Simply no

It is rare for an intelligence agency to get public credit for what it does or how it does it.  It is even rarer for a group of intelligence analysts to be featured in a news story and described as at the forefront of understanding a particular threat.

Analysts are like the Steve Carrell character in Get Smart.  Maxwell Smart is an intelligence analyst – the best at what he does – yet he is constantly in the background while the sexier agents (or intelligence officers) like Dwayne Johnson get all the cool jobs (NB I am not really complaining about the disparity between analysts and IOs – I had by far the best job at CSIS for years).

So when a leading Canadian newspaper publishes a column in which analysts are given two thumbs up, I – and my fellow analysts – should be over the moon, right?

Yes ,and no.

Doug Saunders’ piece in the Globe and Mail (see it here) notes that the terrorism field has shifted recently as intelligence analysts begin to rethink old ideas about why someone becomes an extremist.  Apparently, we used to think that life experiences and background were important and now we realise it’s all about violence-prone people.  While I am grateful for the attention and Mr. Saunders’ acknowledgement that Canadian analysts are capable of understanding complex issues (btw Mr. Saunders, my colleagues and I at CSIS figured out that backgrounds were seldom relevant a decade ago – it’s all covered in my book appearing in mid-October), he commits the all-too-frequent error of reducing violent extremism to a simple formula.

There is no other way to say this: there is no pattern.  Yes, there are interesting trends that pop up occasionally, but these are not reliable over the long term.  Some terrorists change address, some don’t.  Some embrace a new religion, some don’t.  Some are unemployed, experience stress or have family breakdowns, some don’t.  Mr. Saunders cites Paul Gill’s work (true confession: I know Paul and am impressed with his scholarship) which is an important contribution to our growing understanding of violent extremism.  But on its own it cannot explain everything.  As the goblin said in Harry Potter – it’s complicated.

While I am commenting on the article in question, I have to note that another part puzzled me.  Mr. Saunders claims that we in the intelligence community were “trying to monitor and change people’s thoughts.”  Now I have no idea who his sources are but I can state categorically that the CSIS I worked for was not in the business of “changing people’s thoughts”.  Monitor yes – because that is how intelligence works.  For the record, though, I do not disagree with his statement that the current government is passing disturbing – and ineffective – counter terrorism laws.

I am very happy that we are starting to see more and more insightful pieces on terrorism and radicalisation in our major media.  The issues are important ones and need to be aired: Canadians have a right to know what is going on.  I am even happier that the analysts’ role is getting some airtime.

But let’s not jump on the bandwagon of any one finding.  That would be simply unwise.

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