Why wasn’t Rehab Dughmosh being watched? Because we can’t watch everybody

We all know that hindsight is 20-20 – or at least we think it always is.  There is no question that having the best information possible is better than not having it and that usually more information is better than less.  If we knew then we what we know now we would certainly have made better decisions then, or so we think.

To wit the case of Rehab Dughmosh, the woman accused of attempting a golf club/knife attack in a Canadian Tire in Scarborough, Ontario that is now seen as a terrorist incident for the simple reason that Ms. Dughmosh had apparently tried to enter Syria last year to join Islamic State and betrayed her true feelings in court when she pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, vowing to attempt another attack if released from custody.

We must of course allow the case to proceed – Ms. Dughmosh’s demands to ‘finish it today’ notwithstanding – before we pass judgment on her, but an interesting piece of information has already been made public.  After failing to gain entry into Syria Ms. Dughmosh was returned to Canada by Turkey and, we assume, the Turks informed Canadian officials of that fact.  At the time the Crown elected not to press charges for having left the country to join a listed terrorist entity.   Nor do we know if she was placed on a watchlist or whether she was being monitored by CSIS or the RCMP or both.

Was this, in hindsight, a mistake?  Not necessarily.

A few things have to be taken into consideration in this regard:

  1. Despite the account by the Turkish government that she had intended to go to Syria to join IS was there any EVIDENCE to that effect?  In other words, was there a reasonable chance to make a case and gain a conviction with what Canada and/or Turkey knew at the time?  How much did we get from Turkish officials?  My understanding of how the Public Prosecution Service of Canada works is that it determines whether it has enough evidence to proceed.  I would imagine that there are a whole bunch of cases that never make that stage.
  2. Should she have been placed on a watchlist?  Maybe she was.  Even if she were, this does not imply she was being watched.  We learned during last year’s Aaron Driver case in Strathroy that not everyone on a list can be surveilled indefinitely.  There are simply not enough resources out there to do so.  CSIS and the RCMP have to triage their target list (‘target’ is the term used for a subject of investigation) on a daily basis.  If there is not enough intelligence to warrant devoting finite resources to a particular case, or you are already running flat out on higher priority cases (just ask MI5 about that), you move on to the next.  Welcome to the world of intelligence and law enforcement.

I am not trying to minimise what Ms. Doghmush tried to do at that Canadian Tire.  It looks to me like she wanted to kill and she wanted to take lives in the name of IS.  That in my books is an act of terrorism.  But I have yet to see anything to date that officials (read: CSIS and RCMP) had enough information to evaluate her as a risk or could have predicted such an event, prediction being less easy than people think.  Spoiler alert: real intelligence collection and analysis is not what you see on ‘24‘ – it is much harder than that. Before you lambaste our spies and cops, educate yourself a bit on the nature and scale of the terrorist threat and how we handle it in real time.

So all the Monday morning armchair quarterbacks can have their say and speak convincingly that ‘someone’ blew it in this case, adding that we are lucky no one was killed or seriously wounded by the slashing jihadi.   A dose of reality is needed here however, and I hope that this small contribution helps to provide that.


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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