Apples and oranges in the counter terrorism world

As the entire world continues to follow 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).

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