How media hype and politics get in the way of professionals

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Last month, another deadly attack carried out with the use of a vehicle made international headlines. On April 23, a white van drove about 2 kilometers down Yonge Street in the northern part of Toronto, Ontario, plowing down pedestrians, killing 10 and injuring 16 people.

The tragedy, which has turned out to be the worst mass killing in Canada in almost 30 years, prompted immediate expert comments and media speculations calling the incident an act of terrorism.

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Police keep watch over a vigil for the victims of an attack in Toronto that killed 10 people.

Indeed, the Toronto mass murder looks in many ways like numerous terror attacks inspired by ISIS. The attacker, Alek Minassian, 25, utilized a rented vehicle to kill people, which resembles an attack in the French city of Nice in 2016 among others. Heavy vehicles are increasingly being used as weapons by terrorists because of the low costs this tool of mass killing involves. Such an approach also allows lone terrorists to stay out of sight of law-enforcement agencies, which would not likely be the case if they had to get in touch with arms dealers.

Another sign of the possible terrorist nature of the Toronto attack was the way Minassian behaved after he stepped outside of the van. Holding an object in his hand, he pointed it at a police officer, as if it were a gun, and shouted: “Kill me! Shoot me in the head!” This is exactly what ISIS advises its supporters to do to avoid arrested after a terror attack.

However, this case may be a tangible example of how misleading first appearances can be. Some commentators immediately jumped to conclusions, without waiting for all the facts, which surely will be made public after the police finish their interrogations and searches. That is why in an era of sensationalism the opinion of professionals should be particularly valued.

I contacted Phil Gurski, an expert who has been working as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years and now is the president of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. All is not what it seems to be.

“The first thing you have to realize is that it was not called an act of terrorism by the police yet,” Gurski said. “The suspect was charged with murder but has not been charged with terrorism. The police did not have enough evidence to charge the suspect with terrorism. But they have enough evidence to charge the suspect with murder.”

What makes an act of violence an act of terrorism is ideology, a political motive behind the attack, to be more exact. Nothing of the kind has been declared by Minassian, nor has one been discovered by the police yet. Instead, it was revealed that Minassian had posted a message hostile to women on his Facebook page on April 23, moments before he drove down Yonge Street.

The post alludes to “incel,” an online group whose members call themselves “involuntary celibates” because women are unwilling to become their sex partners. At the same time, there is no indication so far that Minassian had ties or contacts with any known radical Islamist group.

Trust professionals, not media hype

Unfounded conclusions and flimsy accusations only serve to fuel public hysteria, which brings nothing but chaos and establishes divisions within society. This media hype sows fear among people, making them increasingly suspicious and aggressive toward one another. Isn’t that precisely what terrorists are pursuing?

The best way to avoid this is to confide in professionals. Just let them do their job. I suppose that people tend to distrust their governments in many areas. Sometimes this approach is justified, but not when it comes to national security – an area where only professionals can tackle the problems and where public order can be put at risk.

This is perfectly illustrated in the case of Constable Ken Lam, who arrested Minassian. This policeman has become famous worldwide for the skills he demonstrated at the crime scene: He assessed the situation correctly and made a cool-headed arrest without incident. The same is true for Canadian law-enforcement agencies in general, which employ highly qualified specialists.

In particular, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is considered to be among the best intelligence agencies in the world. It is endowed with enough powers through the Anti-Terrorism Act, which broadened the authority of Canadian government agencies.

“Canadian security services can always use more money and more resources but the job they do is very good,” Gurski noted.

It is not just media hype that interferes with the work of professionals in the field of national security. Politics may also have negative implications and get in the way of international cooperation in combating terrorism.

“Formal international cooperation is quite good and even when foreign relations between the countries are not as good as they can be. And they can’t help sharing information between the countries when it comes to terrorism,” Gurski said.

He added that it was important to try to share as much information as possible even though foreign relations between countries are unsatisfactory.

“We look through ways to still exchange information and exchange analysis to have a better idea of what’s happening around the world. And we exchange better ideas of how to deal with terrorism and prevent it from happening,” the expert noted.

By the way, the same applies to current tensions between Russia and some Western nations. However, existing troubles do not make such cooperation impossible but only complicate it, Gurski stressed.

“Even if diplomatic relations are not very good it is still possible to share intelligence information, although it is more difficult because the Foreign Ministry can tell security services not to cooperate for one reason or another,” he continued. “We have to try to find ways to work diplomatically.”

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