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Just How Threatening is the Terrorist Threat?

| May 7, 2012
Just How Threatening is the Terrorist Threat?

The most remarkable thing about the terrorism threat to Canada is how rapidly it has evolved in the years since the 9/11 attacks. We have moved from a concern about al-Qaeda sleeper cells nested in our society and imminent “second wave” strikes targeting North America, manifest in the crisis months following the 9/11 attacks, to a contemporary fear of self-radicalized individuals who embrace terrorist violence and operate as “lone actors.”

There are two things to note about this trajectory of fear. One is that the challenge for our security intelligence and law-enforcement agencies remains high because of the assumed invisibility of the threats that concern us. The other is that the actual direct threat has diminished considerably. An al-Qaeda organized terror strike on Canada, however unlikely, could have done us grave harm. Terrorist violence from a lone actor cannot. Not only will a lone actor be less proficient, but the very fact that he or she is acting alone will also reduce the psychological quotient of terror. A lone actor spends himself in one attack – no systematic or enduring campaign of violence is likely to ensue.

The shift in the threat environment from organized malevolence (orchestrated by al-Qaeda “central,” as the core operational cadre around Osama bin Laden was known) to the atomized malevolence of the potential lone actor is the story of the decline and marginalization of al-Qaeda itself. This decline was driven by both external causes and internal factors, including an increasingly effective U.S.-led, global anti-terrorism campaign with targeted drone strikes as the tip of its spear, al-Qaeda’s failure to achieve and sustain mass appeal in the Muslim world, and internal fractiousness within jihadist circles concerning al-Qaeda strategy, tactics, and leadership. The death of Osama bin Laden during a U.S. Special Forces raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, marked the symbolic end of al-Qaeda as a global jihadist vanguard force, but there were many signs of al-Qaeda’s decline that predated the May 2011 raid.

What remain of al-Qaeda are its ideological echoes, the memory of its “successful” strikes, and the tattered web of its alliance-building efforts. Ideological echoes of al-Qaeda’s message will travel the internet for years to come, and the memory of al-Qaeda’s attacks on the “far enemy” will linger. Both might feed the imagination of the putative lone-actor terrorist. But neither echo, nor have the power to revivify, the extent of the terror threat that al-Qaeda posed on 9/11.

As we look for a successor threat to al-Qaeda, concern has fastened on its “affiliates.” There are now a host of terrorist organizations around the world that are loosely identified as al-Qaeda affiliates – the best-known being al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group that kidnaped Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), located in Yemen. But whatever these al-Qaeda affiliates might be, they are not future successors to al-Qaeda itself. They have neither the capability nor, at least so far, the demonstrated intent, to march down the path to war against the “far enemy” (the U.S. and all like-minded western states). The recently released sample of documents captured during the May 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound reveals that the al-Qaeda leader enjoyed little control over his “affiliates” and doubted their political and operational skills. Even al-Qaeda senior leaders had divided views over how to deal with the affiliates.

Despite the rapid evolution and, I would argue, diminution of the terrorist menace, the Canadian government continues to define Islamist terrorism as the preeminent threat to national security. This was evident in the prime minister’s statement on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in September 2011, and in the recently released counter-terrorism strategy, “Building Resilience against Terrorism.” The counter-terrorism strategy, in particular, while recognizing that “Al Qaida capacities have been constrained in recent years,” goes on to raise an alarm about al-Qaeda affiliates: “… other Sunni Islamist groups affiliated with Al Qaida – either through formal allegiances or by looking to Al Qaida as an example – have evolved and pose a substantial threat to Canada and the international community.”

It is always difficult for a country to reorient its understanding of threats following a substantial period of danger, but both the prime minister’s statement and the counter-terrorism strategy beg the question of whether Canadian national-security assessments and policy have managed to evolve alongside the evolving reality of global terrorism. We are, through excessive caution and inertial thinking, overdrawing the current threat from terrorism at the expense of attention to a host of other pressing security issues, including cyber-aggression, foreign espionage, fragile states, economic turbulence, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, people smuggling, international crime, and (watch for it) climate-change impacts. Terrorism is a persistent, but lower-order security threat to Canada. The 9/11 decade is over.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

  • Elisabeth Ecker

    Maybe we should find out why terrorist are interested in attacking us. It is not because they don’t like us, but maybe they object in our military interference in their home country,

    • Kris McConnell

      Transnational Islamist ideology, specifically of the militant variety, asserts that Western societies are actively anti-Islamic. There’s some truth in your comment, but I feel like it goes deeper than this. For example, they often identify with the historical struggles between Christianity and Islam dating back to the Crusades. An even greater example is al-Qaeda, which is also known as “International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders”. Most militant Islamists oppose Israel’s very existence, and as Western Christian democracies that support them, we are labeled the Crusaders.

  • Kris McConnell

    Thank you, this was a great article. I did have a somewhat specific question as to how Canada might best reorient itself towards what you listed as being more pressing security issues. I’m currently a student in the US studying under a very new and innovative Homeland Security degree program in New England. My goal is to become an active member of the Canadian Intelligence Community, so my question pertains to that.

    Given foreign espionage, cyber aggression, and fragile states are all issues that CSIS may find difficulties in analyzing, particularly given its limited mandate, would it not be in Canada’s best interest to finally establish a foreign intelligence service?