What if the Flint Airport attacker was Canadian?

When you work for CSIS or the RCMP in national security the one thing that keeps you up at night is the possibility that you might miss something (or, more probably, don’t have enough resources to run down all the leads you discover) and a terrorist act succeeds in Canada.  The second thing that makes you lose sleep is the possibility that, instead of a successful attack here, a terrorist heads south and carries out an attack  in the US.

The Canada-US relationship is a true marvel of the modern era.  We used to brag about having the world’s largest undefended border, although  that is less true in the post 9/11 period.  I remember going to Detroit to see the Tigers play as a kid – before the Toronto Blue Jays were created – getting to the border, having the US border guy ask us the purpose of our trip and waving us on with a ‘enjoy the game fellas’ without having shown as much as a driver’s licence to prove who we were.  Ah, those were the days.

Much has changed of course, some for the good and some for the bad.  Terrorism occupies everyone’s mind these days and that is understandable.  The threats we jointly face have led to increased binational sharing and cooperation and made us collectively safer.

There remains, however, a nasty rumour among a certain percentage of the American population that Canada is soft on terror and that some of the 9/11 hijackers came through our country.  Neither is true but in an age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘confirmation bias’ these falsities are really hard to dispel.  Gee, if Alex Jones can convince I don’t know how many million Americans that the Sandy Hook massacre of kindergarteners was staged, how difficult can it be to suggest that Canada is failing its neighbour in counter terrorism?

This matters for obvious reasons.  If an attacker were to enter the US from Canada and wreak havoc that would have very serious consequences for our relationship.  Our economy would suffer through increased checks and delays and Canada still relies overwhelmingly on the US in this regard.  Canada thus has a very keen desire to ensure that this does not happen.

And, by and large, it doesn’t.  The last Canadian to try to enter the US with terrorist intent was Ahmed Ressam back in 1999.  He had gotten off a ferry in Washington state with a trunkful of explosives on his way to blow up Los Angeles Airport but was caught by an alert US border agent.  CSIS was aware of him but had lost track in part after he had traveled abroad and returned with false ID.  Nevertheless, a tragedy was averted.

Today a similar tragedy may have succeeded.  A man knifed a police officer at the Flint Airport in Michigan, leaving him in critical condition.  The assailant was arrested at the scene: there are reports that he yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ and that he is ‘Canadian-born‘.  That last phrase does not tell us much – he could have been a longstanding US resident or even a recent immigrant – but the FBI is treating the case as a possible terrorist act.

If he is Canadian, and that is still a VERY big if, several questions come to mind.  Was he ‘on the radar’ of either CSIS or the RCMP?  When did he cross the border?  Where did he live?   How did he become radicalised?  Was he working with others?  What can we gain from his online, social media and real world contacts and activities?  Did someone ‘drop the ball’?  I can only imagine how busy my former colleagues will be if there is a reliable link back to us.

Whatever the case, let us hope that the cross border atmosphere of collegiality and cooperation is not affected.  And let’s hope that one of our two leaders does not call for an ‘immigration ban’.  If the Canadian link is confirmed, two attacks (one successful and one foiled) in 18 years is a damn good record.  Our joint security calls for more collaboration, not panicky responses.


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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