The Threat from Within

Myths, uncertainties, confusion, and ideologically-tainted views surround the question of what constitutes radicalization and terrorism in the West.  An excellent primer on the factors which contribute to, and are sometimes present within, those who have taken the path to Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization is The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West by Phil Gurski. Gurski is a recently retired intelligence analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) who specialized in homegrown Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism.  Before moving to CSIS in 2001, Gurski spent many years with the Communications Security Establishment of Canada (CSEC).  His book is focused on the Canadian situation and its challenges.

The Threat from Within does not provide easy answers to what are complex issues.  Indeed, it suggests there are no answers at all and no set of criteria to easily guide anyone in identifying the next homegrown Canadian terrorist.  Gurski does not provide comfort, only indicators to consider.  His experience tells him that cases of violent radicalization are diverse and every case distinct.  So attempts to generalize may give comfort to the uninformed, but will not aid those wishing seriously to understand this issue.

Gurski knows his subject. He spent much of his working life seeking to gain an understanding of the challenges arising from terrorism and providing advice to those charged with protecting the nation.  He has read what has been published on the topic, and he finds it wanting. “Most published works do not use large datasets”, he observes.  This means published findings constitute little more than opinions, rather than conclusions based on many cases which share fundamental traits which can be identified. Cases of radicalization and terrorism inspired by the Al Qaeda template are sufficiently infrequent and diverse to make defining a set of predictive drivers well-nigh impossible.  No generalizations extrapolated from events can be discerned, and no theories of what motivates this type of terrorism can be formulated with any degree of certainty.

The great strength of The Threat from Within is that it offers an overview of the threat from Al Qaeda-inspired extremism in Canada by an ‘insider’ from the Canadian intelligence community with direct knowledge of the problem.  As Gurski concludes that the terrorist threats Canada and other nations face cannot be resolved by identifying common characteristics, his approach is to determine how people become involved in terrorism and to explore “what violent radicalization looks like rather than extend the debate over drivers and root causes.”

The media has put forward a variety of factors and influencers as important drivers of terrorist-linked violence.  These include gender and age, poverty, alienation, criminal background, and lack of education and employment. There are others. These elements may be present in some cases (gender and age) but largely absent in others (poverty, education, and employment).  Hence, they explain nothing and are only referenced in cases to which they apply.  As Gurski notes, “The people who radicalized to violence are average Canadians and Westerners.”

Gurski’s important message is that there is no single pathway to al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist violence and no magic formula for identifying potential terrorists among us.  But there are common traits in the process which places a person on the path to terrorism and indicators which can be suggestive of someone embarking on the wrong path.  This is, in fact, the gist of the book.  Gurski offers a list of observable characteristics and behaviours, but it is important to note that the list is intended to be informative not a definitive checklist which will identify a person on the edge of violence.  Persons displaying some of these indicators may be non-violent while terrorists may have displayed only some of the indicators.   Nonetheless, the list is suggestive of situations which should be monitored and where intervention might become necessary. Gurski’s indicators include:

  1. Sudden increases in intolerant religiosity.
  2. Rejection of different interpretations of Islam.
  3. Rejection of non-Muslims.
  4. Rejection of Western ways.
  5. Rejection of Western policies.
  6. Association with like-minded people.
  7. Obsession with Jihadi and violent-extremists sites and social media.
  8. Obsession with the narrative (a set of beliefs verging on conspiracy theories).
  9. Desire to travel to conflict zones.
  10. Obsession with violent Jihad.
  11. Obsession with martyrdom.
  12. Obsession with End-Times (the coming of the end of the world).

The presence of some or many of these indicators in a person is reason for concern.  But they do not make someone a terrorist.  Until now, such indicators have usually been found in persons engaged in terrorist behaviour only after the fact. Gurski makes the point that the indicators may be noticed by family, friends, religious leaders, and others before the persons comes to the attention of security and law enforcement, hence interrupting a person on the path to terrorism requires noticing the indicators and intervening early.

The Threat from Within will not give comfort to anyone.  There are no easy answers to modern-day terrorism, no certainties to inform public policy.  As Gurski explains the bad news, “There is no single process of violent radicalization.  There is also no model predictive of who will move from advocating violent extremism to engaging in violent action.”  The danger is that the evidence shows that anyone from any background could be susceptible to radicalization. Identifying persons at risk and developing early intervention strategies have had success elsewhere, and de-radicalization programs might work in Canada. But so far none exist.

The fact Gurski doesn’t offer easy answers makes The Threat from Within more credible than many other books of the same genre.  He understands the realities.  Insofar as he suggests solutions, he underscores the uncertainty facing those seeking to stop terrorists and the complexity of the challenge of acting responsibly and successfully.  To aid those who embark on the path to identifying persons at risk of being radicalized, Gurski has developed a matrix (his Appendix 3) in which a list of variables may be tested on those under observation.  Answers do not easily result but can be indicative.

In a world confronted by the fear of terrorism, this is a sobering book which brings a sense of reality to a complex issue.

The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West, Phil Gurski. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 181 pages


Kurt F. Jensen

Adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa where he teaches courses on intelligence in the department of political science, career foreign service officer who specialized in security and intelligence, deputy director of foreign intelligence at the Department of Foreign Affairs, author of Cautious Beginnings: Canadian Foreign Intelligence, 1939-1951 (UBC Press 2008).

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