For a while, at least, it looked as if the “age of terror” was finally behind us. During the presidency of George W. Bush, whose presidential library finally opened last week to a 10,000-strong crowd of well-wishers, there were no further attacks on American soil after 9/11 — something for which his much-criticized administration could take real credit.
Americans were finally beginning to feel more secure as life returned to the ‘new normal’ of a post 9/11 world.
And when the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden finally ended with his killing in May 2011 by U.S. Navy Seals in a secret CIA operation, it looked as if al-Qaida was on the run.
The murderous terrorist attacks in Boston two weeks ago changed all that. The “age of terror” returned with a vengeance — a stark and painful reminder that we cannot let down our guard.
In Canada, the successful apprehension of two suspects, Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier, who allegedly were plotting to blow up a VIA passenger train bound for New York, also served to remind Canadians that, whether they like it or not, they too are on on al-Qaida’s hit list.
Much is being made of the fact that these new attacks came from a ‘B’ team of so-called home-grown terrorists who are not nearly as well-trained as Osama’s henchmen. But even B-teamers get lucky — as the Boston marathon bombers demonstrated.
Some of the members of this new B team are individuals, like Raed Jaser, who managed to get into Canada because of our lax immigration and refugee laws. But others — like Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, two young Ontario men who were involved in leading the terrorist attack on a gas plant in southeastern Algeria — certainly don’t fit the stereotype of Islamic extremists.
More troubling is the sloppiness of police and intelligence officials. In spite of the billions poured into the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI appears to have repeatedly ignored warnings from Russian intelligence services that Tamerian Tsarnaev, the elder brother in the Boston marathon attack, was bad news and had to be watched closely. We have also learned that the RCMP had Medlej and Katsiroubas in their sights for two years before the Algerian gas plant attacks, suggesting that there may have been a partial failure of intelligence here, too.
The one piece of good news is that the foiled VIA rail attack was the result of unprecedented levels of cooperation among Canada’s security and intelligence agencies.
Both events also demonstrate the importance of individual actions by community members: the Chinese immigrant whose car was hijacked in Boston, the boat owner who alerted police, the videos shot by those watching the marathon and, reportedly, the initiative of an imam in Toronto.
For armchair academics and politicians who like to speculate about the “root causes” of terrorism, it is worth bearing in mind that conflicts in far-off places are ultimately the incubators of terrorist movements. It is not simply a matter of perennial youth disaffection. Tamerian Tsarnaev appears to have learned his trade at the hands of Islamic extremists in his native Dagestan. And if Canadians choose to reflect for a moment on their own history, they may remember that the FLQ terrorists were trained by Algerian rebels in the techniques of guerrilla warfare.
The more failed and collapsing (or collapsed) states there are in the world — no matter how distant or obscure — the greater the likelihood that they will export their problems, their religious or ethnic extremism, to Canada. That’s that the harsh reality of a deeply interconnected globe, where problems and movements don’t respect national boundaries. That is the real root cause.
As the U.S. and remaining NATO forces prepare to disengage from Afghanistan, they are sowing the seeds for the next generation of terrorists and religious extremists who will almost certainly try to seek amends for the “injustices” they believe were wrought by the West on their country. Afghanistan is still a mess and almost certainly will be an even worse mess after 2014. It will be deja vu all over again, much like what happened after the Soviets beat a hasty retreat in the 1980s and the Taliban seized power. Only this time around, it will be worse if the Pakistan domino — a nuclear domino — falls.
There is always a risk that the openness of our societies may be a source of vulnerability in the face of blatant, seemingly mindless, terrorist actions. The balance between liberty and order in a democracy will never be perfect.
But the innate sense of responsibility and the resourcefulness of individuals, as demonstrated spontaneously in Boston and Toronto, offer some assurance that the vigilance of our people, acting on values we cherish, will be our best defence. We will need a concerted effort across the board to root out the cancer before it spreads.