CSIS and Indicators of Mobilization to Violence: Drawing Back from 'Holy Grails' and 'Gold Standards'

February 24, 2018

By Garth Davies, TRSS Co-Director

Last week, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) released its report on Mobilization to Violence (Terrorism) Research. Predictably, the report has generated backlash and concerns. Given the significance of the issue, it is of course prudent to carefully consider the report’s findings. Some of the commentary, however, has slipped from healthy skepticism to cynicism. For example, a recent article for the CBC argued that “You're never going to find some holy grail that is a key indicator for mobilization to violence” and that “(w)e shouldn't take CSIS's findings as somehow the gold standard”. The report never claims to be either of these things. In fact, the report is explicit in acknowledging its limitations, noting that “(i)ndicators of mobilization to violence are not meant to serve as a predictive model of behaviour nor as a profiling template.” In anticipation of the argument that mobilization is a highly individualized process, the report further suggests that “(i)ndicators of mobilization to violence must be used in combination and in context; they help refine the intent and capability of an extremist individual.” A straw man approach of the sort offered by the CBC article is not helpful and does not advance our knowledge in this area.

It is worthwhile to ask why CSIS published this report, when the safer course of action would have been to keep its contents classified. The straightforward answer is that the report is an initial step in filling a massive information void. Simply put, the public is clamoring for this type of information. Parents and members of communities want help. They want to know what kinds of behaviours they should be looking for in relation to extremism. If people have concerns, they need assistance in determining whether those concerns may be warranted. Law enforcement and first responders similarly want and need this information. I regularly provide Counter Terrorism Intelligence Officer training for a variety of law enforcement and first responder agencies, and the questions that arise most often in these courses are “What should I be looking for?” and “How do I know when I should be alerting someone?” The findings provided in the CSIS report need to be part of the larger societal discussion about what can be done to counter violent extremism.

It should further be acknowledged how difficult it is for an intelligence agency to make public this sort of information. By nature secretive, no other intelligence agency in the West has issued such findings. CSIS should be credited for trying to bring empirical findings to what has generally been a theoretical debate. This does not, of course, render the report above criticism. But it would be more useful if that criticism was focused and constructive. The report can, and undoubtedly will, serve as the foundation of research efforts moving forward. Legitimate issues, such as the lack of a control group, are not insurmountable; it may be possible to address them in the future. In the meantime, we should heed Voltaire’s admonishment not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The CSIS report is not perfect, nor the final word. But it is a good start.