CSIS Director Michel Coulombe appeared before the Senate National Security and Defence Committee today and stated that his organisation has used its new disruption powers over twenty times since 2015. This measure was controversial when introduced by the former Conservative government and is still seen by some as too strong for a service that traditionally collected intelligence and passed it on to partners like the RCMP.
Mr. Coulombe did not enter into details on the nature of those disruptions and nor should he have. CSIS is not open to discussing what it does and how it does it and in this way it mirrors what other security intelligence services around the world do. But there was one phrase that caught my eye. In the Director’s words, the tool was used to “disrupt extremist plots” (click here for the CBC story).
Again, it is impossible to determine what those “plots” were in the absence of more information, but we can put this into perspective. Since 9/11 there have been six plots in Canada: the Toronto 18, Project SAMOSSA, the VIA rail plot, the BC Legislature scheme and the two successful attacks in October 2014. The first four, all foiled, began as CSIS files before being handed over to the RCMP for investigation and arrest. That is generally how terrorist cases work in Canada: CSIS has a lower threshold to gather intelligence and the RCMP has the mandate to lay charges. Overall, the system works well.
If we take the Director at his word, we have seen more than three times the number of plots in the past year and a bit than we have seen in over a decade in Canada. Is this a new and worrisome trend? Is Canada mirroring France? Not necessarily.
So what are these “extremist plots” that were disrupted but did not lead to criminal prosecution? I suspect that these were cases of “radicalisation” or travel disruption rather than actual plans to carry out terrorism in this country. At any given time, there are hundreds of individuals in this country who are in the process of becoming radicalised along the Al Qaeda/Islamic State spectrum narrative. Some want to carry out acts here, some want to join groups abroad, some aren’t sure what they want and some are perpetual wannabes. I think, and I could be completely wrong here, that CSIS got involved in the lives of individuals showing potentially dangerous signs of violent radicalisation and did something to interfere with that process. Is it not reasonable to conclude that if a plot akin to what we have seen over the past ten years was actually in the late stages of fruition we would have seen RCMP arrests? I do believe so.
If I am right, are these disruptions a sign of CSIS, and by extension Government of Canada, overreach? I do not share the opinion of some that this is a slippery slope to abuse. As Director Coulombe noted, the tool is used only after consultation with CSIS’ partners and most probably only after much consideration. CSIS has been criticised in the past for NOT acting to stop Canadians from making disastrous decisions (the case of Damian Clairmont in Calgary, who traveled to Syria and was killed, is just one example). Should we subject CSIS to constant second guessing whether it acts or not?
I do believe that disruption is a useful strategy in circumstances where individuals are clearly adopting violent ideologies but have not progressed to the point where they are considering terrorist action. I also think that stopping people from traveling to join terrorist groups abroad is a good thing and that our government agencies should do what they can to prevent this. Disruption is in these cases a form of intervention and we know that the Trudeau government is keen to ramp up early intervention and counter-radicalisation programmes.
Given my experience with CSIS over 15 years, I am confident that these examples of disruption are justified and that people have had their liberties temporarily curtailed for valid reasons. There is, however, a cautionary note. Disruptions are not arrests. It is possible that a few people will not learn from their mistakes and continue down the path to violence. In a written statement to the Senate (you can read the entire thing here), Director Coulombe wrote: “Every extremist prevented or deterred from traveling abroad may become an individual at home that requires ongoing investigation.” That is exactly what happened in the two terrorist attacks of October 2014.
As the Director noted, we have to remain vigilant. That means all of us.