The Community Security Advisory Fourth Edition


CIJA’s National Community Security Program (NCSP), in partnership with the Jewish Federations of Canada, provides dedicated, responsive, and sustained security leadership and capacity, and serves as the national security representative of the organized Canadian Jewish Community. The NCSP’s Community Security Advisory is a monthly email update to examine developments with security implications. Our goal is to foster dialogue and enhance collective situational awareness that contributes to enhanced community security.

Terrorism: Profiles of Attacks and Attackers

For several decades terrorist attacks in Western countries have been a reality. Some attacks, such as 9/11, are so catastrophic they dominate headlines, while media coverage of other attacks flickers and fades. While the list of attacks has increased, arguably many people would be challenged to name even a handful. Are we missing a chance to have a collective, meaningful conversation about terrorism in the West?

This advisory sets out to address one question: What can our community learn from these acts of violence to be better prepared? To begin the dialogue, we have developed this multi-factor analysis of terrorists and the attacks they commit. It is our hope that the results will provide some key insights, and maybe even challenge some perceptions, to make the community better prepared and ultimately safer.


We examined 41 terrorist attacks from the last decade. These attacks are defined by a common set of criteria, namely:

  • They all occurred in one of six countries: United States (US), England (UK), Germany (GE), Belgium (BE), France (FR), or Canada (CA).
  • They are all acts of Sunni-Islamic terrorists.
  • They all resulted in casualties other than the attacker.

As such, this is an illustrative, rather than decisive, study. The findings are organized in two parts: attack profiles and attacker profiles. Each part is made up of several tables, respectively addressing a unique aspect of the subject matter. 

Part One: Attack Profiles

Table 1: Target            
Military/Police/Government 29% 25% 32% 33% 25% 100%
General Public 57% 75% 50% 67% 75% 0
Religious – Jewish 0 0 6% 0 0 0
Religious – Non-Jewish 0 0 6% 0 0 0
Workplace 14% 0 6% 0 0 0
Total Number of Attacks 7 4 16 6 4 3



These findings reflect a broader change in the nature of terrorism. Al-Qaeda selected targets of symbolic value, regardless of how “hardened” or difficult they were to attack. That meant fewer attacks, but often with more catastrophic results, such as 9/11. More recently, there has been a move toward “softer” targets, or targets that are more accessible. These operations require much less planning and resources; almost “DIY” terrorism. The target is more indiscriminate and is most often the general public. A key deviation in this emerging trend is Canada, where all attacks we examined targeted military, police, or government. A de-classified January 2018 CSIS report assessed that terrorist attacks targeting Canadian security forces is a trend that is “likely” to continue. Another aspect that warrants attention is the relatively small number of attacks on Jewish targets. Again, counter to the emerging trend, Jewish targets do not appear opportunistic. Rather, attacks, such as the 2015 Hypercacher Kosher Market attack in France, seem to be the work of committed terrorists, with greater resources and more planning and preparation.



Table 2: Time of Day

Day 86% 50% 75% 50% 75% 67%
Night 14% 50% 25% 50% 25% 33%
Total Number of Attacks 7 4 16 6 4 3

Based on the trend towards opportunistic targeting, particularly of the general public, it is not surprising that most attacks occur during day-time hours. It is a simple, but sinister equation: more targets are available (e.g., commuters) thus increasing the chances for success. Conversely, night-time attacks appear to be a more calculated choice that target a specific event. Such events are well publicized with plenty of lead time to plan and prepare the attack. Thus, these attacks, such as the 2015 Paris Attack and the 2017 Manchester, UK concert bombing, have resulted in the highest number of casualties.


Table 3: Weapon

Vehicle 14% 75% 19% 0 0 67%
Gun 57% 0 38% 67% 0 33%
Knife 0 0 38% 16.5% 50% 0
Bomb (placed) 29% 0 0 16.5% 0 0
Bomb (suicide) 0 1 0 0 50% 0
Other 0 25% 5% 0 0 0
Total Number of Attacks 7 4 16 6 4 3



The choice of weapon used to commit terrorist attacks varies by country. As can be expected, guns are prominent amongst attacks in the US, however, they are also prevalent in the attacks that have been carried out in France and Germany. This was an unexpected finding; potentially the consequence of more large-scale attacks by coordinated, well-resourced terrorists. Overall, it seems that terrorists use the weapon that is most accessible and/or most familiar. This observation is supported by a CSIS assessment that “the primary terror-related threat [weapon] to Canada is single firearm, or a vehicle.” Notably, in all three attacks we studied in Canada, the primary weapon was a vehicle, and two of the three also featured a single firearm.

Table 4: Number of Attackers            
Single Attacker 71% 50% 88% 100% 50% 100%
Multiple Attackers 29% 50% 12% 50%
Total Number of Attacks 7 4 16 6 4 3

Most attacks are carried out by single attackers. One possible explanation is that the rise of ISIS has included a de-centralization of terrorism through a deliberate effort to inspire Islamists to opportunistic terror: act wherever, whenever and with whatever they can. While the “lone wolf” terrorist has become a popular talking point, it is important not to overlook a practical consideration; there are fewer would-be terrorists in Western countries than, for example, in Iraq or Syria. Moreover, large-scale attacks in Europe show that where like-minded people can work together they are willing to do so. And, when they do, they tend to have greater success in terms of the casualties they inflict. While the “lone wolf” attacker scenario is more likely in most countries, a multiple attacker scenario is more dangerous.

Table 5: Casualties
Killed US UK    FR    GE    BE    CA
Less than 15 victims 90% 75% 88% 100% 75% 100%
More than 15 victims 10% 25% 12% 0 25% 0
Less than 50 wounded 70% 75% 88% 83% 75% 100%
50 – 200 wounded 15% 25% 12% 17% 25% 0
More than 200 wounded 15% 0 0 0 0 0
Total Number of Attacks 7 4 16 6 4 3

An attack in a Western country that results in casualties is celebrated as a success in terrorist propaganda. Yet, actual casualty numbers trend towards the lower end of the spectrum. This is potentially due to several factors, including the prevalence of opportunistic targeting by single terrorists, the choice of weapon, and a general lack of formal training. While less common, more dynamic attacks, especially those that employ multiple attackers and/or explosives, generally result in an exponential casualty rate. One casualty metric that is not tracked but is likely where the impact is greatest regardless of the scale of the attack, is in terms of psychological injuries, not only for survivors but also for witnesses.

Part Two: Attacker Profiles

Table 6: Country of Birth            
Born in country of attack 30% 57% 63% 17% 67% 67%
Born in another country 70% 43% 37% 83% 33% 33%
Total Number of Attackers 9 7 19 6 7 3

Based on high-profile attacks such as 9/11, where the attackers were foreign nationals sent to carry out violence in another country, there may be the perception that terrorist attacks are committed by people who lack attachment to the countries they attack. That is simply not true in most cases we examined. Most often attacks are committed by people who were born in the country where they committed their attack, although they are also likely to be the first generation of their families born in that country. In general, this seems to indicate that there are other, greater, influences that motivate attackers.

Table 7: Motive
Foreign Policy 33% 57% 21% 0 14% 67%
Israel/Palestine 44% 0 5% 0 0 0
Islamism 23% 0 74% 100% 86% 33%
Unknown 0 43% 0 0 0 0
Total Number of Attackers 9 7 19 6 7 3

Foreign policy decisions, such as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were the primary grievance for terrorists in both Canada and the UK. This is not surprising as both countries contributed significant numbers of troops to recent military actions. What does appear more notable is the category labelled “Islamism.” While Islamists may often share elements of other grievances, including antisemitism and hatred of Western foreign policy, we consider it a unique motivation for those who have committed violence on behalf of, or inspired by, ISIS and similar terrorist groups. As the basis of assigning motive to Islamism we have looked for an attacker to have written or recorded a personal oath of allegiance, or bayat, to a terror group. A considerable number of the attackers we looked at had sworn bayat, although as of late 2017 this was a trend in decline with ISIS more often claiming credit for attacks without any self-confirmation of the attacker’s allegiance. One possible reason for this change is examined in Table 8.

Table 8: Radicalization            
Mosque/Religious Group 55% 44% 18% 0 0 33%
Family/Friends 22.5% 14% 23% 50% 43% 0
Prison 0 14% 35% 0 14% 0
Online 22.5% 14% 1% 17% 14% 33%
Other/Unknown 0 14% 23% 33% 29% 33%
Total Number of Attackers 9 7 19 6 7 3

Radicalization is a complex process often involving multiple factors. The concern for “self-radicalization,” and particularly about self-radicalization solely through the internet, does not seem to be well founded. The factor that appears to have the greatest influence in radicalization, writ large, is a personal connection. A significant number of attackers became radicalized through various personal networks, including mosques, prisons and/or social circles. Anecdotally, these personal networks often resulted in exposure to charismatic individuals with a more direct link to foreign terror groups, for example acting as terrorist recruiters. As discussed in the previous section, the reason we may be seeing fewer attackers swear personal allegiance is that the degradation of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, may have severely impacted the global network of influencers who made the personal connections to vulnerable youth in Western countries.

Table 9: Demographics            
< 20 years old 10% 0 10% 33% 0 0
20-30 years old 80% 71% 37% 50% 57% 67%
> 30 years old 10% 29% 53% 17% 43% 33%
Male 90% 100% 100% 90% 100% 100%
Female 10% 0 0 10% 0 0
Muslim By Birth 100% 57% 79% 83% 86% 33%
Convert 0 43% 21% 17% 14% 67%
Total Number of Attackers 9 7 19 6 7 3

The average attacker in Western terrorist attacks is young, between 20 and 30 years of age, and overwhelmingly male. This should not surprise anyone. Young men are also those most likely to join gangs and commit crime and other anti-social acts. In fact, it seems several of the attackers we studied had a criminal background, albeit often relatively petty crime. One anomaly that is curious is Canada, the only country where the attacker was more likely to be a Muslim convert. While an answer was not readily apparent, it seems like an interesting issue to explore.

Table 10: “Red Flags”            
Yes 78% 71% 79% 50% 86% 100%
No 22% 29% 21% 50% 14% 0
Total Number of Attackers 9 7 19 6 7 3

When tragedy strikes often the first question is: Were there any indicators? In the cases we examined, there were so-called “red flags,” often very serious ones, including an attacker having been previously investigated as a potential terrorist, having been placed on a watchlist, or having been convicted of a terrorist-related offense. The real issue seems to be scale. While the details of terrorist watch lists are highly protected, BBC reporting has suggested that as many as 2,000 people may be on the UK’s watch list alone. The same report suggested that 50,000 police and/or intelligence officers would be required to manage that number of suspects on the required 24/7/365 basis.


While sometimes it may feel that we in Canada are largely immune to terrorism, that it is something that happens “over there,” our study shows that to be a false sense of security. While proximity and historical ties to the Middle East and other conflict zones may be important factors underlying the greater number of attacks in European countries, Canada is very comparable when examined on a country-by-country basis. Moreover, in most cases, the trends we see in Canada are generally representative of the same trends seen in the other countries we examined.

As with all our advisories we strive to provide practical measures the community can undertake, at a grassroots level, to improve collective security. When it comes to the potential for a terrorist attack, we suggest:

  • Plan. While we do not want to fear monger, nor turn every Shul and school into a fortress, it is important to consider security. For example, when planning events and/or undertaking renovations, allocate time to discuss potential threats and risks. You may want to consider engaging outside expertise to facilitate these discussions with your team.
  • When the subject of security arises, many people think of locks and fences. When considering a terrorism scenario, be sure to include a medical plan, including preparing first aid kits, ensuring an adequate supply of emergency communications equipment, and organizing first aid training for staff and volunteers. Also, contemplate post-incident requirements, including mental health resources.
  • Act. Recent trends indicate that as a member of the general public there is the potential to become a victim of an opportunistic terrorist attack. As a member of the Jewish community, the threat can be even more severe as Jewish buildings and events are a symbolic target. Community awareness should be informed by threat and risk, not headlines. Seek information and report any suspicious activity to local law enforcement and CIJA. Remember, in an emergency dialing 911 should always be your first action.

Regardless of your security needs, CIJA’s National Community Security Program has resources available to support you, including security consultation and audit services, general and tailored security training courses, support for local law enforcement liaison, and incident reporting. For details, please visit us Check out

The National Community Security Program (NCSP) is a collaborative partnership between CIJA and local, organized Jewish communities across Canada. It is responsive to communal needs and the evolving security environment through the provision of various training modules that are coordinated, developed, and delivered by the CIJA Security Team.