Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University
The aftermath of a terrorist attack such as the one in Manchester this week brings about a familiar and grim cycle of shock, horror, grief and anger. Moreover, such incidents, regardless of size and scale, raise the uncomfortable question of whether our societies are truly any safer almost 16 years after the War on Terror began. Every few months, it seems, a Western ally is the target of an extremist attack, and terrorism continues to be ranked as Canada's primary national security threat.
But easily lost behind the headlines is the fact that there has been considerable counterterrorism success. Indeed, since 9/11, Western countries have been making progress in understanding and adapting to the strategic and tactical evolution of violent extremism. They have had to adjust to al-Qaeda's transformation from an elite movement to one of networked "affiliates," as well as the Islamic State's attempt to create a mass movement of supporters for its so-called caliphate.
National security agencies have difficulty looking beyond their own cognitive biases, which can often produce intelligence failures (such as failing to anticipate the rise of the Islamic State in 2014).
But while we cannot expect extremist groups to stop innovating any time soon, we must recognize that over 16 years the West has built up both open-source and classified understandings of terrorist movements and how they operate. Put simply, our knowledge base is much greater than it was in 2001.
Counterterrorism is very hard, and it is unrealistic to expect a 100-per-cent success rate. But combined with learning from our mistakes and the sharing of best practices among agencies and allies, our ability to track and fight terrorism has been much improved.
A second example is the progress that has been made in understanding the complex processes that lead to radicalization and mobilization to violence. While this research is ongoing, more than a decade of findings has produced insights that could lead to treatment options. While Canada's federal program is in its infancy and its funding formula remains uncertain, research has laid the foundation for the potential to establish a world-class program for countering violent extremism.
Third, there has been success in refining and improving old practices to new contexts. There is an appreciation that community-based policing and trust-building in affected communities are some of our most vital counterterrorism tools. After all, it is worth noting that in virtually every major terrorism case in Canada, someone came forward with information for authorities. When individuals in affected communities feel they can come forward, everyone is safer.
Finally, it is worth noting that in the face of gruesome extremist violence, most Western societies appear to be largely resilient. In the wake of the two October, 2014, attacks, Canadians conducted themselves well, returning to work and getting on with their lives after the carnage in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa. This determination denies terrorists the fear they wish to create.
Naturally there is room for improvement. The government could expand the way it communicates threat information to the public. Further, like the United Kingdom and Australia, the Canadian government could hold inquires and publish full reports after terrorist incidents so the public can appreciate what happened, understand lessons learned and ensure that recommended changes and reforms are implemented.
Serious concerns are emerging, such as an emboldened and rising far right, as well as the aftermath of the Islamic State's inevitable collapse. As such, we can anticipate that the coming counterterrorism challenges will be fraught.
Democracies such as Canada are and will continue to be challenged by counterterrorism. They struggle with the practical challenges of assessing who might mobilize to violence and how to deal with the return of foreign fighters. There are also the larger philosophical issues of balancing liberty and security and privacy rights with the need to monitor threats.
But behind the sad headlines, it is important to remember there has been progress. And while there will certainly be more tragedies, our ability to adapt to and prevent violent extremism has improved. There is good reason to have confidence that new challenges can be confronted and managed.