A Canadian View of the Terrorism Challenge

Aug 23, 2016

The expanding threat environment, with a particular focus on Canada’s preparations to mitigate and recover from disruptions (natural human and technological), was explored earlier this year at a conference organized by the Royal Canadian Military Institute (RCMI), entitled “Are We Prepared?”

An experienced faculty was assembled to address various aspects of converging aspects of threat risk, assessment and preparedness: Capt Stewart Kellock, former Toronto Police Service; Andy Ellis, former Assistant Director of Operations, CSIS; Capt (ret’d)  John Thompson, Partner, Strategic Capital Intelligence Group; Alan Bell, former British SAS, now President of GlobeRisk; The Hon Ron Atkey, former Chair, SIRC; Chris Lewis, former OPP Commissioner; LCol (ret’d) Steve Day, former JTF2 Commanding Officer, now President of Reticle; Carmine Marcello, former President and CEO of Hydro One; Stewart BellNational Post correspondent; Calvin Barry, former Crown prosecutor; Colin FreezeGlobe and Mail correspondent, and Veronica Kitchen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Waterloo.

The day started with a vivid account of how the world of terrorism is maturing at a rate faster than Western security services are able to accommodate. Al-Qaeda is regarded as a somewhat elitists terrorist organization with some selection criteria in their recruitment activities and formal training. ISIS, or Daesh, on the other hand, will take all comers (some of whom have little more than a cursory understanding of Islam), provide minimum training as warriors or suicide bombers, and put them on the front line, accepting a large number of fatalities. They accommodate this level of fatalities because its members accept death (martyrdom) as an integral part of their purpose. It is estimated that some 30,000 recruits have joined Daesh from western countries.

Daesh accepts disillusioned youth who most easily fall prey to radicalization. They are encouraged to fight on their home soil if they cannot travel to the frontline for whatever reason. Horrific scenes of beheading and mutilation are used as recruitment tools. These portrayals of violence have the same effect on their viewers as computer war games that are very popular among this demographic, the difference is – the violence Daesh offers is real.

This level of radicalization and recruitment is being accomplished through a sophisticated use of social media. Using the Internet and all forms of social media – websites, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter – it is reaching out to young people from all levels of society by whatever means necessary, including sexual fantasies.

Several times during the conference, reference was made to the “Toronto 18”, whose plans were foiled by strategic, integrated police work primarily by RCMP, Toronto Police, CSIS. Had the scenario unfolded as planned, there would have been over 3000 fatalities in Toronto and would have changed the culture of Canada.

Aug 2016 – This young Canadian man had allegedly planned a bombing in London, Ontario, but was shot and killed by RCMP as he prepared to depart by taxi with bombs.

Likewise, the Via Rail terrorist threat to bomb a train travelling between Canada and the U.S. was also cited, with examples of how integrated policing and intelligence on both sides of the border is working to ensure such threats do not reach fruition. A similar sentiment was expressed around the attempted bombing of the BC legislature. Some asked the question: How often can we expect to be so lucky?

Radicalization was discussed at length. Although authorities have seen the many ways in which the radicalization agenda evolves, the reasons some of these would-be jihadists become disillusioned and return home, are varied and complex. This could be an opportunity to learn the causes for such reversals, however they are seldom willing to share their experiences.

Professionals who have been involved in such operational matters, noted some of the complex circumstances such individuals find themselves in when they return to Canada. In part, it was suggested that their families don’t want them to talk; they want to avoid the media so the family will not suffer more than it has. It was also acknowledged that the broader Muslim youth community, while not agreeing with the actions taken by an individual, would see such communication as a form of “snitching” on the community.

Speakers at the conference recognized that integration between intelligence sector and “communities of interest” is a work in progress. Radicalization was acknowledged to be a community health concern as well as national security issue. Currently, intelligence organizations can “red flag” a person with a criminal record who converts to Islam (as occurred with the BC Legislature bombing). The challenge going forward, is in creating community outreach programs that are sensitive enough to preemptively detect high school students who are discussing their interest in Jihad (as happened in London, Ontario) and know how to diffuse such feelings.

Complacency among the Canadian population when it comes to Canada becoming a terrorist target, was consistently identified as a major impediment. Had any of the scenarios mentioned above reached fruition, the Canadian public would have a different appreciation of its security needs – and Canada would be a different country.

Somewhat independent of National Security, while at the same time being an integral part of it, are threats arising from cybercrime. As frequently noted, the computer and all forms of digital communication are a necessary requirement of doing business – many companies provide their employees with computers, and some have only minimum security protection.

Achieving a Resilient National Security System
Several speakers talked about the frustration of working for politicians with limited time horizons. When a tragedy occurs, and all eyes are on the government, money is readily made available (with great fanfare) to ensure such an incident will not happen again. However, on many occasions, before the money is duly allocated, it is taken back and reallocated – sometimes the media notices, but the public attention span is extremely brief.

A robust resilient security system will include qualified professionals who understand the cultural, socio-legal challenges around law enforcement and intelligence gathering in serving this specialized part of Canadian jurisprudence.

Law enforcement personnel who deal with such cases are in need of special training. Of particular concern is the cultural divide between new Canadians and those administrating and enforcing Canadian law. The need for some orientation on both sides was identified.

Conducting due process in accordance with the Canadian constitution and Charter was seen as an essential component in the fight against terrorism. While this long-term investment can be difficult to justify politically when critical incidents are infrequent, it is necessary for public safety and community peace of mind.

There was general acknowledgement that politicians must educate the public on the need for a security awareness culture in Canada. The former government did not do this around the introduction of Bill C51. Several people involved in the drafting of C51 were at this conference, and they confirmed that there had been no intent to interfere with the liberties of Canadians. The hope is that the new government will adopt an approach that will educate the public about the issues involved.

Social media is impacting our awareness of catastrophic incidents. The first tweet about gunfire at the War Memorial in Ottawa was posted mere seconds after the first shots rang out on 22 Oct 2014. Cell phones have become critical tools in connecting during a crisis.

“How often can we be so lucky?”
With its tradition of honoring the heroes of Canada’s past wars, as well as serving as a beacon for veterans returning from war, the RCMI becomes the consummate Canadian setting for exploring the country’s obligations in counter terrorism.

The mythology of Canada being a “nice place” to live, where terrorism would not raise its ugly head, is contrary to the county’s violent history. Canada arose from two warring European nations, went to war with its only neighbor, and institutionalized genocide over its indigenous peoples. In fact, conference registrants were reminded of a litany of violent acts perpetrated against Canadians by all levels of governments suppressing freedom of opinion and public gathering. Canada has experienced homegrown terrorism that led to the murder of a provincial Cabinet Minister and the kidnapping of a British Diplomat in the province of Quebec. The Prime Minister at that time, Pierre Trudeau, implemented the War Measures Act in 1970, which granted police wide powers to arrest and detain, to swiftly find and apprehend the perpetrators. Some new Canadians “imported” their own brand of “terrorism,” to Canada. This occurred among the Sikh community climaxing in the 1985 Air India massacre of 329 people being blown-up in a plane a few hours after it left Toronto.

Canada has its unique ways of dealing with such national tragedies. In October 2015 the country elected Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin, to be its Prime Minister. The second Prime Minister Trudeau appointed Harjit Singh Sajjan, a Canadian Sikh, to serve as Canada’s Minister of National Defence. Several speakers stressed that these attributes of Canadian society, to find nation building strength amidst its divergent peoples, is the foundation for building a national community-focused counter-terrorism strategy.

Terror threats on Canadian soil have increased since the “Toronto 18” arrest in 2006. The most recent of these being the “Driver” incident in August 2016. The FBI alerted the RCMP to an imminent attack, which was, thankfully, thwarted in time – bringing to mind, once again, the question: “How often can we expect to be so lucky?”

The mid-August announcement by Public Safety Minister Goodale of an additional $8 million in new funds to combat terrorism seems underwhelming in comparison to other funding announcements. The question is, will most of that money go towards setting up and staffing offices, or will it be spent on equipment and systems to improve safety and security?

Tim Lynch is a Defence and Maritime Security correspondent based in Toronto. He is a member of the RCMI.