Are Canada’s security intelligence and law enforcement agencies biased when it comes to terrorism?

Everyone is free to express their opinion on terrorism but only a former (or current) counter terrorism practitioner can weigh in on investigations.

We can debate what terrorism is and is not: we cannot make up facts however.

Ever since I was introduced to it 40 years ago as a student translator at the Multilingual Services Bureau at Canada’s Secretary of State I have been a fan of the UK science magazine New Scientist. I find it more accessible than Scientific American and more serious than Discover. And, in typical British fashion, it is cheeky sometimes.

It also engages in something I really appreciate. In every article, no matter how short, its science reporters provide competing theories for a given phenomenon. Person A gets their turn then Person B can say ‘hang on a minute’. What this shows is that even in science, which is supposed to be ‘factual’ there is rarely consensus on an issue. A magazine which does this earns top marks in my books.

Alas, Macleans, the venerable old rag which has been around in Canada since 1905, is no New Scientist.

In a recent piece, reporter Sadiya Ansari states “Terrorism laws have long been used against brown and black men. When will they be used to protect them?” Aside from being a very stupid statement with no basis in any reality in the known universe, it insults the very men and women of all races, colours, ethnicities and faiths who go to work every day to keep us safe using those laws.

This whole piece derives from the recent Crown (prosecution in Canada) to charge a 17-year old youth with terrorism (upped from first degree murder) in the stabbing of a woman at an erotic massage parlour in Toronto in February (he was an alleged incel). But it is what Ms. Ansari does NOT do which is egregious. She cites three ‘national security experts’ – whatever that is supposed to mean (can I get a degree in national security expertology?): Leah West, Amar Amarasingam and Reem Bahdi, all academics. See the issue? Nary a (former) counter terrorism practitioner among them.

Now look, Ms. Ansari can ask whomever she wants as this is a free country and she is at liberty to say really dumb things such as “Can a law rooted in racist application ever be applied equitably?” But when she asks someone with no experience in national security terrorism investigations and gets a response (from Ms. West) that “evidence is collected to show whether or not their faith was uber conservative and not aligned with mainstream Islam,” we are in lala land.

CSIS collects information on conservative?

I will give Ms. West some credit as she is a former practitioner but I have no idea where she gets the idea that CSIS collects information on conservative or non-mainstream Islam. That is exactly what we did NOT do at CSIS for a variety of reasons:

  • It is unhelpful;
  • It is useless;
  • It does nothing to advance national security as there is no one-to-one relationship between fundamentalism and terrorist violence. If there were we would be investigating Orthodox Jews and the Mormons. I can assure you we do not;
  • It would piss off the very communities we need to help us flush out terrorists.

In this Ms. West should recall what the CSIS Act states so I will put the relevant parts here for her:

Threats to the security of Canada means… activities within or relating to Canada directed toward or in support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or ideological objective within Canada or a foreign state.

Anyone see ‘fundamentalism’ there? No, it is all about the link between religious/political/ideological motivations and violence. In my mind Ms. West misinterprets how CSIS does its job (she did work there as a council and did some counter terrorism work abroad) but errs on the grounds on which the Service opens an investigation into a ‘person of interest’. For her and others, I can assure you that we looked at someone or several someones when we got intelligence that they were advocating violence in the furtherance of Islamist terrorism. Their religious practices and beliefs were irrelevant, unless they advocated violence. And I say this based on my involvement in between 3-400 cases including massive ones like the Toronto 18 (2005-2006) and Operation Samossa (Ottawa 2010). I think, therefore, that I may have a tad more insight than Ms. West in this regard.

This is just a poorly written, poorly researched article. It does not belong in the Macleans I have been reading for 45 years. I am going back to New Scientist now.

A lot of the piece also goes on about non-existent racism (Mr. Amarasingam came out with “It’s hard for the powers that be to fully understand the movements within their own racial group”) and such and I really do not want to refute that – again. Nor do I need to hear about my ‘white privilege’ or whatever.

Ms. Ansari really should have asked a terrorism practitioner for an opinion. And no, that does not mean me. While I am pleased to talk to the fifth estate on any occasion there are a lot of us who worked ‘at the coalface’ who could have elucidated her. Her choices were not comprehensive.

No, this is just a poorly written, poorly researched article. It does not belong in the Macleans I have been reading for 45 years. I am going back to New Scientist now.

Addendum: Upon a re-read of the Macleans article and an exchange with Ms. West I need to clarify what she said. Her statement “evidence is collected to show whether or not their faith was uber conservative and not aligned with mainstream Islam” was made with respect to what the Crown must prove in court, not with respect to CSIS investigations. I missed that and apologise for my error.

I remain concerned, however, that some in Canada are convinced that CSIS sees Islamic practices often termed ‘conservative’ as worthy of investigation. It does not as I noted above. We looked at violent extremism and the promotion of such. And yes, at times persons of interest did indeed exhibit profound religious behaviours. But these behaviours were tied to the aforementioned promotion of violence in the furtherance of aberrant Islamic tenets. This should not be controversial.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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