Today we’re joined by Phil Gursky, the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk consulting. He’s also a program director for the security economics and technology hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He worked as a senior strategic analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service from 2001 to 2015, where he specialized in violent Islamic inspired homegrown terrorism and radicalisation from 1983 to 2001. He was also employed as a senior multilingual analyst at the communications security establishment CSCs Canada’s signals intelligence agency, where he specialized in the Middle East. He’s the author of six books on terrorism, and soon to release another.
We will talk today about the current terrorist threats worldwide and how to tackle those correctly.
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Link to Phil’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/phil-gurski-8942468
Phil, keeping all risks in perspective is really important. Can you tell our listeners, just how big is the terrorist threat worldwide? And who are the main threat actors?
It’s a great question. And I think that when we look at terrorism, we often say we’re living in the post 911 period, which means that we see terrorism and the threat from terrorism, through that lens of that catastrophic act in Washington and New York, 20 years ago, this year that it took place, a phenomenon like terrorism, which has been around for quite some time, in the modern sense. Most scholars and those that study the phenomenon say that the dates from about the middle of the 19th century, and it’s been through various waves. People overestimate and overrate the precedents and the incidence of terrorism worldwide because I think that we are seeing it through that 911 lens prior to 911. terrorism and terrorism studies were very much a niche within academia, and within governments, that, of course, all changed because of the loss of 3000 people that day. I think when you ask the question about how prevalent terrorism is, it’s important to answer that question in several ways. You can certainly look at terrorism on a global scale. And there’s an excellent there are at least two excellent resources that I’m familiar with. One is the global terrorism index, which is put out by the Australian Institute for economics and peace. They put out an annual report, the 2019 report just came out of 2020, rather, which covers 2019 came out in December, and it looks at terrorism on a global scale. There’s also the start Institute at the University of Maryland, which has a database of terrorist incidents. When you look at the threat globally, you get one picture. But it’s also important when we discuss terrorism as a risk phenomenon as the serious incidents of violence, because that’s what terrorism is it is violence, which is motivated by some kind of an ideology or political theory, or in many cases religion, that we look at the local level, which I think a lot of companies need to do in terms of their operations, especially those companies which are truly international in scope, you see a great deal of variety from country to country. So quickly to summarize it at the global level. As of February of 2021. The single greatest terrorist threat on this planet are acts of violence that are planned and executed by what we call Islamist extremists. For the layperson. This is great. Like al Qaeda like Islamic State, and as affiliates of which there are some 20. In Asia and Africa, we also look at groups like Al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, a whole host of terrorist groups in Central Asia, and in South Asia. The Taliban, for example, certainly qualify as a terrorist group in my books, and they carry out probably about 99% of all terrorist attacks in the world. When you look locally, you’ll get different pictures from country to country to country. So isn’t as extremism certainly is not just the number one global threat, but also the number one local threat in the vast majority of countries, as I said, most of Africa, and most of Asia, use them as extremists. Still, they dominate the headlines in terms of terrorist attacks. You look at places like Western Europe, for example, I get it will depend. We certainly are now living in a time where, in part because of the attacks in Washington on January the sixth at the Capitol, which is the subject of much debate on whether or not it was a terrorist attack or riot, an insurrection a coup or whatever, a lot more attention, being a parent is being paid to what’s called a right-wing extremism. And there’s no question that right-wing extremism, it does exist, it did not, it was didn’t see its birth on January 2, it’s been around for quite some time. And again, depending on the country, you get varying levels of threat. Germany, for example, has at a far-right problem for quite some time. A group of people who are their white supremacists or neo-nazis have carried out acts of violence against immigrant populations and other parts of German society, like the United States, and you could argue that right-wing extremists have killed farmers, more people in the past 30 to 40 years didn’t have Islamist extremists, despite the fact there have been mass attacks by isn’t as extreme as like in San Bernardino, 2015, like at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009, etc, etc. So there’s no easy answer to the question. Dom. I think when you ask the question, what is the greatest risk, you have to look at it from the two levels is that you can take the forest and the forest being the earth, that’s where Islam as extremism dominates, but it’s the trees as well. And each country has its own particular profile, or spectrum, if you will, when it comes to the actual predominance of particular ideological, political or religious factions. For example, just to cite one thing that people probably don’t think a lot about. India has a huge problem with Hindu extremism. Hindu extremists have attacked Muslims, they’ve attacked Christians. They are being encouraged in part by the Modi government, which is sponsored by a virulent Hindu extremist party, and organization, which points again to the fact that each country has its own circumstances. And these must be taken into account when drawing a picture of the level of risk which a company a corporation or entity must face when it establishes operations in a particular part of the world.
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People overestimating risks that are recent and highly emotional is quite common and availability bias is powerful. And something we always need to mitigate when doing risk assessments. What’s your advice to listeners on how we can assess risks objectively?
First and foremost, as somebody who spent 32 years in intelligence, you’re only as good as the information that you have. When you work as an intelligence analyst, or as an intelligence gather. In the case of signals intelligence, you’re constantly being reminded that you have to judge the veracity and reliability of the sources, the day human sources are the technical sources, whatever information is only good for accuracy. And we certainly learned in Canadian intelligence over the decades that sources can be wrong, either because they don’t have the information, or sources can lie. This is particularly true with human sources. Therefore, when you’re assessing risk at either the global or regional or local level, you have to as an organization, first of all, gather as much information you can. And secondly, determine whether the sources of that information are accurate and reliable. Because if you choose to go with one source of information predominantly, that you see as valuable, and it turns out that the information is categorically false, you end up making wrong judgments, you end up making mistakes, and to cite but one example from my time, of course, there was the justification for the American decision to invade Iraq in 2003. There were two grounds for that, that is that Saddam Hussein, the then dictator of Iraq was in bed with al Qaeda, he was sponsoring and housing al Qaeda, which turned out to be false. And secondly, of course, it was that Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction that he was developing, and that turned out to be false. In other words, you had two very dubious sources of information at the time, which led to a decision to invade a country. And of course, we now look to see what Iraq is like almost 20 years later. And as I remind my listeners on a regular basis, if the Americans and their allies had not elected to invade Iraq in 2003, Islamic State, which is probably the most heinous terrorist group in recent history, with its rapes and its mutilations and its decapitations would not have arisen. A bad decision led to a bad invasion, which led to To the emergence of a truly violent and reprehensible terrorist group, it is therefore incumbent on anyone who’s trying to assess the risk of a given area, to again to summarize to collect the information as much as possible. And then to figure out whether or not the information you’ve collected, comes from reliable sources to try to corroborate it. And again, the term we use in intelligence is corroboration. If one source says something, that’s fine. Again, a source can be misleading a source can lie a source cannot know if two sources say the same thing that’s a little better, you have three sources saying the same thing that’s even better, etc, etc, etc. So gather information, determines reliability, and try to corroborate it from multiple sources as much as possible.