Canadian Views on Terrorism

Jun 3, 2016

The Royal Canadian Military Institute (RCMI) recently sponsored a conference entitled "Are We Prepared?" April, 2016. RCMI gathered an experienced faculty: 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, President GlobeRisk (former British SAS); 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 Hydro One; Stewart BellNational Post correspondent; Calvin Barry, former Crown prosecutor; Colin Freeze, correspondent from the Globe and Mail; and Veronica Kitchen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Waterloo.

The expanding threat environment, with a particular focus on Canada’s preparations to mitigate and recover from disruptions (natural human and technological) was explored at this event. Discussions between presenters and attendees covered converging aspects of threat risk, assessment and preparedness.

Understanding Terrorism in Canada
The day started with a vivid account of how the world of terrorism is maturing at a rate faster than the 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 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 fully prey to radicalization. They are encouraged to fight on their home soil if they cannot travel to the frontline for whatever reason. The “catalyst” Daesh uses for recruitment is extreme horrific scenes of beheading, and body mutilation. 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 that the violence Daesh offers is real.

Daesh has accomplished this level of radicalization and recruitment through its sophisticated use of social media. Using the Internet and all forms of social media – websites, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter – Daesh is radicalizing and recruiting young people from all levels of society across by whatever means necessary, including the exploitation of sexual fantasies.

Several times during the day reference was made to the “Toronto 18”, whose plans were foiled by strategic, integrated police work by RCMPToronto PoliceCSIS, and other law enforcement agencies. Had the scenario unfolded as planned, there would have been over 3000 fatalities in Toronto and that would have changed the culture of Canada.

Likewise, the Via Rail terrorist threat to bomb a train travelling between Canada and the US 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 is another aspect discussed at the conference. And although authorities have seen the many ways in which the radicalization agenda evolves, the reasons some of these would-be jihadists return home disillusioned 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 also want to avoid the media so the family will not suffer more than it has. It was acknowledged that the broader Muslim youth community, while not agreeing with the actions taken by an individual, saw such communication as a form of “snitching” on the community and exposing the individual to potential violence to the individual if such actions were taken.

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 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 creating community outreach programs that are sensitive enough to preemptively detecting high school students discussing their interest in Jihad (as happened in London, Ontario) and knowing how to respond.

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, and companies give provide their employees with computers that have only minimum security protection.

Navigating the “Ship of State” towards 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 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 within government services – 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.

Concluding comment
The RCMI provided the consummate Canadian setting for exploring Canada’s necessary obligations in counter terrorism. With its tradition of honoring the heroes of Canada’s past wars as well as serving as a beacon for veterans returning from war, RCMI defines Canada’s military obligations in defending its values and mores, and ensuring that all Canadians feel safe at home.

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 Canadian Sikh, Harjit Singh Sajjan 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.

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