By the numbers

It must appear to most people in Canada that terrorism is a daily scourge.  If you take a global snapshot that is undeniably true.  Over the last few weeks we have seen attacks in France, Tunisia, Kuwait, Yemen and the inevitable – and sadly too frequent – violence in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And yet the question is worth asking: is terrorism a significant threat everywhere?  What about here in Canada?

If we buy the current government’s line, it is the single greatest threat we face.  Especially the menace posed by groups such as the Islamic State.  But, political rhetoric and campaign bluster aside, is this true?

Unfortunately, the numbers do not support the government’s claim.  Research, funded in part by Public Safety Canada, provides two interesting data points (see more information on the study here).

First and foremost, since 1990 there have been approximately 30 “lone actor terrorist attacks or attempts” in Canada.  That works out to a little more than one per year.

One attack or attempted attack.  Per year.  So much for Canada on the cusp of death and destruction.  I am not arguing that past trends dictate future events, but looking at historical data does help to put things in perspective.  And while I know that the data excludes group or cell plots (think Toronto 18 or the Via rail plot) it does provide some needed context to the current fear of lone actor terrorism.  Things could change, of course.

The second – and probably counter intuitive to many Canadians – finding, was that the majority of attacks (real or planned) were motivated by white supremacist or sovereign citizen devotees.  Not Al Qaeda or IS types.  And this data is consistent with US data.  In fact, a recent survey of US law enforcement found that these agencies are much more concerned about the Freemen, Neo-Nazis and anti-government extremists than they are of the AQ-inspired terrorists (see article here).

This study is important since it uses quantifiable data to shed light on an emotional – and often over-hyped issue.  But it may not tell the whole story.

The numbers don’t lie, but we have to acknowledge a few truths:

a) the AQ type attacks, while less frequent, are generally more lethal;

b) there has been an undeniable surge in AQ type extremism over the past decade in Canada;

c) security and law enforcement agencies in Canada are right in focusing on these actors.

As I have noted before, we in Canada face a number of terrorist threats.  While the AQ-inspired cadre represent the greatest single terrorist threat, we cannot ignore individuals motivated by other ideologies.  But, in a world of finite resources, we have to concentrate what we do have where it is needed most.

Studies such as these provide a useful contribution to public awareness and debate.  Public Safety Canada should be congratulated for sponsoring research of this nature.

For, at the end of the day, data is all we can really count on.

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