Passport to freedom?

In the aftermath of the arrests of 10 Quebecers at Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport last weekend, the government has confiscated the passports of what it calls terrorism suspects (see story here).  Without passports, the aspiring youth cannot leave Canada (unless of course they procure false documentation).

So, is this the best way to deal with homegrown extremists?

Some have suggested that we should just let terrorist wannabes go.  The argument runs something like this: these people just want to die anyway so why should we stop them – they don’t like us and they don’t want to be here.  Dead terrorists are one less problem to worry about.

As tempting as this may sound to some, there are several inherent problems with this approach.  First, these people may not die: they may go abroad, get further radicalized or trained and return to cause mayhem here (cancelling their passports post departure is not a guarantee they won’t come back – there are ways).  Secondly, they may die, but take a lot of people with them.  This is what happened in January 2013 when two youth from London ON participated in an attack in Algeria that killed more than 40 foreign gas workers.  It is largely because of this event that the Government of Canada took the position that we will not “export terrorism” to other countries.  Besides, what if the attack took place in New York?  Can you imagine the impact on Canada-US relations?

By keeping them here, we run the risk that a frustrated, angry extremist may decide to act in Canada (“if you stop me from fulfilling my destiny there, I’ll do so here”).  This is of course exactly what happened last October in St Jean sur Richelieu and Ottawa (both Martin Couture Rouleau and Michael Zehaf Bibeau had their passports seized  -the former Canadian and the latter Libyan – before they attacked their targets).

So is this a good strategy?  Government (at whatever level) is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  Those suggesting that this is an easy call fail to understand the implications.

If we keep them here someone has to ensure that they do not strike.  If charges cannot be laid (due to a lack of evidence) then the onus is on our security and law enforcement agencies and following someone (for how long?  weeks? months?) costs money and resources.

It is also true that someone holding dual citizenship may have two passports.  We can seize the Canadian one but we have no authority to seize a foreign one.

In light of the seemingly never-ending parade of Canadians keen on traveling to join extremist groups and the unlikelihood that foreign conflicts will end soon, authorities will continue to be faced with these challenges for the foreseeable future.

If this is a choice between two evils, it is not clear which one is lesser.

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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