Canada’s response to returning terrorists: more of the same

So the Trudeau government has responded to a Parliamentary “Supply Day Motion” (NB I have NO idea what that means) dated October 23 that called on the Government of Canada to “immediately bring to justice anyone who has fought as an ISIS terrorist or participated in any terrorist activity, including those who are in Canada or have Canadian citizenship”.   The reply says that the government is doing just that – but is it?  Aside from the question why it took two months to reply to the ‘motion’, there are parts of the response that are both good and bad.  In light of the fact that I wrote an entire book on this topic (Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security – Rowman and Littlefield 2016), I’d like to weigh in – again! – on this matter by dissecting the government’s position (sorry, I could not find a shareable copy of the entire document, which a member of the fifth estate provided to me for comment).

  • the government correctly notes that the relative size of this problem for Canada is quite small when compared to other nations (190 have gone, 60 have returned: this figure has not changed in 3 years).  I do find it very interesting that the numbers have not budged: is it truly possible that no one else has come back from Islamic State (IS) or other terrorist groups since reporting started in 2015?  I find that truly hard to believe: maybe there are more that either CSIS  is not saying anything about or that there are those who have remained ‘under the radar’
  • the government correctly notes that it has NO OBLIGATION (Charter, legal, moral) to facilitate the return of those incarcerated in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere on terrorist suspicions.  THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for saying this explicitly!  If you are stupid enough to travel to join a terrorist group and get caught then you are on your own moron!
  • the government correctly notes that while investigating, arresting, charging and prosecuting any Canadian involved in terrorism is the goal it is very hard to gather evidence that will meet our justifiably high court standards.  Nevertheless, the government does not appear to be creative enough in using existing laws – including the 1937 Foreign Enlistments Act – to lay charges where the evidence seems pretty solid to me. It is an offence to leave Canada to join a terrorist group or engage in terrorist activity.  Period.  What is so hard about that?  Or am I missing something?  What else were these people doing in Syria and Iraq?  Handing out water bottles?
  • While the government does state it has charged four returnees since 2015 – and convicted two – that total is woefully low.  What of the other 56?  Yes, investigations are still ongoing I imagine and they are challenging, but a success rate of 7% is not good enough.
  • The government correctly notes that new legislation will make it easier for CSIS and other agencies to identify and stop terrorists from leaving in the first place.  Hear hear! although this has nothing to do with what to do with returnees.
  • The government correctly notes that an integrated approach to returnees, led by the RCMP which is responsible for national security criminal investigations, is the right one.  We have to perfect timely information sharing, something that is not always well done in this country.
  • The government correctly notes that children – who did not choose to join IS – must be given special attention.  A good start would be to take them away from their parents (what parent takes their kid to a war zone run by a terrorist group??).  As for the women, I was happy to see the acknowledgement that they are not all ‘victims’ but that some (most?) are terrorists too and should be charged.
  • The government correctly notes that the new Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence is doing good work but I don’t see  it at all relevant for what to do with returnees.  Research is all well and good but this matter is one for CSIS, the RCM and their partners.
  • The government correctly notes that we need our allies’ help on this issue. We all face a similar challenge and need to work together.

My overall impression to the response?  Meh.  It says the right things but I did not see any real change since 2015.  My outstanding questions are:

a) what kind of a priority is this for CSIS and the RCMP?

b) are more resources being dedicated?  Should they be?

c) when will we hear more about the 56 still not charged?  What danger do they pose?

d) what are we doing to identify and interdict those still out there that did not do us a favour and get killed?

So I’d give this document a B.  Not bad for government work.

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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