What is the role of human sources in terrorism investigations?

The general public has little insight into how intelligence agencies operate.  That is good on one level since these organisations’ success depends in large part on their ability to work in the shadows.  On another level, however, the information vacuum invariably opens the door wide open for anyone – and I do mean anyone, qualified or not – to weigh in with “expertise”.  If your main source on intelligence matters is Edward Snowden you have a alarmingly low degree of knowledge, trust me.

Since our spy agencies understandably are not keen to enter the debate, allow me to shed some light on the use of human sources in terrorism investigations.  I feel the need to do so after reading an article in the Ottawa Citizen which was critical of the government’s payment of $550,000 to an informant who will not be required to appear at a preliminary hearing in a terrorism trial in Ottawa.  The article betrays woeful ignorance of how investigations unfold.

Here is your primer.  Intelligence and law enforcement agencies in Canada rely on three basic methods for gathering intelligence/evidence.  They have relationships with other organisations both domestically and abroad.  They can get federal court permission to intercept communications (for CSIS these are Section 21 warrants while for the RCMP they are called Part VI warrants).  And they can recruit and run human sources.  All three are crucial tools but it is the third that is most flexible since people can be tasked and respond to shifting environments.

In the case of Ashton and Carlos Larmond, awaiting trial on seeking to go abroad to join a terrorist group, a man was recruited to wear a “wire” (listening/recording device) in his interaction with the brothers and others in Ottawa.  It is noteworthy as well that Ashton Larmond had been in contact with John Maguire, a Kemptville native believed to have died while fighting with Islamic State.

It is these kinds of links that lead to investigations.  No agency looks at a random population for entertainment value.  Our spies and cops have limited resources and they have to allocate those resources carefully.  Extensive ties with a known jihadist is more than enough to justify having a peak at who you are and what you plan to do.

But back to the use of human sources.  The person chosen in this case would have been briefed on what was known about the Larmond brothers. He would have been asked to help determine their mindset, whether they had any plans to act locally or travel and what their immediate networks were.  Since radicalisation is by definition social, knowing who is talking to whom is a very important piece of the puzzle (no, not all communications are suspect: ordering a pizza is, after all, just ordering a pizza).

In this case, the human source would have provided unique insight into the capability and intentions of a homegrown terrorist group.  That information may have been mixed in with possible wiretap and allied data to get a better picture of the threat these individuals posed.  It was that picture that, once fleshed out, led to charges being laid and it is not clear whether that would have happened without the human source input.  The fact that the preliminary hearing was cancelled is irrelevant.  The case is still going forward.

Human sources are remarkable people.  The job they do is risky: if found out by those being investigated, some nasty retribution is possible.  So rather than see these people as snitches or rats we should see them as brave heroes.  Mubin Shaikh (full disclosure: he is both a colleague and a friend), the principal human source in the Toronto 18 case a decade ago, was vilified by some in the Canadian Muslim community for working for both CSIS and the RCMP.  That treatment is wrong: Mr. Shaikh acted out of conviction as both a practicing Muslim and as a loyal Canadian.  If he or someone similar had not penetrated that terrorist cell, people – probably hundreds of people – would have died (I am not being melodramatic: the group had 3 tonnes of fertiliser, a working detonator and targets identified).  We owe him our thanks, not our opprobrium.

Running sources costs money.  So does getting telecommunications intercept. So does physical surveillance.  A lot of money. The CSIS annual budget alone is about $500 million.  Are efficiencies to be found?  Undoubtedly.  Is that kind of money reasonable?  It depends – how safe do you want to be in this country?  CSIS does a professional job in locating and helping neutralise threats to national security.  I’d say it is money well spent.

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.

Leave a Reply