Damned if we do and damned if we don’t

People are funny sometimes.  On the one hand we criticise those we see as responsible when things go wrong – governments, authorities, public officials, etc. – and we are certain that their inability to act, or decision not to act, is at fault.  On the other we criticise these same parties when they do take action which we decide is either unnecessary or ill-conceived.  Pity those in power: they can’t seem to catch a break.  Part of me wants to retort with the old adage ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you lash out’ but the smart part of me knows that no one does this anymore.

This ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ reality came to the fore one again this week when a former FBI agent who worked on a joint Canadian (RCMP)-US (FBI) terrorism case back in 2012-2013 which we have come to know as the Via passenger train plot went public.  To remind those not up on their Canadian terrorism cases, this was a plan by two men, Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser, to derail a New York to Toronto bound VIA Rail train somewhere in the Niagara Peninsula, a plot that earned both men some serious jail time.

It turns out that the FBI had run one of their own as an agent against Mr. Esseghaier to gain his confidence and find out exactly what the two were up to.  The use of an agent in cases like these is the gold standard of counter terrorism investigations and usually results in conviction (the BC provincial legislature plot is a rare exception: actually, the two accused were found guilty by jury but freed on appeal when the presiding judge ruled that they had been entrapped by an RCMP agent – the so-called ‘Mr. Big’ strategy).

The FBI agent, Tamer Elnoury, now claims that the case was wrapped up prematurely because Canada was too impatient and wanted to make arrests and lay charges.  According to the agent he was told by one of the terrorists (Mr. Esseghaier) that there was a ‘sleeper cell/individual’ in the US and he is afraid that by rolling up the investigation too soon an opportunity to catch another bad guy has been missed, with potential catastrophic consequences.

I have several issues with Mr. Elnoury’s complaints:

  1. First of all, is there really a sleeper cell in the US biding its time waiting to strike? Given that his source is none other than Mr. Esseghaier, a man who clearly demonstrated during  his trial that he is a source of questionable  reliability and may in fact be delusional (an appeal on mental illness grounds has already been launched), is this remotely true?  In intelligence it is critical to rely on multiple sources – what we all corroboration.  Unless a second (or ideally a third) source has said the same thing it is by definition doubtful at best.
  2. Are there really such things as sleeper cells? I have my doubts.  It is my experience that even the most careful terrorists betray their intent with what they say and do.  That was certainly true with 9/11: who would think that someone taking flying lessons but saying that he was ‘not interested in taking off or landing’ was acting normally?  The fact is that those radicalising to violence always leave clues (what US psychologist Reid Meloy calls ‘leakage’). If there are others planning terrorism in the US they can be discovered – through the same methods used to find and disrupt the VIA plotters.
  3. When is the perfect time to stop watching, collecting evidence and  make the arrest?  Is there a ‘perfect time’?  In an age where all a terrorist needs is a car and a crowd, can we afford to allow monitoring and data gathering to go indefinitely?  No, we cannot.  Although this particular plot did not involve simple MOs (in fact it was far too ambitious – it is hard to dig up rails as the two discovered) the danger was nevertheless real and the proper action was taken.  What if the pair had slipped surveillance and carried out an attack here or elsewhere?  We would then be talking about the Mounties’ failure to act.

Mr. Elnoury’s claims strike me as a combination of attention seeking and Monday morning quarterbacking.  Rather than congratulate both nations for a job well done he has elected to nitpick.  I may have to eat my words if the sleeper cell that Mr. Esseghaier claims is hidden somewhere in the US arises and carries out an attack (and if this does transpire I will admit my error), but I am content at this point to say to the RCMP and FBI ‘job well done – thanks for keeping us safe’.

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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