Canadian terrorists have killed many more abroad than here – let’s not forget that

When it comes to terrorism I suppose the mantra that most people hold to is somewhat akin to that found in the real estate industry: location, location, location. Attacks that happen in countries most cannot find on a map, or have no intention of ever visiting, or frankly don’t really care about (as harsh as that sounds) don’t matter as much. We hear of these incidents periodically, probably more when they occur in London or Paris rather than Mogadishu or Maiduguri, but most do not pay too much attention, save those who work in counter terrorism or those who study terrorism.

When it comes to Canada we are indeed very fortunate. We have had very, very few attacks here in the post 9/11 period: a dozen or so (including foiled ones) which have resulted in two deaths and a handful of injuries. Note that I am focusing here solely on Islamist extremism, a point I will return to later. In this we are very different than our closest allies.

But that is not the whole story. Thanks to some brilliant recent reporting by Global News’ Stewart Bell, Canadians have a much better, if not groundbreaking, grasp of a parallel phenomenon: fellow citizens who have left our fair shores to kill people abroad in terrorist attacks. Mr. Bell outlines terrorist attacks in a number of countries in which Canadians had some role, ranging from the mastermind (Dhaka July 2016, Algeria January 2013) or as suicide bombers (Mogadishu April 2013, Baghdad November 2013). In all, Canadians helped kill 127 people and injure another 195. These are alarming figures.

What the heck is going on here? Simply stated, a bunch of Canadians have successfully left our country to join terrorist groups, kill people and kill themselves in the process. We should not be ok with this figure. So, what do we do about it?

Well, duh, stop them from departing Canada of course! This must strike you as blindingly easy. Except that it isn’t. Canadians have a Charter right to travel and that right can only be preempted where the state has reasonable grounds to do so. For example, if the state has enough evidence to lay charges (i.e. leaving to join a terrorist group). If not, the options are limited. We can use peace bonds to place conditions on movement and associations, withhold passports, put them on ‘no-fly’ lists, or put these wannabe terrorists in ‘counter radicalisation’ programs. These however are not perfect, as I will demonstrate now.

In several cases Canadians who wanted to go outside the country to fulfill their extremist goals and who were denied the opportunity merely turned their attention against us here. Three such instances include:

  • Martin Couture-Rouleau (passport kept back, was ‘counselled’) killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in St-Jean-sur-Richilieu on October 20, 2014;
  • Michael Zehaf-Bibeau (passport denied by Libya) killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on October 22, 2014
  • Aaron Driver (peace bond) was killed by the RCMP in Strathroy on August 10, 2016 while trying to transport two bombs to an unknown target.

I am not advocating that we just turn a blind eye to those intent on killing abroad. Some have actually stated that we should ‘just let them go’: this, to my mind, is an abrogation of our duties as a member of the international community of nations. At the same time Canadians have to recognise the challenges in deciding the best course of action.

There is one more point to make here. All the cases uncovered by Mr. Bell involved Islamist extremists. Is there an analogous list of far right or far left extremists? We hear a lot of the increasing connectedness of the far right, and I have no doubt that is true, but are we seeing a growing number of Canadians who see themselves as white supremacists or identitarians or incels or whatever leave to hook up with likeminded terrorists outside Canada? Has one single terrorist attack in the world tied to the far right (or left) been linked to a Canadian? Not to my knowledge but I would love to hear examples.

To me this trend provides some push back to the call for more resources on the far right, taken from Islamist extremist investigations (they have to come from somewhere after all). Except that CSIS and the RCMP have to worry about jihadis targeting us here and targeting others elsewhere. Besides, this is the wrong way to look at the problem. We should not be taking from priority one to give to priority two but rather make sure our protectors have adequate resources.

That our neighbours have killed innocent people who happen to live in other nations should not sit well with us. More attention has to be paid to stopping these terrorists from getting on planes. To date that attention has been on Islamist extremists where I predict it will remain. Future data will show how prescient I am (or not).

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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