Tag: terror

The Toronto “Van Incident” and Terrorism in Canada

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said that there is no evidence that yesterday’s “van incident,” where Alek Minassian murdered 10 people and injured 15 others on a busy sidewalk with a van, was a terrorist attack.  To count as a terrorist attack, Minassian’s motivations must have been political, religious, or social in nature beyond simply a desire to terrorize or murder others.  Minassian’s motives are so far unclear with much speculation regarding his social awkwardness and possible anti-women opinions but, so far, little surrounding his political or religious opinions.  This could change as police and investigators uncover new facts.

Many in media and government, prompted by Minassian’s mass murder, are commenting on terrorism in Canada but with little context.  By using the methods employed in my recent terrorism risk analysis for the United States, I’ve found that terrorism is rare in Canada.  Assuming that investigators will eventually find that Minassian’s mass-murder is not terrorism, as they currently claim, then the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on Canadian soil over the last 25 years was about one in 60.4 million per year.  The annual chance of being injured in a terrorist attack on Canadian soil during that time was about one in 7.4 million per year.

Data and Methodology

This post examines 25 years of terrorism on Canadian soil from 1993 through April 23, 2018.  Fatalities and injuries in terrorist attacks are the most important measures of the cost of terrorism. The information sources are the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at the University of Maryland, the RAND Corporation, and others.  I excluded three fatalities counted by the GTD as they were the terrorists themselves.  I further grouped the ideology of the deadly attackers into four broad ideologies: Islamists, Anti-Muslims, anti-government, and Unknown/Other. GTD descriptions of the attackers, news stories, and wikipedia were my guide in grouping the attacks by ideology. The grouping by ideology was easy as there were so few terrorist attacks in Canada from 1993 to the present.  The number of Canadian residents and non-terrorist murders in each year comes from Statistics Canada.

Terrorism Risk in Canada

Terrorists have murdered 14 people on Canadian soil from 1993 through April 23, 2018.  Islamists murdered 3 of the victims, an anti-government terrorist murdered 3, suspected terrorists of an unknown ideology murdered 2, and 6 were murdered by an anti-Muslim terrorist named Alexandre Bissonnette in a shooting at a Quebec mosque last year (Figure 1).  Of the 63 terrorist attacks in Canada during that time, according to a wide definition of the term “terrorist” in the GTD, only 7 resulted in a fatality.  In other words, 89 percent of terrorist attacks in Canada during the last 25 years killed nobody.

Figure 1

Murders in Canadian Terrorist Attacks by the Ideology of the Attacker, 1993-2018

 

Sources: Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, RAND Corporation, ESRI, and author’s calculations.

Although most of the recorded terrorist attacks targetted small groups in Canada, like Muslims or the police, it is useful to get a sense of the relative danger by looking at the annual chance of being murdered by a terrorist inspired by each ideology.  The annual chance of being murdered by an Islamist in a terrorist attack was the same as that of being murdered by an anti-government terrorist: about one in 281.7 million per year.  The annual chance of being murdered by a terrorist with an unknown ideology was about one in 422.5 million per year.  The greatest risk, but also still tiny, was being murdered by Alexandre Bissonnette in his Mosque attack last year at one in 140.8 million per year over the 25 years. 

There were 114 injuries in terrorist attacks on Canadian soil from 1993 through April 23, 2018 (Table 1).  Terrorists with unknown or other ideologies caused almost 68 percent of those injuries.  Alexandre Bissonnette, the anti-Muslim terrorist, was personally responsible for 17 percent of all injuries in terrorist attacks during this time in Canada.  Islamist terrorists were responsible for about 11 percent of injuries while anti-abortion and anti-government terrorists were responsible for 4 and 2 percent of all injuries, respectively. 

Table 1

Injuries in Canadian Terrorist Attacks by the Ideology of the Attacker, 1993-2018

  Injuries Annual Chance of Being Injured Percent of All Injuries
Unknown/Other

77

1 in 10,973,614

67.5%

Anti-Muslim

19

1 in 44,472,016

16.7%

Islamist

12

1 in 70,414,026

10.5%

Anti-abortion

4

1 in 211,242,077

3.5%

Anti-government

2

1 in 422,484,154

1.8%

Total

114

1 in 7,412,003

100%

Sources: Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, RAND Corporation, ESRI, and author’s calculations.

Comparison to Murder

Fatalities and injuries in terrorist attacks are rare so a relevant comparison to non-terrorist murder puts the terrorism danger into perspective.  There were about 14,807 murders in Canada from 1993 through April 23, 2018.  Because the number of murders is not reported for 2016-2018, I assumed that the number of murders for each of those years was the same as the number in 2015.  The annual chance of being murdered outside of a terrorist attack was about one in 57,000 per year from 1993 through 2018 – about 1,058 times greater than the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack.      

Conclusion

There is a small chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in Canada over the last 25 years.  By comparison, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States over that time was about 25 times greater than in Canada.  Similarly, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in Canada also appears to be lower than in Europe.  The chance of being murdered in a non-terrorist murder in Canada was over 1000 times greater.  Alek Minassian’s horrific mass murder does not appear to be a terrorist attack based on the information available at this time, but if it does turn out to be terrorism then it would be the deadliest attack on Canadian soil since December 6, 1989, when Marc Lepine murdered 14 and injured 14 others in an attack inspired by his anti-feminism.  The murder or death of innocent people is tragic no matter the circumstances and the perpetrator should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.  Regardless, Canadians can at least take some comfort in the fact that the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in Canada is small in absolute terms, relative to the residents of other developed nations, and compared to the chance of being murdered in a non-terrorist homicide.     

 

 

 

 

The Halloween Terror Attack in New York: The Threat from Foreign-Born Terrorists

On Halloween, Uzbek-born Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov allegedly murdered eight people and injured 12 with a rented truck in New York City.  The details of the attack, the number of victims, and Saipov’s personal information could change over the next few days.  However, based on the information that we have so far, Saipov entered the United States in 2010 as a lawful permanent resident with a green card.  He obtained his green card through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which awards 50,000 green cards annually to those who enter the running from select countries. 

Uzbekistan has not been a major source of terrorists.  From 1975 through the end of 2016, three terrorists born in Uzbekistan attempted attacks on U.S. soil.  They killed or injured zero people in their attempted or threatened attacks.  Ulugbek Kodirov was convicted in 2012 of threatening to assassinate President Obama after entering on a student visa.  Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev entered on a green card that he won in a diversity lottery and also threatened to kill President Obama.  Fazliddin Kurbanov entered as a refugee and was convicted of possessing an unregistered explosive device.  Threats to assassinate the president are farfetched, but we count assassinations of politicians as terrorism just as the Global Terrorism Database does. 

If the death toll from the New York attack doesn’t rise, a total of 3,037 people have been murdered on U.S. soil by 182 foreign-born terrorists from 1975 through October 31, 2017.  Of those 182 foreign-born terrorists, 63 initially entered with green cards.  Including Tuesday’s attack, those who entered on a green card killed 16 people, or about 0.53 percent of all people murdered in terror attacks on U.S. soil committed by a foreigner.  If the number of injuries stays at 12, terrorists who entered on green cards have injured about 203 people during this period in attacks.  

The annual chance of being murdered in a terror attack on U.S. soil committed by a foreign-born person stands at 1 in 3,808,094 per year from 1975 through October 31, 2017. 

Woodward, Resilience, and Virtues of Partisan Foreign Policy

On the National Interest’s Skeptics blog, I have a new post about my lack of outrage over the revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book about Obama and Afghanistan.

Unlike John Bolton and Heritage, I don’t think that the President’s comment that we can withstand another terrorist attack like 9-11 is offensive. After all, we can, and saying so doesn’t mean you want to try it.

As I put it there:

What’s truly outrageous is the notion that the only valid response to terrorism is cowering fear at home and endless warfare abroad. Somehow, for much the right, crediting our enemies with the ability to wreck our society is required, and it is verboten to say that we are something other than a pathetic, brittle nation that cannot manage adversity.

I also fail to get upset about the President’s worry that expanding the war in Afghanistan would alienate his base. Politics not only doesn’t stop at the water’s edge; it shouldn’t. I’m not sure exactly when popular checks on the war-making power went out of style, but I think we could use more of that in Afghanistan, not less. If pandering to the base can get us out of there one of these years, pander away.

The solution to bad policies is better politics, not no politics, to paraphase.

*I also recommend Paul Pillar’s post on the same subject. He says that the real news here is the Pentagon’s refusal to offer the President a policy alternative between population centric counter-insurgency and exit.

Collecting Dots and Connecting Dots

As Jeff Stein notes over at the Washington Post, the declassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Christmas underpants bomber ought to sound awfully familiar to anyone who thumbed through the 9/11 Commission’s massive analysis of intelligence failures. Of the 14 points of failure identified by the Senate, one pertains to a failure of surveillance acquisition: the understandably vague claim that NSA “did not pursue potential collection opportunities,” which it’s impossible to really evaluate without more information. (Marc Ambinder tries to fill in some of the gaps at The Atlantic.)  The other 13 echo that old refrain: Lots of data points, nobody managing to connect them. Problems included myopic analysis—folks looking at Yemen focused on regionally-directed threats—sluggish information dissemination, misconfigured computers, and simple failure to act on information already in hand.

Yet you’ll notice that in the wake of such failures, the political response tends to be heavily weighted toward finding ways to collect more dots.  We hear calls for more surveillance cameras in our cities, more wiretapping with fewer restrictions, fancier scanners in the airport, fewer due process protections for captured suspects. Sometimes you’ll also see efforts to address the actual causes of intelligence failure, but they certainly don’t get the bulk of the attention.  And little wonder! Structural problems internal to intelligence or law enforcement agencies, or failures of coordination between them, are a dry, wonky, and often secret business. The solutions are complicated, distinctly unsexy, and (crucially) don’t usually lend themselves to direct legislative amelioration—especially when Congress has already rolled out the big new coordinating entities that were supposed to solve these problems last time around.

But demands for more power and more collection and more visible gee-whiz technology?  Well, those are simple. Those are things you can trumpet in a 700-word op-ed and brag about in press releases to your constituents. Those are things pundits and anchors can debate in without intimate knowledge of Miroesque DOJ org charts.  In short, we end up talking about the things that are easy to talk about.  We should not be under any illusions that this makes them good solutions to intel’s real problems. Hard as it is for pundits to sit silent or legislators to seem idle, sometimes the most vital reforms just don’t make for snazzy headlines.

‘The Dumbest Terrorist In the World’?

Businessweek has a story quoting a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, Michael Wildes, speculating that Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, made so many mistakes (leaving his house keys in the car, not knowing about the vehicle identification number, making calls from his cellphone, getting filmed, buying the car himself) that he may be the “dumbest terrorist in the world.” But Wildes can’t accept the idea that an al Qaeda type terrorist would be so incompetent and suggests that Shahzad was “purposefully hapless” to generate intelligence about the police reaction for the edification of his buddies back in Pakistan.

Give me a break. This incompetence is hardly unprecedented. Three years ago Bruce Schneier wrote an article titled “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot,” describing the incompetence of several would-be al Qaeda plots in the United States and castigating commentators for clinging to image of these guys as Bond-style villains that rarely err.  It’s been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn’t managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn’t settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies’ failure.

The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent – no one would call Mohammed Atta that – or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.

The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason.  They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.

The guys in Waziristan who trained Shahzad are probably embarrassed to have failed in the eyes of the world and would be relieved if we concluded that they did so intentionally. Likewise, it must have heartened the al Qaeda group in Yemen when the failed underwear bomber that they sent west set off the frenzied reaction that he did.  Remember that in March, al Qaeda’s American-born spokesperson/groupie Adam Gadahn said this:

Even apparently unsuccessful attacks on Western mass transportation systems can bring major cities to a halt, cost the enemy billions and send his corporations into bankruptcy.

As our enemies realize, the bulk of harm from terrorism comes from our reaction to it.  Whatever role its remnants or fellow-travelers had in this attempt, al Qaeda (or whatever we want to call the loosely affiliated movement of internationally-oriented jihadists) is failing. They have a shrinking foothold in western Pakistan, maybe one in Yemen, and little more. Elsewhere they are hidden and hunted. Their popularity is waning worldwide. Their capability is limited. The predictions made after September 11 of waves of similar or worse attacks were wrong. This threat is persistent but not existential.

This attempt should also remind us of another old point: our best counterterrorism tools are not air strikes or army brigades but intelligence agents, FBI agents, and big city police.  It’s true that because nothing but bomber error stopped this attack, we cannot draw strong conclusions from it about what preventive measures work best. But the aftermath suggests that what is most likely to prevent the next attack is a criminal investigation conducted under normal laws and the intelligence leads it generates. Domestic counterterrorism is largely coincident with ordinary policing. The most important step in catching the would-be bomber here appears to have been getting the vehicle identification number off the engine and rapidly interviewing the person who sold it. Now we are seemingly gathering significant intelligence about bad actors in Pakistan under standard interrogation practices.

These are among the points explored in the volume Chris Preble, Jim Harper and I edited: Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It – now hot off the presses. Contributors include Audrey Kurth Cronin, Paul Pillar, John Mueller, Mia Bloom, and a bunch of other smart people.

We’re discussing the book and counterterrorism policy at Cato on May 24th,  at 4 PM. Register to attend or watch online here.

Wednesday Links

  • John McCain channels Dick Cheney: On March 4, McCain introduced a bill that  “would require that anyone anywhere in the world, including American citizens, suspected of involvement in terrorism – including ‘material support’ (otherwise undefined) – can be imprisoned by the military on the authority of the president as commander in chief.”
  • President Obama declared passage of a major student-aid reform law yesterday. Will it help? Cato education expert Neal McCluskey calls it a mixed bag.
Topics:

Greenwald on the Arrar Ruling

Glenn Greenwald has a good post about Arrar v. Ashcroft, an appeals court ruling that came down the other day.  Here’s an excerpt:

Maher Arar is both a Canadian and Syrian citizen of Syrian descent.  A telecommunications engineer and graduate of Montreal’s McGill University, he has lived in Canada since he’s 17 years old.  In 2002, he was returning home to Canada from vacation when, on a stopover at JFK Airport, he was (a) detained by U.S. officials, (b) accused of being a Terrorist, (c) held for two weeks incommunicado and without access to counsel while he was abusively interrogated, and then (d) was “rendered” – despite his pleas that he would be tortured – to Syria, to be interrogated and tortured.  He remained in Syria for the next 10 months under the most brutal and inhumane conditions imaginable, where he was repeatedly tortured.  Everyone acknowledges that Arar was never involved with Terrorism and was guilty of nothing.  I’ve appended to the end of this post the graphic description from a dissenting judge of what was done to Arar while in American custody and then in Syria.

Read the whole thing.   Also, the ACLU has put together a short film about the experiences of some prisoners released from Guantanamo.