On the link between immigration and terrorism

This article appeared in The Hill Times on January 29, 2018

Canada is a nation of immigrants, of that there is no question.  Our historical openness to those around the world has made us the country we are, warts and all.  And while immigration waves have varied over the centuries – my own family was part of the early 1900s cohort from Eastern Europe – I think we all agree that those who took a chance and came here have added to our collective richness.

To listen to some, however, there is a dangerous fifth column hidden within the hordes seeking to make Canada a home.  I am referring to the belief that terrorists are taking advantage of our immigration system to enter Canada with nefarious intent.  Some are convinced that this is a huge problem and that dire measures must be taken to stop it: the Trump administration has come out recently with a study that makes this claim, although outside experts have cast doubt on its accuracy.  What then is the true situation?

There is no doubt that terrorists have indeed penetrated the West with terrorist intentions – we need look no further than 9/11 to see this.  In addition, there were several cases in Western Europe during the mass migrations out of Africa and the Middle East a few years back that appeared to confirm the hypothesis.  Yet the matter is more complicated than that.

As it turns out, the vast majority of attacks in the West are carried out by those born or raised there.  If they did emigrate from areas of the world we ‘associate’ with terrorism, they did not do so with the intention of becoming terrorists or planning acts.  The process through which they radicalised to violence, became extremists and went on to plan acts of terrorism unfolded in their new land, not that of their origin.  The problem thus lies in identifying where and why radicalisation to violence occurs, not in shutting the door to the vast majority of productive immigrants who make incredible contributions to our societies.  I suppose the argument could be made that these people would not have radicalised and transformed into terrorists if we had not allowed the to come here in the first place but thinking along those lines would lead to a complete shutdown of all our immigration systems since no one can predict who will eventually become a terrorist (or a criminal for that matter).  In this regard, it would be best to allow entry to nobody rather than take a chance that one in million will represent a threat. Does any rational person really support this policy?

Even if terrorist immigrants represent a very small percentage of all immigrants, there is, nevertheless, a problem within our immigration system when it comes to removing those who have been granted access but who are later found to pose a true threat.  In an ideal world, investigation would identify those whom we should reject before they reach our shores but alas this is not a perfect world.  Information is often obtained after the fact and we need to have the ability to reverse decisions and get these people out.  This is what the national security certificate process was all about but it was badly handled and I would be surprised if any government would want to revisit that affair any time soon (full disclosure: I testified for the Crown in several certificate cases involving Islamist extremists so I make no claim of neutrality in this regard).

So no, our immigration process is not rife with terrorists and even if our system is far from perfect it does an adequate job of screening those who wish to call Canada home.  Some bad apples will slip through and we must ensure that we have the laws and policies to deal with those, including a robust national security certificate-like regime to deport true threats.  Tarring the vast majority with the brush of the infinitesimally small minority will not help however.

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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