A good day for Canadian  justice and a good day for national security

Canadian courts are showing themselves to be prudent and worthy interpreters of the law of the land when it comes to terrorism.  A number of cases have now worked their way through the system and in the majority of them the Crown has successfully made its argument that a small number of Canadians are guilty of posing a threat to all of us and need to be punished.  Whether it is the Toronto 18 or Project Samossa or VIA passenger (we will leave aside the Victoria plot which, in my opinion and as I have made clear publicly, was a poor decision to throw out a guilty verdict by jury), the legal system works.

The latest proof of this is today’s decision that found Ismail Habib guilty of seeking to join Islamic State – technically “attempting to leave Canada to participate in the activities of a terrorist group”.  Mr. Habib had told an RCMP undercover operative that he had a ‘duty’ to fight jihad alongside IS during Syria in an investigation that used the so-called ‘Mr. Big’ approach.  His defence is reportedly ‘a little disappointed’: it will be interesting to see if an appeal is launched (perhaps on the ‘Mr. Big’ technique, as was used in the Victoria Canada Day bombing decision).

This is not the first case in Canada where someone has been found guilty of this offence, but it is the first for an adult.  There have been two other cases: Kevin Mohammed of Waterloo pleaded guilty earlier this year (June 2) and a Montreal youth was found guilty (as a young offender).  To my mind the case sets a useful precedent on a few grounds:

a) it shows that the RCMP can build a strong case on national security crimes based on information collected to an evidentiary standard that stands up in court.  This is not always as easy as it sounds because in many cases CSIS also has a tonne of data but it collects intelligence, not evidence;

b) it may be a needed vindication for the ‘Mr. Big’ tactic in national security cases;

c) it demonstrates that the court takes wannabe jihadi terrorists seriously, as it should.

It will be interesting to see what sentence Mr. Habib receives: a source told me it could be as much as ten years.  The next challenge is where to put him and what to do with him (isolation?  rehabilitation? deradicalisation?). This story is not over.  Neither will the verdict unequivocally act as a deterrent for others: my experience while at CSIS was that there is not much to convince the ‘true believer’ to abandon his or her plans.

Some would say that as a wannabe Mr. Habib posed little threat.  I strongly disagree.  In fact, that the government acted when it did – i.e. before he left  second time – is a necessary move. Had he quit Canada and joined up with IS he could have become much more dangerous – more skilled, more radicalised and more committed.  Even if he claimed he had no intention to carry out terrorist acts in this country we all know what the road to hell is paved with.  Besides, a number of attacks in Europe were carried out by returning foreign fighters so the threat is not hypothetical.

Mr. Habib’s case is an illustration of one approach I examined in my book Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security (published by Rowan and Littlefield earlier this year): arrest and trial.  It will not be the last time, either here in Canada or in other Western nations.  There are many challenges left for our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the near future in light of the thousands of citizens who convinced themselves that joining IS was a good idea.

But today is a day for celebration.  Congratulations to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC), the RCMP, the Crown (lead lawyer Lyne Décarie), and probably CSIS, for I would guess that the Service had a role in this as well.  For their collective efforts Canadians across this nation should say thank you.  We are a tiny bit safer today.

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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