How safe are Canada’s airports?

Some potentially disturbing news on the terrorism front came out the other day in Canada. According to reports, four employees at Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport in Montreal (it used to be called Dorval) had their security clearances revoked over concerns that they had become ‘radicalised’.  The men had access to restricted areas, one had talked about emulating the 2015 Paris attacks, and yet another posted pro Islamic State material on FaceBook.  All in all a scary event.

Still, this story is both less serious and more serious than it might have appeared at first.  Whatever the real threat posed here, as I shall try to outline, it did not warrant the shrill Cassandra-like statements made by some politicians and pseudo experts.  It is my experience that the words of politicians and senior officials, especially on national security issues, are sometimes ill-considered and unhelpful, spreading fear rather than confidence.

On the plus side, there is no evidence, at least not in the public domain, that any of these men were engaged in attack planning at the airport.  They certainly appear to have been radicalised, and that is serious, but people often make the inaccurate leap in assuming that radicalisation inevitably leads to violence.  Nothing could be further from the truth. In my experience the vast majority of people who hew to violent ideologies never act on their ideas.  We  used to call them ‘couch jihadis’ at CSIS.  Talk after all is cheap.  I do think that these people have to be investigated but we cannot make the mistake of labelling everyone with an extremist idea a dangerous terrorist.

More worrying are the potential holes in the security screening process that may have been exposed in this incident.  Although this particular case may not have been an example of problems with the system, it is still worth explaining how the whole thing works.   CSIS is responsible for recommending whether or not an individual needs a certain level of security clearance to access certain information or certain sensitive sites (of which the inner workings of an airport most assuredly qualify). What most people probably do not realise is that CSIS advises on security clearances: it does not grant them.  Those agencies asking for a clearance for an employee or applicant usually accept CSIS’ advice, but they can move on without doing so (at least that  is how I understand the process: I never actually worked in Security Screening).  Secondly, some whose applications have been denied can appeal (and have appealed), seeking to know why.  This places the government in a hard place as the information used to determine eligibility is usually secret.  Lawsuits have been started and it would not be ridiculous to think that the government could cave in to prevent long-drawn out and expensive legal proceedings, not to mention the exposure of classified intelligence.

Thirdly, a security clearance cannot be a static process.  Those with access to sensitive material must be examined regularly to determine if any changes have occurred that may effect one’s right to a clearance. All this requires time and money.  A security review is exactly what appears to have happened at PET, meaning that the system is working as it should.

We cannot take airport security lightly.  A Russian airliner leaving Egypt that was brought down in November 2015, killing all 224 aboard, may have been subject to a bomb placed in the hold by an airport worker.  The threat is thus not merely theoretical.  Airport employees must be subject to stringent security reviews and those who fail must have their access removed.

At the same time, however, let’s not overreact to an incident that may not have been as serious as it was made out to be by some.  We have enough real plots without inventing others.

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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