The 2014 establishment of a so-called caliphate in the Middle East by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria (ISIL/ISIS) has greatly increased the incidence of terrorist activities aimed at disrupting global security, of which Canada is a part. An influx of foreign-born jihadist fighters has flowed into ISIL territory, creating a hive of terrorist activity that aims to install a extremist theocracy, based on a severe and restrictive interpretation of Sunni Islam. The foreign-born fighters – travelling extremists – stem from various Western, Middle Eastern, and north and central African countries.
Of particular concern to Canadian interests are, of course, those Canadians who have become radicalized, and then made some sort of leap of faith, if you will, into violent extremism. There are approximately 60-120 Canadian travelling extremists currently abroad and participating in a wide variety of jihadi-related activities, including fighting on ISIL’s behalf in Syria and Iraq, participating in Al-Qaida cells in northern and central Africa, and supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The concern is two-fold: what those individuals are wreaking in the foreign state in which they are currently residing, and what they will do upon their return to Canada. Firstly, these individuals are tarnishing the name of Canada abroad, and it is up to Canadian security agencies to identify and follow the paths of these individuals in order to try to stop them from engaging in terrorist activities.
To this end, the Canadian government has established laws that make it a prosecutable offence to travel and to participate in terrorist activities, as well by coordinating the efforts security agencies such as CSIS, the RCMP, CBSA, CSE, FINTRAC et al… through the Building Resilience Against Terrorism strategy of 2012.
More so than the recent Russian airline bombing, or the Beirut Shia bombing, the Paris Attacks of November 14, 2015, have given Western countries, Canada included, a sober reminder that these travelling extremists have a mandate to return to their home countries in order to create terror. ISIL’s policy has shifted from being domestic – that is to say, establishing a caliphate – to being global in outlook. They want to take the fight to our doorsteps.
Several of the French attackers were EU citizens who had fought in the Middle East with ISIL. It is not known whether they were brought together in the Middle East, or whether they had been put in touch with each other upon their return to Europe, and was their return to Europe mandated by ISIL leadership as the first of a new global policy of terror.
What does this mean for Canada? The act of terror in France is one that could be reproduced in Canada. Canada, as mentioned earlier, has approximately 60-120 travelling extremists abroad at the moment, and 80 who have returned to Canada after having been abroad. It is of vital importance that Canadian security agencies monitor the whereabouts and movements of those jihadists both in Canada and those abroad.
Given that the only way that ISIL seems to view non-believers is through an extremist lens – all non-believers should be killed – it would be naïve to assume that retracting any support to Canada’s allies in the fight against ISIL in Syria and Iraq would somehow negate the potential of a terrorist attack on Canadian soil. One must also remember that Canadians are particularly global themselves, and we are fortunate that there was no Canadian casualty in the Paris Attacks – there easily could have been.
I have noted earlier that it was the Paris Attacks that struck a particular chord in Western countries. Given that Russia is on the fringe in terms of Western diplomacy, both over its annexation of Crimea and support of rebel groups in Ukraine, and its support of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, Western sentiment was not particularly empathetic to the killing of the 224 people on the Russian aircraft on October 31, 2015. The incident was tragic, yes, but the heart strings were not pulled. People were more interested in finding out whether the incident was a bomb or a malfunction, than concerned with the loss of life (for more than the read of a headline at least).
As for the Beirut bombing of November 12, the Middle East, and all that it entails, is a distant annoyance. Beirut, that city that once was hailed as the Paris of the Middle East, has not been a tourist destination for decades. The country is notoriously unstable and its politicians prone to being assassinated. Unfortunately, Lebanon is just not bad enough to be on the radar, nor sympathetic enough for people to care. 43 people died in these attacks.
I will caveat that the above interpretation of the Russian airliner and Beirut bombings mean that I do not care for the tragic loss of life. I do care, and deeply. I am, however, trying to understand why the Paris Attacks resonated over the other two incidents.
One thing to note in all this is the Russian variable. Russia’s backing of Assad has been interesting to say the least. On some level, what do you do if Assad were to be taken out of the equation? The moderates only constitute about 10% of the power in Syria right now, and you can’t rule a country with only 10% support. The power is essentially split between Assad and the extremist rebels (Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL being the strongest). The Kurds have the only successful boots on the ground, and Turkey would like nothing more than to see the Kurds put in their place again. I remember reading an article about an underground blogger from Raqqa (ISIL’s stronghold) who noted the evils of ISIL and also expressed a rather strong negative emotion at the Kurds and Shias. There is no guarantee at all that a peace process would hold given the amount of hate that people seem to have for each other in that region.
Back to Russia. Their support of Assad has forced the Allies to come to terms with a reality that they initially rejected: Assad will have to be part of any peace process and transitional government. The recent Paris Attacks even brought France’s President Hollande to the Russian table looking for support in bombing the bejesus out of ISIL, something that the Americans are more cautious about committing to. And Hollande moved on the idea that Assad maybe can stay at the table a bit longer, something that a few months ago Hollande never would have entertained. This means that there is perhaps a better chance of peace for Syria, which means a reduction on possible threats to Canada, vicariously.
The Turkey-Russian confrontation may have thrown a bit of a wrench into the mix, and though NATO supports Turkey on paper, it is interesting to note that NATO is not condemning Russia either. I suspect that after some grand-standing for another week or two by both leaders, the whole issue will settle down and some meaningful conversation occur on how to move forward on the Syrian crisis, which is of course in Canadian security interest.
The knee-jerk reaction of Western powers to the Paris Attacks has been to throw blame on the refugee crisis through which Europe is currently suffering. Many countries have moved to throw up further restrictions on refugee movements through the various entry points to the continent. One of the more positive outcomes of the Paris Attacks has been the renewed efforts by Western countries to try to find a solution to the Syrian civil war, and there has even been a softening of the stance against Assad as participating in any solution.
Back to the refugees. Canada will be accepting 25,000 refugees by March of 2016. This is a laudable effort by Canadian government to help desperate people fleeing a horrendous situation. For those anti-refugee voices, I will remind that many of those refugees will be Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Mulsims. ISIL followers are Sunni. Not all Sunni’s are extremists. Security checks are being carried out by the UN and by Citizenship and Immigration Canada at the refugee camps in Lebanon from whence the 25,000 refugees are to come.
The only possible issues I foresee with the Syrian refugees that Canada will be accepting are issues of integration if some of those individuals do not receive the support necessary to integrate into Canadian society. Some of the young men and women, if they have difficulty integrating into Canadian society, may become radicalized to a political or ideological objective, perhaps joining Hezbollah or whatever fringe party will likely be born of the fires of any Syrian peace process, but I do not believe that will necessarily mean that they would become jihadists.
No, the threat to the security of Canada remains in those Sunni Muslims who have become radicalized, who travel abroad to follow an extremist path and who participate in terrorist activities, and who return to Canada to propagate their twisted world views. Canada needs to remain focused on identifying these in-house threats.
An important tool in identifying threats to the security of Canada is social media, and more should be invested in monitoring social media feeds to identify those individuals who are in conversation with extremists, or even just following extremists on social media. Lone wolf attacks, like the ones that killed Patrice Warren and Nathan Cirillo in 2014, may still occur.
Oddly enough, I think that the climate change conference in Paris may actually potentially stir an activist in Canada to become an environmental terrorist, in the Weibo Ludwig stream, for reasons that either Canada is not doing enough to stem climate change, or that Canada is implementing climate change action plans too slowly. We have several oil and gas pipeline projects proposed in BC: the Northern Gateway Pipeline (crude oil transported from Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat, BC), the liquid natural gas (LNG) pipelines (terminating in Prince Rupert, Kitimat, and Squamish, respectively), and the expansion of the extant Trans Mountain pipeline (crude oil transported from Strathcona, Alberta, to Burnaby, BC). There is a potential for a terrorist incident of this critical infrastructure should the pipelines be given the green light by the federal government.
Lastly, espionage. The world is focused on the Middle East and the terrorist threat emanating from that region. This is the perfect time for an interested foreign power to try to undermine any weaknesses in Canadian cyber security and get at our data. This data could be private or government, and it is valuable. Economic reasons propel much modern espionage, whether human or cyber based. Canada is a wealthy nation with much successful innovation in various sectors, and that innovation, and the information relative to, is worth billions of dollars to very interested parties. We should be particularly vigilant, when all eyes are focused on a particular topic, when public opinion is pressuring government for action, and government reacts with programs and policies that are more tactical than strategic. This is the time when our security will be tested. Cyber isn’t glamorous, and when we read that a worm has infected millions of computer, most of us just think passingly, glad that wasn’t me, and think nothing more. We forget how much of our own personal data is stored in our computers and in our online accounts. That amount of data multiplies exponentially for businesses and government, and data is oh so valuable.
Threats to the security of Canada can take many shapes, from the obvious to the less so, and it is important for us to be vigilant, in whatever ways we can, and to take stock that there are many people out there, in that grand world, that envy Canada, that seek to directly and/or indirectly harm Canada, and that would like nothing more than to see Canada’s constitutional democracy compromised in some way.