Is Canada’s 150th birthday a prime terrorist target?

This is a big year for us in Canada.  Sure, we are a youngish nation and celebrating 150 years may sound quaint to our older international cousins, but it is a cause for celebration nonetheless. I am looking forward to the commemoration as I was six when we marked our centennial in 1967 and don’t remember a lot of what happened back then.

Some fear that the anniversary will also be a big deal for terrorists.  My friend and colleague from Carleton University Jez Littlewood is quoted in today’s Ottawa Citizen  as having said “from a security perspective, you would have to consider this is a potentially attractive target, just like the Olympics, just like the World Cup, just like any large-scale gathering” adding “No one can offer a guarantee that we will be able to stop every single attack, whatever any politician or expert says.”

Mr. Littlewood is absolutely right – on both counts.  Canada’s 150th will be feted throughout the year with events across the country, none perhaps so big as those in the nation’s capital, especially on Parliament Hill on July 1 (the day in 1867 when Canada became a country).  These events will be attended by (tens of) thousands of people, a tempting target for terrorists who seek mass casualty attacks.  Compounding the threat is the sheer number of commemorative functions and the challenge in securing what are largely open venues across a vast nation.  I have every confidence in our security agencies but they do have their work cut out for them.

Two things weigh in favour of a safe 150th in downtown Ottawa, where Parliament is located and where traditionally over 100,000 people flock to, beginning with a sunrise rendition of O Canada and ending with the spectacular fireworks display after dark.  In the aftermath of the October 2014 attack on Centre Block by Islamist extremist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau erstwhile separate security forces in the Parliamentary precinct have been centralised under RCMP command, facilitating cooperation, coordination and command and control in the case of a terrorist incident.

Secondly, while Parliament was the target of Zehaf-Bibeau’s terrorist attack, it is nonetheless not at the top of most terrorists’ radar.  Yes, the Toronto 18 did muse about taking over the House of Commons (and, bizarrely, hijacking the CBC to announce the ‘Islamic Caliphate of Canada’) but that was fantasy at best.  Canada features rarely in jihadi communications and we are not seen as the number one ‘enemy of Islam’ by Islamist extremists.  Attack planning is thankfully rare in this country and the majority of the few plots that have developed in the post 9/11 era have been foiled thanks to CSIS and the RCMP.  So our protectors have to plan for the worst but I am confident that this year’s party will be a safe one.  I know I certainly will attend the show on July 1.

In the worst case scenario and a mass casualty attack succeeds there will be immediate cries of ‘intelligence failure’ and we may even hold a Royal Commission (we tend to do that here).  It is obviously not possible to perform a post mortem on something that has yet to happen, but should an attack take place we must first realise the enormity of protecting such a large number of spaces and the inherent limitations of intelligence (intelligence is an incredibly useful tool but it is not perfect).  As Mr. Littlewood and many others have said (including me on several occasions), we cannot expect our security professionals to stop every incident.

To end on a positive note, I expect the birthday party to be safe and a wonderful recognition of what this country has accomplished on its sesquicentennial.  Join the party – see you on Parliament Hill!

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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