Is there really any point to terrorist listings?

We need to combat terrorism on a number of fronts but it is not clear how necessary terrorist entity listings are.

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on December 09, 2019.


Governments have a variety of tools to confront terrorism. There are, of course, the ‘pointy ends’ of the stick, i.e. security intelligence and law enforcement agencies upon whom we rely to detect and prevent acts of terrorism. In Canada those organisations, CSIS and the RCMP, serve us well.

There are also other players who have smaller roles. The Canadian military has done its part in foreign deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali and elsewhere, although seeing this challenge through the lens of a ‘war on terrorism’ is both unhelpful and largely counterproductive.

In addition we have the border agents (Canada Border Services Agency – CBSA), the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA – more on them in a bit) and even my old employer, CSE (Communications Security Establishment, our signals intelligence agency). When I worked at CSE from 1983 to 2000 we did not ‘do’ counter terrorism: I am fairly certain that changed after 9/11.

Then there is Public Safety Canada (PSC), the so-called ‘umbrella’ department for CSIS, the RCMP, etc. as well as the office of the Minister. I was there for 18 months in 2013-2015 and felt like a fish out of water, let me tell you. I never did figure out what the department really did, especially on the counter terrorism file. That is not to imply there were not fine, dedicated civil servants with whom I worked.

One tangible thing PSC does do is maintain what is known as the ‘list of terrorist entities’ (you can find the current version here). The department’s Web page describes the purpose of such a list as follows (extracts):

The listing of an entity is a public means of identifying a group or individual as being associated with terrorism…It is not a crime to be listed. However, one of the consequences of being listed is that the entity’s property can be the subject of seizure/restraint and/or forfeiture…It is an offence to knowingly participate in or contribute to, directly or indirectly, any activity of a terrorist group.

The page goes on to state that the process of listing begins with intelligence: it does not. At least it did not when I helped write the first listings at CSIS in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. We were told to use only open source material as the listing would be a public document.

One tangible thing Public Safety Canada does do is maintain what is known as the ‘list of terrorist entities.’ Would anything change if the listings disappeared tomorrow? Probably not. There are a lot more important actions being taken by the agencies which really matter on this issue.
More importantly it is not clear why we have such a list in the first place.

Do we need PSC to tell Canadians that Islamic State and Al Qaeda are terrorist organizations? I should hope not.

The only useful part of the listings, as I see it, is the fact that CRA and others can use them to seize assets – if they can prove that those assets were used to further terrorist ends I imagine. How hard that is to do I have no idea. We have failed miserably in terrorism trials in the recent past so I have no idea if we are faring any better on this front.

Would anything change if the listings disappeared tomorrow? Probably not. There are a lot more important actions being taken by the agencies which really matter on this issue.

Phil Gurski was an intelligence analyst for 32 years, including 15 at CSIS. His latest book When Religion Kills is now available.

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