This piece appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on January 13, 2021.
In the wake of the disaster that was Washington on Jan. 6 – part riot, part “insurrection,” part “coup,” part “terrorism” – a lot of people were perhaps taken aback by just how angry and violent a portion of the American public has become. Sure, we have all heard of white nationalism/supremacism, but I am fairly certain that most did not think they would ever see scenes such as those that unfolded at the U.S. Capitol.
People who work in counterterrorism have long warned that what we broadly call right-wing extremism (RWE) is real and constitutes a serious threat to public safety, largely in the West. There are, of course, other forms of terrorism that are orders of magnitude more dangerous on a global scale (i.e. Islamist terrorism) but this manifestation cannot and must not be ignored.
One of the groups that took part in the violence last Wednesday was probably the Proud Boys, a RWE bunch founded in 2016 by a Canadian, Gavin McInnes. In the wake of last week’s riot, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on the Justin Trudeau government to list the Proud Boys as a terrorist entity; Public Safety Minister Bill Blair soon replied that the government would look into that as soon as possible.
Terrorist entity listings
I imagine many Canadians have never heard of the “terrorist entity” listings. This is a tool developed by Public Safety Canada in 2002 in lockstep with what Canada’s allies were doing at the time after 9/11. On its website, Public Safety Canada notes that it is “a public means of identifying a group or individual as being associated with terrorism.”
It is also a highly political process that does little to aid in Canada’s counterterrorism efforts (full disclosure: I worked on the first version of listings in 2002 while at CSIS and actually wrote the first al-Qaida listing). It is neither a very useful nor necessary tool and could disappear tomorrow, leaving little to no effect on the agencies tasked with preventing terrorism.
I worked on the first version of listings in 2002 while at CSIS and actually wrote the first al-Qaida listing
The listings suffer from several shortcomings. Determining “membership” in a terrorist group is next to impossible (the word “member” is actually next to meaningless in this regard). Groups change names often, requiring the department to keep revising its master list in what becomes a version of Whack-a-Mole.
Most importantly, the process is highly political. Is it a coincidence that the government is looking into listing the Proud Boys three days after the Senate siege? The group could have been listed at any point over the past four or five years.
Cuba to be added as a “state sponsor” of terrorism
Our U.S. allies have recently demonstrated just how political the whole listing regime is. The outgoing Donald Trump administration has just listed the Houthis, a Yemeni Shia group, as terrorists; observers say this move will exacerbate the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also announced that Cuba will be added as a “state sponsor” of terrorism. Still not convinced this is all political?
The bottom line is that Canada’s counterterrorism agencies – CSIS, CSE and the RCMP – do not need such listings to do their job. Counterterrorism has been part of national security since the founding of our nation and the absence of a list was not seen as a disadvantage. What the list does facilitate, mostly in the area of terrorism financing, can be achieved in other ways.
Those who keep us safe do not need a list to tell them whom and what to investigate. The Proud Boys are undoubtedly part of that investigative effort, list or no list. Perhaps we can dispense with this tool and spend more time and funds ensuring that our protectors are adequately resourced to fulfil their mandates.