By Colonel (ret'd) Pat Stogran
As I embark on another instalment of my EdeC column, I wish to express my sincerest condolences to all of the victims, their families and friends of the tragedies in Las Vegas and Edmonton. Although the magnitude of the horror of the latter pales in comparison to the former, they are indeed both tragedies in their own right and examples of the very worst of the human experience.
With these horrendous acts of seemingly senseless violence, governments’ knee-jerk reaction is to declare them acts of terrorism. Acts such as these do in fact strike terror into the hearts and minds of anybody and everybody who merely hears tell of them, and one can only imagine how irreparably traumatizing it is for the victims, but I submit that senior management in our society should use their discretion before defaulting to terrorism for every seemingly senseless act of mass violence. It clouds the general understanding of actual terrorism and hence makes it far more difficult to address the root causes.
Formal definitions of terrorism abound, but the most relevant of these for the purpose of this discussion should reside in the Criminal Code of Canada. Section 83.01(1) (b) (i) defines terrorism as an act or omission, in or outside Canada, that is committed for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause in order to intimidate the public and compel a person, government or a domestic or an international organization to do or not do something. That, however, is such a broad all-encompassing definition that, while it may satisfy the requirement for name-calling and fear-mongering by elected officials and possibly even give cause to the law enforcement community to react in a more extreme fashion than would otherwise be considered acceptable, it could actually be counterproductive.
Importantly, the vague, even ambiguous depiction of terrorism as simply a form of mindless violence perpetrated against innocent civilians “to force someone to do something” makes it unlikely that government officials will be able to counter the proliferation of such acts. A cursory search on the Internet reveals a definition of terrorism that is, in my opinion, far more useful: that terrorism amounts to the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims (emphasis is my own). Based on my military upbringing, “terrorism” has been, since time immemorial, an act of war. Conventional armies since the beginning of time have terrorized populations in order to bring about the capitulation of their sovereign state, in the form of mass rapes and murders, public executions, destroying crops and infrastructure or poisoning wells and water supplies. Hell, accusations of terrorism have even been levelled retroactively against the Allies during the Second World War with their strategic bombing of the German population as a means of forcing the surrender of the Nazi regime.
At the same time, terrorism has been the strategy of unconventional forces pitted against the massively superior conventional forces of nation states. In his epic book Inside Terrorism (Columbia Press 2006), author Bruce Hoffman tells us that terrorism became a household term on July 22, 1968 when a Palestinian group hijacked an El Al flight en route from Rome to Tel Aviv. Subsequent to that event, alarming reports of bloody airliner hijackings and airport shootouts became all too frequent. Terrorism reached a crescendo when Palestinian gunmen launched a deadly attack against Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. As Hoffman points out, international terrorism demonstrated its utility when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was subsequently granted observer status at the United Nations and its leader at the time, Yasser Arafat, was invited to address the General Assembly. Hoffman remarks, “It is doubtful whether the P.L.O. could ever have achieved this success had it not resorted to international terrorism.’’
Readers must understand that in a terrorist attack the physical casualties are not the intended target. Terror strategists unwittingly employ manoeuvre theory by avoiding the military might of their adversaries and focusing their limited resources in order to achieve a disproportionately advantageous effect. The intent is to attack the confidence and moral resolve of the general population as the critical vulnerability of their national government. Successful attacks against soft targets make the respective government look weak, build the credibility of the terrorist organization as a capable adversary, and draw attention to their cause. Consequently, when fear and confusion erupt amongst the general population, government bears the brunt. Indeed, terrorist attacks are even more successful when a government is perceived to lose control and said fear and confusion cause the populace to break down into civil disobedience, open bigotry and reactionary violence.
On October 11, 2017, the Intercept, an online media organization committed to reporting on well-intentioned whistleblowers who otherwise might not get the coverage they merit from mainstream media outlets, reported on a would-be bomber whose plot was foiled with little fanfare in the press. Apparently on the 6th of October, officials discovered a device consisting of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosives with nails and ball bearings as projectiles in the Asheville Regional Airport in North Carolina before it could be detonated. The reporter speculated that “[t]he story didn’t go viral and Trump didn’t tweet about it because the bomb was not placed by an immigrant, or a Muslim, or a Mexican. It was placed there by a good ol’ white man.” That may be so, but there are also some very good reasons not to draw attention to terrorist attempts.
Acquaintances of mine in law enforcement have told me about incidents in major Canadian urban centres whereby officials have quietly neutralized pipe-bombs before they were detonated or after they failed to detonate without alarming the public, deliberately to prevent the group suspected of being behind the plots from gaining the notoriety and reactions they were looking for. Now there is a delicate balance between depriving the public of their right to know and denying the terrorists’ intent of instilling fear within a broader target audience in order to sway public opinion or coerce their government to act. At the very least, government officials should display calm and resolve to reassure the general population rather than raise anxieties and potentially adverse reactions by running around crying that ‘the sky is falling.’
In 2016, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff asserted that Canada is not “legally” at war with the Daesh (a.k.a. ISIS or ISIL) nor are our troops in the region engaged in combat operations. Notwithstanding that statement, the Canadian Armed Forces reported that a sniper with Canada’s elite Joint Task Force 2 in Iraq shattered the world record for the longest confirmed kill at a range of 3,540 metres, an astounding accomplishment especially in a non-combat role. The so-called jihadists have declared war on Canada and have been directly associated with acts of war—terrorism – perpetrated on Canadian soil. One has to wonder whether this is demonstrative of the government’s lack of understanding of asymmetric or irregular warfare and how to deal with it, or that elected officials are more interested in exploiting the political advantages that terrorism might offer their careers.
As usual, I look forward to hearing from readers on other ideas, points of view or constructive criticism of the thoughts I have shared here. Until next month …