone tells you they have a full proof system to determine the ONE guy who should be watched above all that person is lying to you (and probably has a product to sell: this morning I saw one such claim by an Israeli company that says it can pick otherwise unknown terrorists out of a crowd using technology that can determine ‘terrorist personality’ based solely on facial image – as if!).  The simple truth is that no security service – and MI5 is a very good one – can prioritise 23,000 potential terrorists.  My heart goes out to my UK cousins.

Secondly, while I agree that civilian or government oversight of security services is a must in a democracy, I do take issue with non-professionals weighing in on what these services should or should not do when it comes to their operations.  I am OK with mandates and rule of law, but no one with no on the ground experience has any business telling spies how to do their jobs.  The fact that the UK committee brought out the old line about ‘connecting the dots’ just shows how woefully ignorant the members are.  I have made this argument before and do not wish to bore my readers with it again, suffice to say that intelligence is not akin to kindergarten drawings.

I am not trying to say that an intelligence agency cannot get better at what it does.  We all learn from experience and from our ‘mistakes’.  But to erroneously frame what went wrong does not help.  Like a goalie, having a red light go on whenever one gets past you and have 22,000 (or 22,000,000) people call you losers and incompetent does not lead to better practices.



Determining the reliability of your news sources relies on you

If you live in the National Capital Region of Canada and have never been to one of the public talks organised by The Panel or – horror of horrors! – never heard of The Panel you really need to do your homework.  The Panel is an Ottawa-based organisation that hosts two live events each year to talk about issues that matter to Canadians.  It usually has a media host and a panel of experts, and allows those in the audience to chime in with their thoughts – live! – via social media.  It is worth looking into.

I have just returned from the latest offering, on data and democracy, moderated by Global News’ Ottawa Bureau Chief Mercedes Stephenson.  It covered a wide swath of topics, not nearly in enough detail alas, ranging from foreign interference in our elections process, fake news, whether governments are doing enough and what we as citizens can and should do to protect one of our most precious institutions: the ability to choose those who will represent us in Parliament.

It was all very, very interesting but one topic stood out for me: how we get our information – i.e. news – these days.  The reality, which was not a surprise to me but nevertheless still struck me, is that an awful lot of people are getting their news feeds manipulated through social media platforms like FaceBook.  In other words, FaceBook decides, based on some algorithm which draws from what you search for and consume online, what news sources you see.  This is of course much easier than having to look yourself.  Presto!  You get your news delivered to you effortlessly.

Here is the problem though.  I may not be an expert but I am pretty sure FaceBook or other providers don’t give a rat’s posterior how accurate the news they select (or the algorithm selects) for you is.  They see what turns your crank and give you more.  If you like the New York Times you get more NYT I guess.  If you like The Onion (or the Canadian equivalent The Beaverton) you get more of that. If Fox News (fair and balanced) is your preference…

Does anyone else see the danger of this?  A social media company is deciding – yes, yes through an algorithm based on your practice – what you see and makes it so easy that you have little desire to go looking for other sources on your own. You consume what is sent to you and you cannot help but have that selection determine your views on any given matter.

The only really effective way to wade through the myriad sources of information available these days is to a) look for yourself rather than rely on FaceBook and b) learn which sources are good and which are bad.  You also need to get out of your comfort bubble and read/listen to sources with which you disagree: echo chambers are not conducive to mature decision making.

As a former intelligence analyst tasked with collecting, analysing and distributing information to advise government, I and my many, many colleagues over the decades knew that our advice was only as good as the quality of the sources we had.  That is why we made so much effort to determine source reliability (SIGINT, HUMINT or whatever).  Bad sources give bad intelligence which lead to bad policies and actions.  Does anyone recall CIA Director George Tenet’s ‘slam dunk’ over the US conviction, derived from a wonky source, that Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction?  Look where that got us!

When I worked at CSIS I spent hours every day reading what my colleagues had gathered and always asked myself: is this true? Does the source have a hidden agenda behind what s/he is providing?  Can we test the source?  Or, even better, can we get the same information/intelligence from multiple/independent sources, thus upping its reliability?  Now that I no longer have access to classified sources I try to do the same with the open media I scan, asking the same questions.  Sure, it is a helluva lot harder than just getting FaceBook to feed me but it is much more reliable (and satisfying) to do it my way.

As members of a functioning democracy we have a responsibility to stay informed, challenge what we hear and see and take nothing for granted so that we can make the best decisions and hold our  leaders to account.  If you are one of the many who get your news handpicked (machine-picked) for you by an algorithm you might want to ask yourself why you have chosen this path.  After all, an educated and knowledgeable electorate is a better electorate.

The upside of foreign fighter policy Down Under

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on November 12, 2018.

Australia and Canada are very similar countries in many ways.  Both former British colonies, both (relatively) open to immigration, both members of the 5 eyes intelligence community.  I have visited Australia on many occasions and I must admit that I always feel at home there – even if their accent is a bit off (I am quite sure they say the same about mine!).

The two countries also face a very similar threat from Islamist extremism.  There have been a few successful attacks and many foiled ones thanks to the efforts of both nations’ law enforcement and security intelligence agencies (ASIO and AFP in Australia and CSIS and the RCMP in Canada).  When it comes to the so-called ‘foreign fighter’ issue – i.e. Australians and Canadians who left to join terrorist groups primarily, but not exclusively, in Iraq and Syria (primarily but not exclusively Islamic State (IS)) – we have a similarly-sized problem.  Both nations are looking at a few hundred citizens who made this boneheaded choice.  And both are trying to figure out what to do with those who are still overseas or have returned home.

As Canada struggles with the challenge of collecting enough evidence in a war zone to charge returnees and put them away, perhaps we can learn from our friends Down Under. The Australian government has initiated what it calls a ‘Declared Area Offence’, meaning “an offence for a person to intentionally enter, or remain in, a declared area in a foreign country where the person knows, or should know, that the area is a declared area.”  Furthermore, “The (Australian) Minister for Foreign Affairs may declare an area in a foreign country if they are satisfied that a listed terrorist organisation is engaging in a hostile activity in that area. Australia’s security and intelligence agencies are responsible for providing advice to inform the Minister’s decision.  The government is concerned about Australians who travel to conflict zones and return to Australia with skills and intentions acquired from fighting or training with terrorist groups. The areas targeted by the ‘declared area’ provisions are extremely dangerous locations.”

In other words, it is an offence under Australian law to even travel to an area defined as such, irrespective of what you do there.  This would help us to rightfully ignore all the “I just drove the bus”, “I just served tea” or “I was a shoemaker” excuses that returnees declare (unbelievably with a straight face!).  The mere act of travel to a designated area would become a crime.  Some may argue that this is a violation of ‘freedom of movement’ rights but  I am pretty sure that Canadians would agree that going to Mosul in 2014 (or Al Shabaab-controlled areas of Somalia or Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan – hello Joshua Boyle!) is not just the exercise of poor judgment but indicative of a desire to join or assist in the activities of a terrorist group.

Would this kind of law fly in Canada?  Would it pass a Charter challenge?  To be honest I have no idea but I think the idea is worth pursuing.  Of course there would be much to establish.  What areas are ‘designated’?  Who decides which ones (in Australia the intelligence services play a big role – does that mean CSIS in Canada?)?  Is this a type of reverse onus law?  Are we ok with that in a system where guilt is assumed, not innocence?  When and why would an area be declared ‘undesignated’?  And I am sure there are many, many more questions.

It will be interesting to see whether this approach has legs. I have learned from a trusted source that some on Parliament Hill are taking a look at it.  This is a good thing as the current government seems to be engaged in a combination of doing nothing, doing something and ragging the puck on the issue of returnees.  In fairness, this is a very hard challenge and I for one am tired of the refrain “Just bring them home and let CSIS/the RCMP watch them” as this ‘advice’ betrays a serious lack of understanding of how these agencies do their jobs and the resources ‘just watch them’ entails.

This problem is not going away folks. More IS fighters will trickle home.  Others will leave – or try to leave – for future conflict zones (an issue I covered at great length in The Lesser Jihads).  We could do worse than examine closely what our good antipodean friends are doing.

Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst at CSIS and the Director of Security and Intelligence at the SecDev Group in Ottawa.



When an unnecessary fear of immigration begets an over-exaggerated fear of terrorism

This piece appeared  in The Ottawa Citizen (online) on November 12, 2018.

I never knew my maternal grandfather.  He emigrated to Canada in the early part of the 20th century from western Ukraine (or eastern Poland, the details on that are fuzzy) and settled in Montreal where he worked at the CPR’s Angus workshops, along with a great many other immigrants  I imagine.  He married and had four children, including my mother, and toughed it out during the Great Depression. He died in the mid-1940s.

I seldom think of him but his memory came back to me last week when I read of a new documentary “That Never Happened” by Saskatoon native Ryan Boyko which premiered at Ottawa’s Bytowne Cinema among other venues.  The film deals with the internment of thousands of Ukrainian immigrants in camps in remote areas of Canada from 1914-1920.  These men were seen as citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with which we were at war during WWI, and hence as enemies of the State.  My grandfather is believed to have been one of those internees at the Spirit Lake detention site in northern Quebec (I have a copy of my grandfather’s passport which says he was tied to the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

The round-up of thousands of Ukrainian immigrants, and the monitoring of tens of thousands more, was the product of fear: fear of the other.  In fairness, I suppose, Canada was at war and those were different times, but fear is still largely irrational and often unjustified. Nor has it gone away as there are still those who paint immigrants as threats today.  We do not have to cast our eyes to the shameful depiction by US President Trump of the thousands of desperate migrants making their way through Central America to the southern states as “terrorists and criminals” to find an example: La Meute (the ‘Wolfpack’), a racist Francophone anti-immigrant group,  is doing the same thing in Quebec regarding the irregular migrants seeking to leave an increasingly unstable US for Canada.  It is also telling that last week Prime Minister Trudeau finally issued an official apology for another egregious act against those seeking to come to Canada as a haven: the denied entry of the MS St Louis in 1939 carrying European Jews (the ship was forced to return to Europe and many of the passengers died in Nazi concentration camps).

Whatever you think of these people on the move – and there are valid concerns over how the government is dealing with, and should deal with, these migrants – what is quite clear is that they present a very low to non-existent national security threat.  Yes, it is always possible that there are unsavoury characters in the mix who may engage in criminal activities in Canada, but shrill fearmongering about a wave of terrorists seeking to sow mayhem in our cities is unsubstantiated.  US intelligence agencies, for instance, have stated publicly that Trump’s conviction that ISIS is using the cover of refugee flows to infiltrate the US is false.  In other words, the President’s own intelligence services have taken the rare step to openly tell Americans that there is no ‘there’ there, despite Trump’s demagoguery.

I am not naive nor ignorant of the real terrorist threat, having spent 15 years with CSIS as a strategic terrorism analyst and moved on to write four books on the topic.  It is always possible that malefactors use the immigration system to enter Canada and we have had examples  in the recent past.  At the same time, however, there is simply no evidence that this represents a significant risk for our country.  Our intelligence and other government organisations are on top of the matter and they will advise the proper authorities when they come across solid information about a real risk so that action can be taken.

The rest of us – yes that includes members of La Meute and other anti-immigrant and Islamophobic groups – need to trust in those agencies and stop irrationally hitting the panic button on immigration.  Canada needs more people for its economic and social development and immigration is one way to get those people. Immigration is a strength, not a weakness.

Besides, no one should have to endure what my grandfather did.  No one.

Saudi lies about Kashoggi are piling up: the Kingdom is not our ally


Have you been following the tortuous twists and turns surrounding the brutal torture, killing and apparent dismemberment of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Kashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2?  Can you make sense of all the claims and counterclaims?  Do you know who ‘did’ the deed?  If you answer yes to all these questions, please step to the head of the class!

Here is what we do know.  Mr. Kashoggi visited the consulate to get some paperwork done for his upcoming marriage to Hatice Cengiz, who waited for her beloved outside.  He never exited.  The Saudis claimed, in chronological order that he a) left the consulate (somehow avoiding his fiancee), b) they do not know where he is, c) he was killed following a fight at the consulate, d) ‘rogue elements’ were behind the killing and e) no one senior back in Riyadh knew about or ordered the assassination.  Well, it turns out that a), b), probably c), d) and now e) are all falsehoods.

The Washington Post reported that the CIA on Friday had concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month, contradicting the Saudi government’s claims that he was not involved in the killing, according to people familiar with the matter.  This is important as intelligence agencies do not normally issue such statements publicly, as this can expose sources and/or methods and that is a no-no in the  intelligence world.  We can debate for ever why they did this – are there ‘rogue elements’  in the CIA? – but in the end it is significant and is one more confirmation of what many have been saying for weeks anyway, i.e. that the orders to kill Mr. Kashoggi came from the very top.  For its part, the European Union has asked the Saudis to ‘shed clarity’ on what happened.

So that’s that then, right?  Case closed.  Not so fast.  The Saudis shockingly (not) have denied the CIA assessment and President Trump has equally shockingly (not)said he has not made his mind up yet, since he was personally told by his Saudi cronies that MBS was not involved, preferring to wait a few days for his administration to issue a ‘full report’.   Saudi-friendly media have also written that the US has yet to reach a ‘final conclusion’.

What to make of all this?  Well, for one the continued Saudi denials and obfuscations can safely be ignored.  The Kingdom has tied itself into so many knots through its repeated lies that no sane person would give what it says now any credence.  Saudi Arabia may still be seen as an important international player thanks to oil, but on this issue it must be seen as an unreliable partner.

Now on to Trump.  That he has not embraced the CIA report is of course a surprise to no one.  He openly mocked the FBI reporting on Russian collusion in the 2016 elections and that too is not unexpected.  This most unpresidential of presidents cannot get past his own interests and ego and does not accept any criticism over anything he does.  He has invested a lot in Saudi Arabia – and especially MBS –  having made the Kingdom his first foreign visit after becoming president (can anyone forget that truly bizarre photo of him and the Saudi King putting their hands on that metal globe??) and cannot seem to let go or admit any error of any kind.  That his son-in-law Jared Kushner is also beholden to the Saudis is not helping as The Donald seems to have made an amateur his front man on Middle East issues.

Whether or not Saudi Arabia, and more importantly MBS, are ever truly taken to task over the death of Mr. Kashoggi remains to be seen.  The Kingdom is, after all, a very influential player and has been playing the US in particular for decades.  For the rest of us who are not smitten with the desert princes there are very real and very crucial questions on whether Saudi Arabia should be seen as an ally on any number of fronts (‘war on terror’, what to do about Iran, etc.).  The truth is that the Saudis are not, and never have been, a reliable friend and we need to see beyond the purely surface ‘reforms’ that MBS has graciously introduced (allowing women to drive, cracking down on some clerics etc.).

No, the Saudis are not the friend of the West or of anyone else for that matter.  They hew to their own agenda and interests.  In addition, their hateful version of Islam is the key to understanding much of modern Islamist extremism, even if they too have been hit with attacks (poetic justice?).

It is time to call the Saudis what they are: pick your own phrase as long as it does not imply they are on our side.







No, mental health does not explain away terrorism

Here we go again.  Another terrorist attack, this time in Melbourne, Australia, another chorus of ‘he was mentally ill’ and, I guess, not responsible.  Last Friday (November 9) an ethnic Somali man drove to that city’s central business district with a bunch of gas cylinders turned to the open position (seeking one surmises to cause an explosion – unsuccessfully it thankfully turned out) and pulled out a knife, stabbing three men, killing a 74-year old restaurateur, Sisto Malaspina.  The terrorist was shot by police and later died in hospital.

Within days of the incident all the ‘explanations’ came out, to wit:

  • he had led a troubled life
  • he was delusional of late
  • his life had ‘spun out of control’
  • he was ‘agitated’
  • he had been kicked out of the family home several times
  • he had recently split up from his wife

As I have confessed on many, many occasions I am not a psychiatrist nor a mental health specialist so I have no reason to refute any of this.  I will simply note, however, that as the terrorist is dead it is going to be very, very hard to confirm any of this.  Dead men tell no tales as the old saying goes.

So, his mental health ‘issues’ notwithstanding, here is what else we know about the assailant:

  • he was known to have held radical views and had had his passport revoked in 2015
  • he was known to Australian police and security agencies (my good friends at ASIO) for family ties and friends who held radical views
  • he was likely ‘inspired’ by Islamic State (IS): although the terrorist group called him one of theirs there is no evidence to point to a link between the two
  • he was on an ASIO national watch list

OK, which one is it: was he an unfortunate delusional man or a dangerous terrorist who killed an innocent Australian?  Why can’t he be both?  Are the two mutually exclusive?  Not in my books.  Whatever problems the terrorist had, was he incapable of holding violent, extreme views (ASIO sure thought so!)?  Is it not possible for mental health and radicalisation to co-occur?  Of course it is.

We really have to stop this ‘either-or’ way of looking at terrorism.  Some terrorists are cold, calculating murderers who meticulously plan their acts months or years in advance.  Others are spur of the moment attackers. And there are a tonne of those somewhere in between.  Furthermore, as I tried to point out in The Threat from Within, there is simply no profile to these individuals, and that includes their mental status.  So stop saying there is one.

Before signing off, there is another aspect to this case that I would like to weigh in on.  Australian PM Scott Morrison dismissed the mental health angle and added that “Australian Muslims need to take greater responsibility in helping to uncover potential terrorists….here in Australia, we would be kidding ourselves if we did not call out the fact that the greatest threat of religious extremism in this country is the radical and dangerous ideology of extremist Islam.”  He  urged the Muslim community to be more “proactive” claiming some imams and community leaders will know who is “infiltrating” and radicalising members of their congregations.  While I agree that many people, including our Muslim neighbours, can do more to identify those who pose a risk I think the PM was a little harsh.

Based on my experience in Canada, many Muslims, leaders and ordinary people, do step up to the plate when they notice someone radicalising to violence. They do call authorities, be they CSIS, the RCMP or the police.  They do their civic duty to help keep us all safe.  Others do not, for a whole host of reasons (none of which are justified in my books), but to call on the community to be more proactive ignores the good news side of this issue.

When all is said and done an innocent man is dead at the hands of someone who thinks IS is a role model.  Enough said.  RIP Sisto Malaspina.

Coffee maker Sisto Malaspina has been identified as the murdered victim in Bourke Street’s terror attack.


Is redirecting people away from online violent content a moonshot?

I suppose that the literal definition of a ‘moonshot’ is the act of sending a rocket to the moon.  Interestingly, there is another set of metaphorical definitions I found online which include:

What then to make of a new project financed by the Canadian government to try to divert people from extremist content online by a UK firm called Moonshot?  It is clearly not an attempt to land a craft on the moon but is it ‘ground-breaking’ and devoid of risks and benefits?

The project, which will receive $1.5 million (Canadian) from the  Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence (CCCEPVE), is called ‘Canada Redirect’ and aims at preventing potential extremists in Canada from accessing harmful online propaganda by presenting them with alternative websites, videos and audio when they enter certain search terms online.  Moonshot CVE, based in London, claims that it is already using this approach in over a dozen countries.

What do I think of this idea (NB I used to work for Public Safety Canada before the awfully named CCCEPEV was launched so I have some experience in this field)?  I like it, in principle, with caveats.  Any initiative that seeks to redirect the young (and not so young) and curious away from violent material has to be a good thing.  Redirect Canada will “work with the logic of the internet and help to direct people who are looking for extremist content toward content that doesn’t necessarily contradict, but brings into question, what they’re looking for” according to the project director for Moonshot Micah Clark (full disclosure: he is a friend of mine).

There are, as always, limitations to what Moonshot is trying to achieve.  There is a vast difference between the mildly adventurous and the committed extremist and I am doubtful the program will work for the latter (in fairness, Moonshot says it can differentiate between the two and will focus on the former).  There are also probably privacy and freedom of expression issues (do extremists have the right to post material online and do citizens have the right to consume it?  What is ‘extremism’ after all?).  And then there is the evaluation aspect, i.e. how does Moonshot know that what it is doing is working and how does one measure how many individuals, if any, do not go down the pathway to violent extremism because Redirect eased them into a new direction?  Actually, evaluation is the Holy Grail of all CVE and PVE projects and I have been assured that all those who seek and receive public funds to do this work have metrics at the top of their to-do lists.

This approach is novel in that it moves away from what we have been doing – or trying to do is a better term – for years: remove content from the Internet and social media.  This is a thankless task imposed on companies such as Google, FaceBook, Twitter and others, sometimes with the threat of hefty fines in cases of non-compliance.  Taking down material is fraught with difficulties: the aforementioned free speech issue, timeliness, and the fact that objectionable material is usually re-posted within minutes, resulting in a never ending game of Whack-a-Mole.  At least Moonshot is not going down familiar, well-worn and yet not very efficient pathways.

I have been called critical of anything that smacks of CVE or PVE.  That is a bit unfair as I am trying to take a comprehensive look at what is being proposed, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and what challenges it will face.  I also cannot shake off my intelligence and security hat – that is what 30+ years in the business will do to you.  CSIS and its partners cannot and should not rely on any CVE or PVE effort to help determine risk level since any mistake or misdiagnosis that results  in a successful terrorist attack reverberates back on government agencies, not on the organisations who ‘do’ CVE and PVE.  There is also the uncomfortable reality that spies and cops need to see who is reading and reacting to violent material online to help them understand the extremist environment and build possible court cases.

In the end as I noted above I like the idea and think it is an interesting concept.  I look forward to hearing about its successes (and failures) but will wait before issuing any final evaluation.  After all, the proof of the CVE pudding is in the eating.


Apples and oranges in the counter terrorism world

As the entire world followed the media frenzy over a bunch of probably ineffective pipe bombs sent to a couple of high-profile people – former President Obama, philanthropist George Soros, actor Robert DeNiro and a few more – this may be the perfect time to talk about the nature and frequency of terrorism on our little blue planet. For terrorism it is, at least in the minds of some like New York mayor Bill de Blasio (but not for me – not yet). Whether or not these incidents are terrorism or not, they sure have caused a lot of commotion and disruption in the US. And yes, they have ‘terrorised’ some people even if ‘being terrorised’ is not a synonym for ‘terrorism’ (I have already written about this aspect of the story and won’t repeat those remarks here – have a look at my previous two or three blogs).

A much more important matter to chew on is what this says about the perception of terrorism in the US, the West, and the international community in general. To do so let’s start with the assumption that these were terrorist events (they were not necessarily so but let’s say they were). What has been the immediate impact of these incidents? Deaths? Zero. Injuries? Zero. Economic disruption? Probably some but hard to measure at least at this point. Psychological effect on Americans? Perhaps significant but again hard to evaluate. Opportunities for world media outlets? Huge! I alone, as a minor Canadian commentator on this matters, have already given more than a dozen interviews to radio outlets across Canada (and turned down television appearances because I could not accommodate the CBC and CTV).

So, no one was hurt, no one died, the plot looks amateurish at best, it was probably not really terrorism and yet we see the result as reflected in public reaction. How does this compare with what I call ‘real’ terrorism? Have a look.

In the UK, the country’s most senior counter-terrorism officer has said police forces are not a match for the threat of Islamist and extreme far-right terrorism and that at this juncture there are 700 live terrorism investigations (emphasis added). 700! I have no idea how many ‘live’ investigations there are in the US or in Canada for that matter, but if it helps, when I was at CSIS we had several hundred investigations at any one time but no more than 1-2 ‘live’ ones where there was a serious threat to life (that may have changed since my retirement but I am confident that it is no where near 700).

Here is another comparison. A cursory glance at the news coming out of Iraq over the past THREE DAYS will turn up the following:

And if we cast our glance eastward to Afghanistan, in one 24-hour period (October 20-21) we see:

What does all this mean? Simple. While the terrorist threat is real and we have to ensure that our law enforcement and security intelligence agencies are equipped to investigate plots and stop them, the nature of those threats for us in Canada and the US is the equivalent of a rounding error when we draw the comparison to what is happening in the UK, which itself is the equivalent of a rounding error when we compare what is happening in that country to what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan (NB what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan is tied in no small part to the role we in Canada and the US and other Western nations in invading and occupying those nations. Hmmmm…).

The lesson here? Terrorism is relative. The incidence in our countries (Canada, the US) is nothing when we look at what is transpiring, sometimes on a DAILY BASIS, elsewhere. You might want to bear that in mind when you ingest media coverage and wonder whether to duct tape your windows and stock up on bottled water to wait out the imaginary terrorist hordes (are you listening President Trump who said that the immigrant caravan making its way north through Central America is full of ‘terrorists’? No, I doubt it).