The CSIS Director and RCMP Commissioner both appeared at a House of Commons public safety committee recently and provided Canadians with some useful information on the nature of the terrorist threat we face (story here). Both agencies understandably work in secret – that is the only way they can do their jobs – but the rare insights provided in open remarks nevertheless are an important reality check for those on the outside. While an earlier Senate committee called on these organisations to deliver information to the public on a regular basis (I blogged about that here), I nevertheless applaud the Director and the Commissioner for their openness and candour.
Here are some highlights from their testimony:
- 180 Canadians are with terrorist groups abroad, 100 or so in Iraq and Syria, while 60 have returned home. This compares with the 130 announced back in 2014
- These Canadians are involved in “direct combat, training, fundraising to support attacks, promoting radical views and planning terrorist violence.” In other words, not all are bomb chuckers or suicide operatives (more on this later)
- Director Coulombe stressed that the greatest threat remains those who do not travel but choose to stay in Canada (I couldn’t agree more)
- RCMP Commissioner Paulson noted that his force is keeping close tabs on the 60 returnees regardless of whether there is sufficient evidence to lay charges
- CSIS has apparently used the “disruption” tool, controversial to some, provided under C-51.
What are the implications of these revelations? As usual, there are several. Firstly, the significant increase in the number of Canadians who evade detection and travel to join terrorist groups abroad is worrisome but not surprising. Keeping tabs on people is hard and, as we (thankfully) do not have a STASI-like intelligence service that has files on everyone, there are those that will slip through. This is not a slight against either the RCMP or CSIS: it is merely a statement of what is bound to happen. There are tools that could help lower this number, such as exit controls at airports, but I suspect most Canadians would balk at that. To paraphrase the famous RCMP motto, our agencies don’t “always get their man”, but they get most and perhaps more resources will allow them to get more. We have to accept, however, that 100% success is a pipe dream.
Now about those returnees. They do pose a threat, as I outline in my forthcoming (second) book on foreign fighters. It is noteworthy though that we have not seen an attack planned or carried out by a returnee in recent years (Project SAMOSSA back in 2010 was planned by Hiva Alizadeh who had been to Afghanistan) – yet. Norwegian scholar Thomas Hegghammer has written that historically 1 in 9 foreign fighters who return to the West carry out an attack. If his figures still hold true, our agencies need to worry about 7 or so people so far (of course it is not as easy as that since you cannot tell in advance which ones are ready to act). This puts enormous strain on CSIS and the RCMP. It remains unclear how long these bodies can continue to investigate individuals without charges laid eventually as new cases and competing priorities are constantly shifting. As Director Coulombe said, the greatest threat still is, as it always has been, those who stay in Canada and plot terrorism.
I think the most important message in all this is that despite a rise in those who pose a real terrorist threat, the number is still relatively low, and perhaps manageable – though I will of course leave it to CSIS and the RCMP to make that call – in comparison to other countries. Our allies in Europe and the Middle East are facing threats that are orders of magnitude larger than ours. We here in Canada remain more or less safe: that does not mean that the threat is not real and that we can start shaving money and resources from our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Again, though, it is important to see the positive side of this. Sorry for the repetition, but the terrorist scourge does not represent an existential threat to this country and most likely never will. The glass is half full people.
In closing, Canadians deserve and have a right to be informed regularly by our security folks. Recent hearings have been an excellent start. Let us keep them going.