Is it time to say ‘no!’ to ‘no-fly lists’?

There are a lot of tools in the anti-terrorism kit but we need to evaluate them all and perhaps get rid of some.

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on January 02, 2020.


You have to pity Adam Ahmad, the 10-year old boy who finds himself on Canada’s ‘no-fly list’. This counter terrorism tool, more informally called the ‘Passenger Protect Program’ under the Secure Air Travel Act, has been around since 2007 and seeks to prevent anyone from getting on a plane who intends to:

  • Engage, or attempt to engage, in an act that would threaten transportation security; or
  • Travel by air to commit certain terrorism offences, such as participating in or contributing to terrorist activities; or funding, training and/or recruiting for a terrorist group.

Public Safety Canada (PSC) maintains the list in cooperation with Transport Canada. It was developed in response to terrorist plots in the 2000s aimed at bringing down aircraft. The numbers of individual on that list is anywhere from 2,000 to 100,000.

Image result for no-fly list
Cartoon from The Islamic Monthly
But back to Adam Ahmad.

He first learned – or better yet his parents first learned – he posed a terrorist threat to aircraft in 2015. When he was six. Six! Yes, some children do become engaged in terrorism – we certainly saw this with Islamic State (ISIS) – but I have never come across a six year-old whom I would consider a national security menace.

This debacle is ridiculous. Despite promises to fix this, PSC seems incapable of doing so (full disclosure: I worked at PSC from October 2013 to April 2015 on secondment from CSIS). It is a valid question (again!) to ask what this department actually does for Canadians.

How is this list created and maintained? One would assume based on intelligence shared by CSIS and its partners, both domestic and international. CSIS does collect information pertaining to terrorist plots, including those involving aircraft.

Yes, some children do become engaged in terrorism – we certainly saw this with Islamic State (ISIS) – but I have never come across a six year-old whom I would consider a national security menace.

But here is where I fail to understand how Adam Ahmad ended up on the list. At a minimum, CSIS would provide a name AND a date of birth. We would never give PSC just one. If there is indeed an Adam Ahmad who has crossed CSIS’ ‘radar’ I would bet the farm it is not a six-year old.

Why can this not be fixed? I am no IT guru but it cannot be rocket science to create a slot for DOB on the no-fly template. Can it? Am I missing something here?

Cheeky anti-no fly list campaign
Going further I’d like to see an analysis of the whole shebang.

Does the no-fly list keep us safe? Have plots to explode bombs on Air Canada been foiled because of it? Have Canadians seeking to join ISIS or Al Qaeda been prevented from doing so because their name is on the list (after all, it is pretty hard to get to Syria or Afghanistan from Canada without flying!)?

When counter terrorism is done sloppily it undermines everything else we do in that regard. It is already hard enough to sell these efforts to Canadians. This charade makes it harder.

When counterterrorism is done sloppily, it undermines everything else we do in that regard. It is already hard enough to sell these efforts to Canadians.

Adam Ahmad is a Montreal Canadiens fan and has been flagged trying to fly to see his team. They are not a very good team of late (NB – I am also a Habs fan) but can PSC at the very least not prevent him from going to a game?


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