When it comes to terrorism threat in Canada, former Canadian intelligence officer and Western alumnus Phil Gurski has two messages: it is both real and overblown.
Conspiracy theories, even from self-described insurgents who claim to be planning a coup, rarely amount to more than just talk, he said.
But, he added, almost anyone can be radicalized depending on their circle of influence, and it can originate in small towns as well as in large cities. “Where is that threat? It’s everywhere, and nowhere.”
A career in intelligence wasn’t on his radar in the 1970s when a knack for learning languages led him to study French, Spanish and Russian languages at Western.
After earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees, Gurski , BA’82, MA’83, spotted a campus ad looking for linguists in the Department of National Defence (DND).
He was hired – by the Communications Security Establishment which specialized in foreign intelligence – and instructed to say he worked for the Department of Defence.
“Western gave me the opportunity to learn modern languages. I had no idea where it was leading.”
In the next 32 years of his career, he became a specialist in the Middle East, joined the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and focused strategic analysis on jihadi terrorism and radicalization on Canadian soil.
Now retired, he has a security consulting company, Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting, and is author of six books – including, most recently, The Peaceable Kingdom? A History of Terrorism in Canada from Confederation to the Present.
He is often called upon by media to comment on terrorist threats and acts.
And while it may sound antithetical for an intelligence analyst in Canada’s spy agency to be talking openly about spying, Gurski said he also knows the limits of what he can and cannot say.
He wants his expertise to play a part in enhancing Canadians’ understanding of Canada’s security agencies. “There’s something about working at ‘the coalface’ for 30 years that gives you insights other people don’t have.”
Before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Twin Towers, a lot of Canadian agencies’ efforts went into counter-intelligence. After 9/11, those resources were poured into counter-terrorism.
While it was valuable to devote more resources to real and potential threats, 9/11 also sparked an unfounded public fear that Canada faced an existential threat from terrorism and from Islam, he said.
The Peaceable Kingdom? examines the perception and the reality of terrorism, from the Fenians’ assassination of politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee in 1868 to the FLQ crisis in 1970 to the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, which claimed 329 lives and remains the worst terrorist act in Canadian history.
While some countries suffer extremist and terrorist attacks daily – in Afghanistan and Mozambique for example – Canada, on average, has experienced an attack every seven years since Confederation, Gurski said. And most of these originate from historical grievances that began elsewhere. “So what does that tell us? (It says) Canada is a very, very safe country.”
He admitted that doesn’t preclude the important work of Canada’s intelligence experts as they decipher what represents a true terrorist threat and what is an individual or group spreading abhorrent, hate-filled ideas.