In the world of counter terrorism, this group must represent a "mixed signal."
The "Ontario 17" were sophisticated enough to recruit widely and train in camps. Plus, they had the wherewithal to purchase 3 tons of ammonium nitrate. Apparently, this was a group to reckon with, and not merely loudmouthed hotheads at the Mosque.
On the other hand, 17 people is a very large group, almost certain to leak (or otherwise "give off") the group’s intentions. Seventeen people produce a lot of ripples. Plus, one member of the group, Qayyum Abdul Jamal, 43, was a hot head and a loudmouth, and, as the imam-like figure in the Ar-Rahman Quran Learning Center, a vitriolic presence widely known to the South Asian community in Toronto and the RCMP. Apparently, the Ontario 17 hadn’t quite worked out the "stealth" part of the terror equation.
But here’s what makes the Ontario 17 unmistakably scary: they have no ties to Al Qaeda.
In the great sandstorm of information with which counter terrorism must deal, spontaneous combustion must be the biggest threat. With enough time, talent and money, it should be possible to pick up the connected players. But what if we must also deal with rogue groups, people without ties to Al Qaeda, people who are self defining, self funding, self organizing, self motivating? Then the "threat universe" grows larger and less scrutable.
Anthropology and economics to the rescue? Those of us who loiter at the intersection of anthropology and economics may be qualified to make a contribution here.
The economics side of the investigation is probably well mapped. I bet, for instance, that every ammonium nitrate sale is now scrutinized by man and machine. What about the anthropological side? I would guess that we are now assuming that no one or group not connected to active, public, mosque-based worship represents a threat.
This is probably true. But what if it isn’t? Is there a group out there which is not only not connected to Al Qaeda AND not connected to a public place of worship? With the ethnography in hand, an anthropologist could help decide this question, and, enabled the pattern recognition of which economics is capable, identify what we should be looking at, if indeed an additional threat exists. (This would be an exercise in anthropological profiling.)
But as usual, I have made the anthro and the econ mutually exclusive, when the point of the undertaking is to bring them together. And this is indeed where it gets interesting. If we have the ideological, social, cultural, religious signals that the anthropologist can identify, brought together with all the transactional data and pattern recognition that the economist controls, and we make these fully iterative and interactive, zounds, this would be sensational. Now we can ask our anthropological questions on the strength of economic data, and the economic questions on the strength of anthropological data. (If only all the world worked like this.)
Now I know this is beginning to sound like an episode of Numb3rs where the older brother (Rob Morrow) gives the younger brother (David Krumholtz) a mountain of data, and after a couple of days of dreamy reflection with a kooky colleague (Peter MacNicol) and unbelievably beautiful research assistant (Navi Rawat), the younger brother returns with the criminal’s defining characteristics, favorite movies, and home address.
It could work like that, but I imagine it would be more like Bletchley Park, the English code breaking operation in World World II, lots of really smart people sitting around, searching the world of terror for signals both qualitative and quantitative, for patterns both anthropological and economic. There would be lots of beauty, brains, dreaminess and acuity in our Bletchley Park, but the exercise would have not an episodic character but a cumulative one, so that as anthropology and economics worked together over many months, the data, the analysis and the understanding would take on real power and precision.
Eventually, one would hope, we would know what the terrorists were having for breakfast (to paraphrase Field Marshall Montgomery’s praise for Bletchley Park). More important, we would be in a position to anticipate the "unknown unknowns," the threats that exist out there, but throw off no conventional signals to identify their existence and intentions. The very world of unknown unknowns would be smaller and less unknowable.
If you had asked me to predict whether a show about mathematics (a kind of CSI where math replaces science) would prosper, even after you had quaranteed big stars, big money, and big talent (the Scott brothers), I would have said you were dreaming. Which tells us, once more, that this culture is a lot like the weather in Ireland. Don’t like it? Give it 5 minutes, and everything will change.
Austen, Ian and Johnston, David. 2006. 17 held in plots to bomb sites in Ontario. The New York Times. June 4, 2006. here.