“Just watch them”. Why we need to hear from security services about repatriating terrorists

In all the years I have been writing about terrorism I have taken great care to stay in my lane (probably not always successfully but I have tried). I provide a perspective based solely on my work as a counter-terrorism intelligence analyst, not as an academic, a policy maker or any other self-styled ‘expert’. I am careful to speak on what I know, or think I know, based on my experiences.

This having been said I am often a little concerned when people issue bland statements about the problem of foreign terrorist fighters and what countries should do about them. I have heard ‘try them at home’ despite the enormous challenges in doing so, revolving mostly around gathering enough evidence to go to court in the first place. I have also heard some say that fearmongerers (of which I am one apparently in the minds of some) are exaggerating the threat, to which I reply while it is highly improbable that every returnee poses the same level of danger it is nevertheless really hard to figure out which ones are the most dangerous. Lastly, I have often read comments by ‘experts’ calling on states to bring their citizens home since we can ‘just follow them at home’, much easier than keeping track of them if they stay in theatre or are released by local security forces.

What worries me, although it does not necessarily surprise me, is that the one voice that really matters in all this is the one we are not hearing from: security intelligence and law enforcement agencies. For it is those bodies that will be tasked with ‘just following them’, it is those agencies that will have to gather evidence to lay charges, and it is those agencies that will catch hell when – not if – the inevitable happens and a returnee successfully carries out a terrorist attack. Even one attack, since in that business one is too many.

I won’t belabour the point I and others have often made about the resource requirement to ‘just follow them’: it is much higher than the average person realises. I also don’t think the average person has any idea what goes into an investigation (what ‘just follow them’ implies). Agencies like CSIS have a broad mandate covering multiple threats as outlined in section 2 of the CSIS Act. And while I have no idea how the investigative resource pie is being split these days – I had a better sense five years ago – I imagine that what with potential Russian interference in the 2019 federal elections, China’s unhelpful activities (there have been allegations of meddling on Canadian campuses to stifle dissent), the need to re-look at the far right, all in addition to what I assume are ample other counter-terrorism investigations, I would assess that the CSIS plate is full. If Canada were to decide to bring back all the Canadians who fought for Islamic State and other terrorist groups, these cases would have to somehow be placed on that already very full plate. As long as they are still in Iraq/Syria, where their crimes were committed by the way, they are not competing for strained resources.

I do hope that CSIS and the RCMP are being asked what they think when it comes to the repatriation issue. Not that either should be the only voice around the table but as the agencies that will assume the lion’s share of the responsibility to ‘just follow them’, their views are very important.

I must confess that I have no insight into how much weight is being given to these players. South of the border it is becoming clear that the US President seems to ignore what his spies are advising him and is even insulting them. I hope that this is not the case here in Canada.

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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