Op-ed: Terrorism and Violent Extremism in Canada

Earlier this summer, we posted a link to a Le Devoir article written by Vivek Venkatesh, Project Someone’s director who argues that we need to use publicly-available data to inform our understanding of the terrorism threat to Canadians. This is the English version of the article: 

Public and policy debates presently abound regarding whether the definition of terrorism should be expanded beyond acts that are motivated by political, religious or other ideological frameworks and be inclusive of both state and non-state actors. Closely linked to this discussion is the question of how people perceive which group poses the most imminent terrorist threat to Canadian residents. The federal government has singled out violent extremists, more specifically followers of the so-called Islamic State or Daesh, as the principal terrorist threat facing Canadians. But a closer examination of publicly available evidence puts this in doubt, instead suggesting a threat that lies closer to home.

In 2016 and 2017 reports on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, Public Safety Canada points to Daesh as a terrorist group that needs to be specifically countered. Explicit mention is made – in the 2016 report – of the incidents in October of 2014 within Canada involving two lone-actors – inspired by Daesh – who each killed a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. What is more, data on fatalities, presented in the Global Terrorism Index appears to point the finger at Daesh as being the most imminent threat around the globe. But is this true in the Canadian context? The 2017 report from Public Safety mentions the rise of right-wing extremism and points to the January 2017 mosque attack in Quebec City. How serious is this threat? Let’s drill down on some of the evidence available to us.

The Global Terrorism Index, an annual report published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, details a variety of patterns in terrorist activities across the globe. The 2017 edition places Canada 66th amongst 163 nations, with a rating of 2.96 out of a possible 10. For the purposes of comparison, Iraq is the top ranked country with a rating of 10 whereas the United States of America is 32nd with a rating of 5.43. The Index points out that between 1970 and 2016, countries who are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (excluding Israel and Turkey) have seen more than 9,600 deaths from terrorism. While Daesh is responsible in most recent years for more than 4.7% of these deaths, the Index urges readers to put into perspective that Al’Qaida – who are responsible for 31% of the deaths – are almost exclusively represented by the September 11 attacks. It also highlights how Irish and Basque separatist groups together have historically been responsible for 26% of terrorist-related deaths.

Photo: Sean Kilpatrick La Presse canadienne

 

Most interestingly, the Index reports that Canada’s rating has been increasing steadily since 2012 when it was at 1.51 but the explanation bears closer scrutiny. This is because the Index also points to the fact that between January 1, 2014 and June 30, 2017, more terrorism-related deaths in Canada resulted from attacks perpetrated by groups or individuals other than Daesh.

Closer scrutiny of the Index left me with a new set of questions:

What (or who) exactly do these casualty figures represent?

Who is committing these attacks in Canada?

How often have these incidents been perpetrated by different types of terrorist organisations?

To answer these questions, I used a second source which employs the same methodology used in the Global Terrorism Index, thereby allowing for cross-referencing. The Canadian Incident Database provides information on Canadian terrorism and violent extremism incidents including assassinations, bombings, hijackings and unarmed assaults. The database relies on the Canadian Criminal Code (1985, section 83.01) and specifies intent, the existence of some level of violence as well as the exclusion of state actors in its definition of terrorism. It is worthwhile noting that for the purposes of the database, terrorism has a more restrictive definition than violent extremism and specific incidents may be coded as both. This database is maintained by the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS), and it draws on information that is publicly available.   

Using the database’s unique interactive classification tools, we are able to note the following: since 2000, 209 incidents resulted in 22 deaths and 104 injuries on Canadian soil. Dramatic numbers, yes. But when classifying these incidents by those committed by individuals or organisations with religious motives, only 13 incidents have yielded 2 deaths and 5 injuries in Canada.

When one classifies these incidents by organisations that identify with supremacist movements, the numbers are significant: 57 separate incidents have yielded 15 fatalities and 55 injuries.

This database doesn’t include incidents from 2016 or 2017 such as the attack perpetrated in a Quebec City mosque in January of 2017 that killed 6 people and wounded another 19. Nor does the database account for the incident in September of 2017 in Edmonton which injured five people.

The data indicates that in Canada between 2000 and 2015, religiously-motivated terrorist and violent extremist incidents (Daesh, Daesh-inspired, Al-Qaida, Al-Shabab or otherwise) have led to 7.5 times fewer fatalities than those propagated by supremacist organisations. When including the Quebec City attacks this factor rises to 10.

This is not the first time significant divergences have been reported between such incidents in North America perpetrated by religiously-motivated organisations or individuals and those that are supremacist in orientation.

In summer 2017, the Center for Investigative Reporting published a report describing how, between 2008 and 2016, right-wing domestic terror incidents were almost double in number (115) compared to Islamist-inspired incidents (63) in the United States. A closer examination of the political, social, cultural, economic and legal conditions across the Canadian and American contexts is most definitely warranted before comparing contextualized data about these incidences.

But for the moment, it’s fair to say that while terrorism poses a threat to the Canadian public, it’s important to emphasise that Daesh or Islamist-inspired ideologies are not necessarily the most imminent threat.

 

Vivek Venkatesh

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