Is the far right extremist threat really that big in Canada?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on October 15, 2018.

There is no question that when the topic around the water cooler turns to terrorism – not that I hope or think that it often does – as far as the average citizen is concerned the particular brand of terrorism that garners the most attention is that of Islamist extremism. Whether we are talking about Islamic State or Al Qaeda or Al Shabaab or Boko Haram or any one of a depressingly large number of extremist organisations it is hard to argue that this emphasis and association are wrongly placed. All you have to do is pick up any newspaper on any day (or search any online news site) and I am certain you will find at least one story, and far too often many stories, of attacks perpetrated by a group of this ilk. This of course has become the new normal in most peoples’ minds, at least since 9/11 if not before.

In case you are not one who follows terrorism across the decades things were not always like this.  Well before 9/11 there were other scourges: Tamil terrorism in Sri Lanka, far left terrorism in Germany and Italy and the ‘Troubles’ – IRA-sponsored terrorism – in Ireland and England. If you want to go back even further you would have to reserve a lot of space for the anarchist wave of violence that saw the assassinations of presidents, kings and heads of state around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

If we narrow our view to Canada we have seen an analogous shift. The FLQ paroxysm of violence in the 1960s and 1970s gave way to Armenian terrorism in the early 1980s and then to Sikh terrorism after that. It was only in the 1990s and into today that we began to see significant levels of Islamist extremism, a menace that continues to the present day.

Lately we are hearing a lot about right wing (RW) extremism. Are we missing something here? Well, according to a Toronto Star article on two Canadian experts in the field, Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens, there has been a “20 to 25 per cent jump in the number of right-wing extremist groups active in Canada between 2015 and 2018″. In addition, according to these scholars work, there have been 120 “incidents” involving these groups from 1980 to 2014: by comparison there have been only seven Islamist extremist “incidents” during that same time frame.

Wow! RW terrorism outranks Islamist extremism by 17-1 by this calculation. Why, then, hasn’t it received the attention that it requires? We know that both CSIS and the RCMP have put a lot of resources into Islamist extremist investigations over the past two decades. Are they getting it wrong?

Not necessarily.

As much as I respect Drs. Perry and Scrivens, I have some issues with their reported findings. Among the list of “incidents” attributed to RW extremists are “drug offences,attempted assassinations, firebombings and attacks.” I don’t know about you but linking a drug offence to a RW extremist “incident” seems a bit of stretch, no? I would also like to see more information on the 120 “incidents” to see whether they are truly terrorist in nature. Furthermore, the very low “jihadi” incident number is clearly inaccurate. While the article states that there have perhaps been only seven “incidents” – by which I assume attacks, although I doubt foiled attacks like the Toronto 18 are included in this total – over 34 years, that figure does not include the 200 or so Canadians who left this country to join terrorist groups like IS, AQ and Al Shabaab, some of whom took part in terrorist attacks abroad. True, they did not kill here, but should they not be counted as Canadian incidents?

So are our authorities devoting enough resources to monitoring the far right and stopping RW terrorism? Probably not but in an era of tight budgets and limited personnel you put your people and your money where the threat is greatest. In that regard the Islamist threat has far outweighed that of the RW by a long shot, at least in terms of public perception and impact. We are living, after all, in a world defined in many ways by 9/11.

I do not deny that the RW menace is real and needs attention. And I think it will probably get worse before it gets better. Our security and law enforcement agencies will have to give this a great deal of thought as they strive to keep us safe. Whether or not this necessitates a significant shift from Islamist extremist investigations to RW ones is a question that has yet to be answered.

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