Damned if we do and damned if we don’t in counter terrorism

We in Canada are, disturbingly to some, becoming used to this story.  A Canadian travels abroad, to a native land or elsewhere, is picked up by local authorities, placed in jail (often in appalling conditions and sometimes allegedly tortured) and eventually released when the foreign government decides there is no case against him.  He returns home amidst allegations that CSIS or the RCMP shared intelligence with a foreign entity and is now considering suing our government over the role it played in his detention.

Sound familiar? Arar, El-Maati, Nureddin, Al Malki, Omar Khadr…and now Abderrahmane Ghanem. The Calgary resident was visiting his parents in Oman, was detained and deported back to his native Algeria, arrested upon arrival, spent 13 months in the ‘notorious’ El Harrach prison, charged with being a member of a terrorist group outside of Algeria, and saw all charges dropped after a 30-minute session in court.  His lawyer unsurprisingly blames CSIS for passing on intelligence to its Algerian counterpart and hints at future ‘actions’ against the Canadian government.  The family is understandably relieved that their son, whom the father swears “wasn’t a violent person”, is back with them.

As far as the public is concerned we have yet another case of CSIS overreach, and possibly illegal or unconstitutional action, and as a result another Canadian suffers needlessly abroad.  When is the government going to rein in these cowboys?

Alas, there are a few facts that speak to a different reality.  It turns out that Mr. Ghanem ‘hung around’ the 8th and 8th mosque in Calgary, a mosque well known publicly as the home of several young men, most of them probably now dead, who left Canada to fight with Islamic State in Syria and some of whom may have taken part in acts of terrorism or war crimes while over there.  It has not been established that Mr. Ghanem had any intention to follow in his co-religionists’ footsteps and yet the mere fact that he ‘hung around’ people known to have joined a listed terrorist entity should at a minimum raise some eyebrows.

What does the public want our security service to do?  Do we want it to investigate people who, based on reasonable grounds to suspect, pose a threat to the public safety of this country or any other for that matter?  Do we want that agency to carry out its legislative mandate?  Do we want CSIS to have the legal remit to do its job or not?

To me (yes, I am clearly biased), CSIS did exactly what it is supposed to do.  It investigated an individual whose social network was involved in activities outlined in section 2c) of the CSIS Act (“activities within or relating to Canada directed toward or in support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or ideological objective within Canada or a foreign state”). That investigation may involve the collection of intelligence and the sharing of that intelligence with partners, domestic or foreign.  In the event that information is shared with a foreign partner it is done so carefully and with the necessary caveats that partner is expected to honour.  If a given agency routinely ignores those caveats or acts in a way inconsistent with Canadian values the relationship ends.

CSIS and its counterparts are left in a ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ situation.  Investigate and they are criticised for doing so.  Don’t investigate (and people die) and it is criticised for not doing so.  Just look at the UK where MI5 (the UK CSIS) is being vilified for not investigating at least one of the London Bridge terrorists who, it turns out, had crossed their radar.

We have to allow our security agencies to do their jobs.  Yes, they must be held accountable and yes they can constantly improve their methods and policies.  But let them carry out their mandates.

In the case of Mr. Ghanem I have nothing to add on what was known, what was not known, and what CSIS decided to share with Algeria.  But at a fundamental level, CSIS was absolutely correct to investigate him based on his relationship with known jihadis. That is how intelligence works.

As for his father’s contention that there was not a violent bone in his son’s body, that may very well be true. For an intelligence agency like CSIS, however, that feeling is not worth much and certainly not enough to sway the decision to investigate or not.  In the end CSIS acted appropriately.

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.

Leave a Reply