The lessons of the Toronto 18

As I wrote in a blog post yesterday, today marks the 10th anniversary of the arrest of 17 men in the Greater Toronto Area in the culmination of a massive terrorism investigation by Canadian authorities.  In what came to be known as the “Toronto 18” (the last subject was arrested in August 2006) Canadians were rudely introduced to homegrown terrorism 5 years after 9/11.

For those who have forgotten the details, here is a short synopsis.  A group of men in the Toronto area, led by an Afghan immigrant (Fahim Ahmad), attended a “training camp” near Orillia, Ontario in December 2005, chose three targets (the CSIS office in Toronto, the financial district and a military base), built a detonator, and bought fertiliser, all without knowing that their every move was being followed by CSIS and the RCMP.  Their arrest saved the lives of thousands.

The event was a seminal one for me as a CSIS analyst and I’d like to reflect on what this meant then as well as what is means now.  Much has happened in the intervening decade and much of that has been good in Canada.  Firstly, the Toronto 18 investigation proved – or rather should have proven – to skeptical Canadians that terrorism was real and not just something that happened ‘”over there”.  Truth be told, there were significant doubts about the real nature of the threat in June 2006 and whether this cell was that dangerous: many believed that CSIS and the RCMP had exaggerated the plot.  I am happy to say that ten years later most Canadians accept the fact that we have terrorists in our midst.  This turnaround in public opinion may have had a lot to do with the attack on the National War Memorial and Parliament in October 2014, but in any event it is a step forward in our collective understanding and acceptance of the issue.

Secondly, the RCMP advised Muslim leaders of the impending takedown just before it took place to allow them to prepare their communities for the news.  This was an outstanding decision at the time and the relationship between Canadian government officials and these communities has only gotten better since then (albeit with an unfortunate downturn at the end of the Harper years).  All this shows that we do things differently in Canada and I know that many countries have sought our input as they seek to learn from our model.  Are we perfect?  No, but we are in a much better position than most Western countries on this issue.

Thirdly, the case demonstrated clearly that a group of Canadian Muslims can radicalise to violence entirely at home with no significant foreign input.  This was not an Al Qaeda-led or -directed plot (Islamic State did not exist back then) but rather a terrorist act planned based on what is known as the Al Qaeda (or Single) Narrative – the notion that the West was at war with Islam and that “true” Muslims (self-defined) had to fight to defend the faith.  The Toronto 18 sought to punish Canada and Canadians for their decision to send soldiers to Afghanistan back in 2001.  In an era where we obsess about IS and their involvement in organising attacks abroad, it is important to remember that most plots in the West are homegrown.

Fourthly, the case showed that CSIS and the RCMP could work hand in glove to successfully stop a terrorist act from occurring.  The investigation started with CSIS and was handed over to the Mounties when it was clear a criminal act was being planned.  CSIS sources became RCMP agents (not always an easy thing to do) more or less seamlessly and a serious terrorist attack was averted.  There is little doubt that the CSIS-RCMP relationship has had its ups and downs but the two do work together well and Canadians are safer as a result.

Lastly, despite more foiled plots and two successful ones in the interim, Canada remains in a good position when it comes to homegrown terrorism.  We are not in the same league as France or Belgium or the UK, or even the US.  Our government has done a much better job at understanding the threat and putting measures into place, both soft and hard, to deal with it.  We had the 5-year $10 million Kanishka research project which, although many thought it under-delivered (I am among that group), set the stage for a more robust and more mature academic environment to look at terrorism where none existed before.  Public Safety Canada’s Citizen Engagement branch developed a community outreach programme that was the envy of all our allies and the creation of the new Office of the Coordinator for Counter Radicalisation and Community Outreach will hopefully enhance this effort.   There is more work to be done but these are all enviable achievements.

The Toronto 18 may have been a shock to the system for Canada but it was not the harbinger of a path to ruin.  We are still a relatively safe country and while we must remain vigilant and ensure that our security and law enforcement agencies enjoy the necessary resourcing and public trust, we will likely remain so.

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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