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Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor of international affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, and a former national security analyst with the federal government.

The disrupted terrorism plot in Strathroy, Ont., this week has again raised concerns about the threat of terrorism in Canada. It's important to learn from these incidents. But the same questions are often asked in their immediate aftermath, suggesting that much remains misunderstood.

Is there a terrorism profile?

No. Quite simply, no useful profile has been developed for counterterrorism purposes. Violent extremists come from all kinds of economic, social and cultural backgrounds from all across the country. They also have different objectives, beliefs and targets. Suspects are often young and male, but this does not usefully narrow down who may be a violent extremist. Angry young men with certain types of beliefs also fails to narrow the focus. The pool of those with extremist beliefs is much larger than the number who will act on their beliefs. Thus, "who" is the wrong question. It is more useful to look at what individuals do rather than who they are. National security agencies in Canada and around the world are increasingly studying what actions individuals take to mobilize to violence – not who they are or what they believe.

Can we predict attacks?

No. Just as there is no profile of who might mobilize to violence, it is not possible to predict when an attack might occur, even with all of the resources of the state. The inability to predict who, when, where and how is not, however, the same as an inability to intervene when mobilization to violence is occurring.

As we saw this week, disruption is possible. In the Aaron Driver case, a woman called police after hearing him set off fireworks in his backyard. This is a good example of the fact most lone-actor plots have some kind of "leakage."

Unfortunately, this does not seem to have raised the appropriate level of alarm. And exploiting "leakage" is different from being able to broadly predict when attacks might occur.

Did security agencies fail to connect the dots?

"Connecting the dots" is a terrible way to think about intelligence gathering and assessment. It implies security services know there are dots, that the number of dots is fixed and a clear picture will emerge if they are connected.

That is not how terrorism or counterterrorism works.

Very little intelligence provides clear-cut facts that are easily and objectively observed. Information is subjective and must be interpreted and different analysts will see different dots.

And the picture they create isn't static: Extremist networks can evolve rapidly, sometimes in response to counterterrorism pressure.

Can we stop terrorism propaganda on the Internet?

There are two issues here, one technical and the other to do with civil liberties. First, we have seen many attempts by governments and social-media companies to take down social-media accounts that spread extremist views. These accounts either re-establish themselves, or platform-jump to other apps that are encrypted. Thus, while governments, companies and others working together can reduce terrorist propaganda on the Internet, it will almost certainly be impossible to stop, block, or prevent it entirely. Second, it is hard to know where to draw the line on what is considered terrorist propaganda. To what extent does society want our governments determining what people are able to say online?

Why doesn't Canada have a counterviolent extremism program?

The government has committed to the establishment of a CVE program, but they are expensive and difficult to embed in a society. We simply do not yet know what works. While Canada is a pioneer in funding research on the effectiveness of CVE (under Public Safety Canada's Kanishka Project), evidence in other democratic states is preliminary and not definitive. Everyone is on a steep learning curve in this area. As well, there are considerable and obvious risks in getting such programs wrong and there will be unintended negative consequences likely to affect other government and societal priorities. Most important, can we require individuals take part in a CVE? Mr. Driver successfully challenged his peace-bond requirement to attend counselling. He did not want to go and the courts were not prepared to make him.

Rather than deradicalization that seeks to change people's world views, we may seek to implement programs more focused on "disengagement," which encourages demobilization. Deradicalization may be a legitimate, laudable goal, but the core objective of thwarting and preventing mobilization to violence may have to lower its ambitions toward disengagement.

Counterterrorism starts with what we know, but requires frank conversations about what we do not know. Ideally, this will help guide research and policies – and provide the public a reasonable expectation as to what legislation can and cannot accomplish as the Liberal government seeks to restock its counterterrorism tool kit.

Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor of international affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, and a former national security analyst with the federal government.