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Canada’s Spy Agency Disputes Idea That Personality and Terrorism Aren’t Linked

A new report by Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, argues that a common link between personality and terrorism “remains possible.”
Image of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who attacked Canada's Parliament in 2014.

It's an accepted truth among terrorism experts that someone's personality does not indicate whether they will become a terrorist

"As of now, there is no specific terrorist profile," Jocelyn Bélanger, a professor at the Université du Quebec à Montreal who specializes in radicalization, told the Homeland Security News Wire earlier this year. "They come in all shapes and sizes."

But a new report by Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), challenges that assumption, and argues that a common link between personality and terrorism "remains possible."


The report, which does not name its author, entitled Personality Traits and Terrorism published this month on the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society website is the first of its kind published by the agency.

"Researching how personality affects an individual's involvement in terrorism may contribute to a better understanding of radicalization, and potentially increase the effectiveness of programs aimed at countering violent extremism," the report states, adding that there's a need for "Western security agencies" to "better understand the psychological factors that lead Western citizens to accept the legitimacy of terrorism."

The paper certainly does not betray any state secrets, and is based primarily on open source scholarly articles. But it's rare for CSIS to release its reports openly, and doing so provides a glimpse into its interests.

Based on a review of recent studies, the report concludes the claims that a terrorist personality does not exist are "unfounded."

Related: Deaths and Damages Due to Terrorism Have Never Been Higher

CSIS spokesperson Tahera Mufti did not explain exactly why the agency decided to publish this particular paper, but said that while CSIS is usually a "consumer of such research," it's "looking to encourage researchers to further our understanding of who gets involved in threat-related activities."

Phil Gurski, a former CSIS strategic analyst and author of a recent book on violent extremism in Canada, said he was surprised such a report had been released to the public, as it rarely happens.


And he doesn't see how knowing whether there are common personality traits would help prevent terrorist attacks.

"I'm not sure how we would test for them and how we would use them as a sorting tool to winnow the problematic characteristics from the ones that aren't going to become a problem. It's a fascinating research question, but I don't see how it's operational," he said.

"As an organization that's involved in investigating threats to national security, and that means investigating people, obviously it helps to know more about certain people and their psychological and personality characteristics in terms of how you approach them," he said. "But in terms of predictability, in terms of narrowing the field of potential subjects, I'm really skeptical about how useful it is."

Gurski's book, the Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-Inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West, outlines 12 behaviors and attitudes law enforcement can look for in people suspected to be radicalized. Many of them were identified among those involved in recent successful and foiled terrorist plots in Canada, including the October 2014 attack on Parliament Hill, he said.

Related: Britain's New Counter-Terrorism Plan Labeled 'McCarthyist'

These so-called "behavioral indicators" range from sudden intolerant religious views, a rejection of Western values such as democracy and equality, and an obsession with the end-times and jihadi sites.

"The beauty of these indicators is that because these people tend to believe these things very fervently, they don't hesitate to share them, which means you don't have to dig for them," he said. "In a perfect world, if we came up with a really simple test to determine who is a terrorist, the problem is can you reliably make a link between a personality type and a future action? I don't think the answer is yes."

The recently elected Liberal government has promised it will repeal parts of controversial Bill C-51, the previous government's sweeping anti-terror legislation, which came into effect earlier this year, that significantly broadened CSIS' intelligence-gathering and sharing abilities.

This month, VICE News wrote about the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's annual report, which slammed the federal government's surveillance of its citizens. Specifically, it called for the new government to change aspects of three pieces of legislation, including C-51, in order to limit CSIS' new powers.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter@rp_browne