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Former CSIS analyst on homegrown terrorism and Islamic doctrine

Phil Gurski, former CSIS analyst and government expert on terrorism, promotes his new book, The Threat From Within, at a Toronto hotel on Thursday.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

It's rare for anyone to emerge from a federal spy agency and write a book for public consumption. But that's what Phil Gurski has done with his new book, The Threat From Within, to be released on Oct. 22. The former in-house expert on homegrown terrorism with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service explains how radicalization looks to him after three decades of working in intelligence for the Canadian government.

Mr. Gurski argues that the threat he saw had little to do with foreign influence, or demographics, or even mainstream Islam. It's more about religious chauvinism and a powerful jihadi narrative that has been forged over centuries.

While that narrative is now resonating with some Canadians, its appeal is idiosyncratic, which will probably belie government-led attempts to understand and counter it.

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Mr. Gurski spoke to The Globe and Mail's Colin Freeze.

What do Canadians get for the $1-billion each year we now spend on spying?

We're safer. We stopped most of the plots. We've had arrests, we've had trials, we've put people in jail. The money that we spend, it gives you credibility in the international environment – so it's sort of like dues-paying. The intelligence we received from those partners was invaluable. By paying a billion, we're getting multiple billions back.

Months ago, there was news about an alleged Islamic State-linked people smuggler in Turkey being a potential human source for CSIS.

I have no information on that. But you don't think law enforcement deals with some pretty despicable low-lifes? Biker gangs? Child-porn rings? You can't send a Girl Guide or Boy Scout to question a member of the Islamic State. CSIS is not running rogue operations. It acts within the law. It deals with people most Canadians wouldn't want to deal with.

What is the analytical side of CSIS like?

Analysts like myself, we're hired for our specialties. I got hired because of my Middle East linguistic ability. We didn't run investigations, we didn't run sources. They work from 10 to 30 years in their specialties. Analysts are unseen, historically unappreciated. But I used to say I had the best job on the planet.

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You write that extremism is like the aphorism about real estate and location – but "narrative, narrative, narrative."

What they [al-Qaeda-inspired radicals] are propagating and distributing is this conviction they are responding to our aggression as Westerners, and they are merely defending themselves. And that's not true, but it doesn't have to be true to be effective. The whole point of the book is there is no pattern to this. We have to accept that terrorists come from us. They come from Canadian society. They are not off-the-boat immigrants.

You point out, though, the narrative is partly rooted in religious doctrine, or at least concepts like jihad, hijra …

Here's the dilemma that mainstream Muslims face: The people who commit these acts of terrorism see themselves as actually representative Muslims. In fact, they see themselves as the only true Muslims and start criticizing everyone else as being non-Muslims. So it comes from within Islam, but it is not Islam. How do we accept they have taken pieces of 1,400 years of Islamic history, and use it to their advantage?

You write that fundamentalist imams in Canada should be challenged.

Even if we're not talking about terrorism, if we're talking about small pockets of society that will basically advocate intolerance and rejection of other parts of society, do we want a country like that? What the [fundamentalist preachers] do is they are very intolerant and rejectionist of other Muslims, let alone non-Muslims. I think we have an obligation to challenge this, to argue against this.

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But our political leaders don't know the difference between Islamic doctrines.

Politicians are going to do what politicians are going to do. That's fine. Everyone recognizes if we're going to talk about this issue, to do something about it at an early level, we need early intervention, before it becomes a security-intelligence issue. The government's role is to foster and encourage the grassroots that are starting in this country. The government role has to be very much a background role.

But if the problem is narrative, and the narrative has had 1,400 years, how does someone in Ottawa come up with a program to counter it?

The line I like to use – and it really shocks some audiences – is that right now the only solution we have is to start with the four-year-olds. If we can get all the four-year-olds to understand what this narrative is saying and reject it, we'll be fine.

Like in junior-high assemblies where the police used to say, "Don't do drugs?"

No, it's more than that. We as a society have to understand the child you're raising has to be raised in an environment of tolerance and acceptance. So if you can get that right across the board – not just Muslim communities, not just immigrant communities, but in Wonder Bread white communities – we're going to be in good shape.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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