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Istanbul Attacks: The Challenge of Coordinated Terrorist Actions

Jun 30, 2016
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
National Security and Strategic Foresight

Details are continuing to emerge around a terrorist attack at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. There seems to be consensus within the media that this was a coordinated attack, involving multiple attackers with firearms and bombs. In many ways, this is reminiscent of the recent attacks in Brussels and Paris, as well as other parts of the globe, where terrorists are continuing to successfully launch coordinated attacks. In a blog post from April 2016, I argued that the successful use of coordinated attacks by terrorist groups, particularly in Europe, represents a shift in what extremist groups like Daesh are now capable of achieving.

But It’s Easier to Detect Coordinated Attacks, Right?

Much attention has been paid to the issue of lone actors―individuals who act on their own with little or no direct support from extremist groups, such as the shooter in Orlando―and the difficulty in identifying such individuals. Given the complex nature of a coordinated attack, as well as the logistics, communications, and number of people involved, many generally assume that it is easier to detect and stop coordinated attacks in comparison with lone actors. The problem is that this is a relative comparison. While the nature of coordinated attacks does provide more opportunities for intervention and disruption, these are still very difficult to detect, as evidenced by some of the recent events in Europe and across the globe. While lone actors pose a significant challenge, we cannot afford to ignore the threat posed by coordinated attacks and the resources that are needed to combat them.

How Do We Effectively Deal With Coordinated Attacks?

The best approach for dealing with the threat of coordinated terrorist attacks is to detect and disrupt them before they can be carried out. Effective intelligence and information gathering and sharing are crucial ingredients in this effort. As mentioned above, the more complex a plan gets, the more points there are for the authorities to detect and intervene. This does not depend only on traditional intelligence work―the ability to build trust within communities, which can help to identify potential attackers before they strike, is also crucial. This is a key element that I have mentioned in several of my blogs and that was highlighted in a Conference Board of Canada report on radicalization to violence. Unfortunately, when the relationship between communities is at risk from radicalization to violence and the authorities are poor, the risk of a successful lone actor and coordinated attacks increases.

What Does This Mean for Canada?

For a number of reasons, from community integration and history to geographic and political realities, Canada remains at lower risk of terrorist attacks than many of our close allies. This is also partly due to the good work being done by the intelligence services and law enforcement in preventing attacks on Canadian soil. However, the risk is real and, as evidenced by the events in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa in 2014, Canada is not immune to terrorist attacks.

While Canada has many great programs aimed at integrating newcomers and building community cohesion, the sharing of intelligence and information, across government but also with the private sector, is an area of concern. Preliminary research done by the Conference Board suggests that there are still some key issues in this space, particularly pertaining to information sharing with the private sector, a key partner in combating terrorism.

While a lot of controversy surrounds Bill C-51 in Canada, one of the reasons for the introduction of the bill was to improve the sharing of intelligence across different government agencies and departments. There are elements within Bill C-51 that need to be revisited, but we need to keep in mind that there are some provisions within the bill that can be crucial in the fight against terrorism. The challenge will be to ensure that a balanced view is taken in deciding what to do with Bill C-51 and that we do not destroy any good and necessary tools for intelligence sharing.

While the risks to Canada from coordinated terrorist attacks remain low, we need to ensure that the right steps are taken to ensure that this remains the case. Intelligence and information sharing, across both the public and private sectors, is an area that merits further attention and effort if we are to maintain our national security.

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