Why we should not be in a rush to repatriate Canadian IS fighters – part two

While this may strike some people as arrogant and dismissive I have to confess that when I listen to ‘experts’ talk about national security issues in the media I first look at who is speaking.  Some of those who offer opinions are journalists, others are politicians or political junkies, still others are academics.  All have interesting perspectives on the matters at hand and as a consequence all should be allowed to have their say (whether we agree is a completely different issue).

Did you notice which group is remarkably absent from that list?  Security intelligence and law enforcement officials or retired officials.  The former tend not to appear for operational reasons (they either are too busy or do not want to risk compromising ongoing investigations) and the latter are few and far between (at least in Canada: in our neighbour to the south they are a dime a dozen).  For instance, I seem to be one of the rare retired ones who regularly appears on camera or on the phone and I am in a small league of former intelligence analysts with more than 3 decades of experience in a wide variety of roles within the intelligence community.

I say this not to demand that my views be accorded more weight nor to dismiss the views of those who did not serve at Her Majesty’s pleasure as a spy, but to make what I feel is a valid point.  I often hear from ‘outsiders’ what security intelligence and law enforcement agencies ‘should’ do.  Am I the only one who thinks this is a problem? What other field is ok with having those with little to no insider experience dictate actions to be taken?

This is all within the context of what to do with Canadian idiots who elected to join terrorist groups like Islamic State or Al Qaeda.  Several have been captured and want to come home and there is a debate in Parliament and greater Canadian society about whether we should shepherd them home and/or what our obligations towards these terrorists really are.

The one thing that rankles me and which I think demonstrates that many of the so-called experts has no business commenting on these matters is when I hear “Just bring them home: RCMP and CSIS can watch them to make sure  they are not a danger to our society.”  Statements of this kind belay a woeful ignorance of how this all works.

Here are the problems with “just bring them home”:

  • both the RCMP and CSIS are already operating at capacity.  Adding files – unnecessarily in my mind – by returning terrorists being held abroad is not a wise move.
  • both agencies are struggling with resource allocation.  There are calls to boost manpower on the far right and on CI (Counter Intelligence) to thwart foreign interference in our elections and such. Where are all these people tasked with monitoring returnees going to come from?
  • it is not as if “following someone” entails two guys in a car.  An average investigation eats up between 20 and 40 officers: if we brought back all 200 Canadians who left to fight abroad (I know the number is not 200 as many are dead but this is for illustrative purposes) we would need 4-8,000 people to do this job.  We do not have those numbers, not to mention the need to take resources from other, equally important investigations.
  • the challenges of gathering and presenting evidence in a Canadian court are much, much greater than people realise.  Do we want to have charges dismissed and then have to watch these recently freed terrorists?

So as far as I am concerned, expending effort to repatriate Canadians who freely chose to become terrorists in Iraq or Syria or elsewhere would be the equivalent of an ‘own goal’.  Why would we do this?  I will allow others to comment on our legal obligations as I am not a lawyer.  But I have also heard that we have a ‘moral obligation’ to help them.  Really?  We  have to act morally towards Canadians who committed amoral, heinous crimes in a foreign land?  Maybe the ethicists in the crowd can chime in.

In the end, the people of Iraq and Syria have a right to see justice carried out against those who traveled to their land to rape, kill and destroy.  I say we let them have the first kick at this can. What say you?

One last point: if you have not walked a mile in our shoes do not tell us (i.e. CSIS or RCMP) what to do or how to do it.  Show a little more humility and honesty in your comments on national security issues in the public sphere?    Be a little more Canadian, will you?

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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