Dealing with Terrorism

Jul 15, 2009

Canada is a safe, stable, secure democracy. That is not to say that Canada faces no challenges to its security, but as the 2007-2008 annual report of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) states, the number of actual terrorist incidents in Canada has been minimal over the last few years. Nothing similar to September 11, 2001 has occurred since that date, and it has been over two decades since the tragic Air India bombing that originated in Canada.

With respect to terrorism, there have been significant developments in Canada since 9/11. The first trials of the Toronto group arrested in 2006 have occurred. A Canadian link to a UK plot was laid bare with the conviction in October 2008 of Mohammad Momin Khawaja on charges of financing and facilitating terrorism and offences related to a device that could trigger bombs. Five individuals remain under effective house arrest through the security certificate process. Furthermore, there have been two successful convictions against individuals under Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation, and other suspected terrorists await trial before the Canadian courts. The RCMP National Security Criminal Investigations Unit was recently investigating over 800 cases with possible terrorist links. Two major public inquiries into the events that led to the torture of four Canadian dual-nationals have been completed, and a third report on Air India is due in the Fall of 2009. Over 125 Canadians have been killed in Afghanistan, yet, there have been zero substantial terrorist attacks against the Canadian homeland.

So far, 2009 has not been a great year in terms of public endorsement of Canada’s counter-terrorism policy. In a recent opinion article in the Globe and Mail of 8 June 2009, Sheema Kahn summarized the grievances various individuals and groups hold against the existing and previous Canadian governments’ counter-terrorism policies and, more broadly, Canada’s foreign policy in today’s world: “One might argue that governments, Liberal and Conservative, have, at times, fallen short in the post-9/11 era. Security has been used as a pretext to justify secret evidence, collusion in rendition and torture, and the defence of Guantanamo Bay. It has led to two-tiered citizenship, in which citizens of Arab and Muslim background are denied rights guaranteed to all Canadians.”

Many of the same grievances and ­complaints were aired at the House of Commons Public Safety and National Security Committee meetings on implementation of the recommendations stemming from the O’Connor and Iacobucci inquiries. Furthermore, SIRC has just released its ­special report into CSIS’ actions in relation of Omar Khadr, and Mr Abdelrazik has returned to Canada on order of the Supreme Court of Canada. Finally, the security certificate system and its management have come under increasing criticism from the Federal Court. For Canada’s security and intelligence community, and particularly CSIS, there was little good news in the press in 2009.

Stepping back from the headlines and day-to-day reports, two inter-linked issues challenge the effective implementation of Canadian counter-terrorism policy: complexity and integration. How these are addressed in the future will largely dictate how effective Canada’s counter-terrorism policies will be in securing Canada and, equally important, how these policies are perceived – necessary or unnecessary, ­sufficient or insufficient, effective or not.

Any discussion of Canada and terrorism, and Canada’s counter-terrorism policies, has multiple jumping off points. Canada has been the victim of many different types of attack over the last 40 years and has also been a target for overseas-based terrorist groups, perhaps best characterized by authors Thompson and Turlej’s book, Other People’s Wars. Testimonies, and previous annual reports from CSIS, as well as arrests and convictions, also indicate that Canada has been a base for logistical or support activities by terrorist groups, be it as a staging ground for the acquisition of materials, or raising financial support from criminal or other sources of income.

Though Canada has not suffered from a sustained, violent series of attacks by a ­terrorist group, as noted in the CSIS 2002 annual report, few observers of national security issues doubt that there is a two dimensional terrorist threat to Canada and Canadian interests. The first dimension is an actual attack or threat of an attack, illustrated by the arrests in 2006 in Toronto.

An issue Justice Iacobucci referred to as the balance between effective counter-terrorism activity and values of freedom that is "easy to describe but difficult to attain."

The second dimension is the provision of material support to terrorist groups or individuals, best illustrated by the Khawaja case contemporaneously, but also including in the recent past, support by sectors of the Tamil community for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers); another is using Canada as a base for attacks against other countries, for example, the involvement of extremist elements from the Sikh community in the Air India bombing of 1985, or the arrest of Ahmed Ressam in December 1999.

This second dimension, Canadians providing material or other support – whether passive or active – to terrorists is as much a problem as the actual targeting of Canada. It has such profound economic and political impacts on Canada’s relations with the United States, and others, that it cannot be ignored. It requires an active day-to-day and strategic management approach.

Canada’s terrorism problem is not going away. In the recent Canadian Security Intelligence Service’ Public Report 2007-2008 the then Director, Jim Judd, stated in the opening message that the terrorist threat is not disappearing and that “to become complacent or to spread a belief that Canada is immune from such threats could potentially have a tragic and devastating outcome.” Even though the report illustrates that ­actual incidents have been minimal within Canada over the last few years, RCMP Assistant Commissioner Bob Paulson admits that threats exist and they are conducting on-going investigations into terrorist activity involving Canada and Canadians. Furthermore, contemporary terrorism blurs the boundaries of domestic (national) and foreign (international) activities in counter-terrorism.

This blurring of boundaries results in a  complex problem, and the appropriate jumping off point for a debate about Canada and terrorism is contained within the recent Security Intelligence Review Committee file: CSIS’S ROLE IN THE MATTER OF OMAR KHADR (8 Jul 09).

“The issues brought to the forefront in the matter of Omar Khadr, such as information-sharing with foreign partners, especially in cases where there are human rights concerns, dealing with youth, and interacting with detainees in foreign jurisdictions, do not have easy answers or solutions. It is becoming apparent, however, that finding a solution to many of these complex post-9/11 issues will entail a thorough re-thinking of intelligence work in light of current socio-political and legal realities.”

Canada is not alone in wrestling with the complexity of the issue. American commentator, Michael Sheenan, assessed the situation bluntly with respect to U.S. homeland security: “the real issue lies in aversion to spying at home and in dealing with unsavory intelligence organizations abroad.”

The complexity issue, therefore, has two strands. The first is that of contemporary terrorism itself which is illustrated by the Toronto cases awaiting trial and the Kawahja case that has been settled before the courts: radicals and extremists driven to pursue or support violence against the Canadian state, its allies, or interests that involve cross-border, international, social, and religious dimensions. The second strand is contemporary counter-terrorism that involves an awareness of activities by a small number of individuals within and external to Canada, liaison and cooperation with other countries, and convoluted criminal proceedings which must occur with detailed awareness of national and international legal provisions.

The latest report from the House of Commons Public Safety and National Security Committee of June 2009, addressed the implementation of the O’Connor and Iacobucci inquiries and stated that “without an integrated structure for the full review of national security issues, the government cannot effectively and efficiently protect Canadians from violations of their civil rights and freedoms.” The Commons committee was rightly focusing on a discrete issue in this report, namely what the Government has or has not done with respect to the recommendations and findings of the inquiries into the torture of Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati, and Muayyed Nureddin. However, the issue of integration is pertinent in not only protecting and upholding civil rights and freedoms, but also in preventing attacks against Canada, its citizens and allies, and in prosecuting terrorism cases before the courts.

Toronto-born Omar Ahmed Khadr was captured by U.S. forces at the age of 15 following a 4-hour fight an Afghan village. He has spent six years in the Guantanamo Bay detention camps charged with war crimes and providing support to terrorism. The youngest prisoner to be held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp has been frequently referred to as a child soldier. In April 2009, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that international law made it obligatory for the government to immediately demand Khadr's return.

Integration of effort across disparate government departments and security agencies is a constant theme in the post-9/11 world and driver for the creation of orga­nizations such as the Canadian Integrated Threat Assessment Centre (ITAC) in 2004, the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSETs) led by the RCMP, the UK Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) in 2003. It also encouraged efforts to improve liaison and cooperation between elements of the security and intelligence community domestically, and with international partners, in areas as diverse as intelligence, policing, finance, critical infrastructure protection, and travel.

It is clear that some of the efforts at dealing with the complex problems of modern terrorism have worked, and worked well. The conviction of Mohammad Momin Khawaja is a case in point.

Failure to address the challenges of integration and complexity of today’s and tomorrow’s ­terrorist threats will result in more of the same. We will continue to see Canadians tortured abroad and cases like that of Mr. Adlerazik generating headlines and concerns in civil society, that in turn generate more work for Parliament, Ministers and the security and intelligence community. These can be avoided by sound and well communicated policies developed logically and realistically by federal authorities that address these two issues.

Binding the components of complexity and integration is accountability. Philip Bobbit’s claim that the basic problem for States that must confront terrorism this century “will be to achieve public endorsement and official accountability in the face of largely hypothetical threats that require anticipatory action based on secret intelligence.”

This has salience for all Western democracies, including Canada. Media headlines in 2009 and testimony to SECU suggest that public endorsement in certain communities may be ebbing away. Moreover, ­Parliamentarians, at least, believe official accountability needs further attention – ­Justice O’Connor made such recommendations in his final report.

In June 09 Wesley Wark articulated the issue succinctly: “The Canadian government should know by now that terrorism cases always carry a potential for serious political damage. The only way to avoid that damage is to have a sound, independent policy that you are willing to defend in a substantive way in public.”

The complexity, integration and accountability debate will likely hinge on the tensions between national security and human rights, an issue Justice Iacobucci referred to as the balance between effective counter-terrorism activity and values of freedom that is “easy to describe but difficult to attain.” Parliament and the general public expect perfection: no attacks on Canada or Canadian interests; no errors, mistakes, breaches of law, shortcuts in due process, or incorrect claims about the involvement (or not) of individuals in ­terrorism, no conflict between sharing ­information with international partners in counter-terrorism efforts and the privacy and human rights of Canadians.

Perfection, however, cannot be achieved. Attaining it every day, all the time, without error, would require superhuman insight, care, or skill that is clearly impossible. Because perfection is unattainable, it is all the more pertinent that SIRC recently observed “that finding a solution to many of these complex post-9/11 issues will entail a thorough re-thinking of intel­ligence work in light of current socio-­political and legal realities.”

National security issues rarely feature as predominant political or election issues in Canada. Too often, attention on these issues arises only when problems make front page news. What Canada desperately needs is a non-partisan and measured debate to craft Canadian solutions to the problems SIRC has noted and other terrorism-related events have created in the last decade.

The debate and the solutions should be cognizant of recent failings and successes, but not hostage to any one event. Justice O’Connor laid out some proposals in that vein in 2006; the Government is awaiting the publication of the Major Inquiry into Air India before it finalizes its own proposals. Other thinking, however, is necessary to encompass the full gamut of issues in play.

Taking the long view, Canadians would do well to consider Adam Roberts’ four components for the successful management of terrorism: public confidence in official decision-making; public confidence in ­intelligence; respect for rule of law; and a willingness to address some of the problems or root causes of terrorism.

Terrorism is not going away any time soon. Looking beyond the horizon of Islamic-inspired terrorism, most cautious thinkers would be led to Louise Richardson’s conclusion that, while we do not know what ideology will inspire the next generation of idealists, we can be confident that there will be another generation of ­terrorists willing to commit indiscriminate violence.

Portents beyond Islamic-inspired terrorism are evident: the gas pipeline bombings in British Columbia, the sentencing of a white supremacist in the United Kingdom, the re-emergence of Irish Republican terrorism in Northern Ireland, as well as a foreboding shift to martyrdom of violent Sikh extremists in parts of the Sikh Community in Canada, amply illustrate what has always been known about terrorism: it takes many forms.

Any response to terrorism, current and future, is therefore going to be complex, involve multiple layers of activity, and require extensive liaison and cooperation within Canada, and between Canada, the United States and other countries, with the latter embracing states that are not democracies and/or with a poor record on human rights issues.

This reality can be accepted and policy developed and revised to address such issues… or it can be ignored in the hope that an attack won’t happen here or civil rights abuses won’t occur again. Hope, of course, is not an answer to terrorism in Canada or anywhere.

Jez Littlewood is an Assistant Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and the Director of the Canadian Centre of Security Studies, Carleton University.
© FrontLine Security 2009