When Canadians carry out terrorist attacks abroad

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on December 19, 2018.

July 1 is, of course, our national day.  Whether you celebrate it like we do here in Ottawa with a series of events centred on Parliament Hill capped by the awesome fireworks display or in your own local way (at the cottage, in your backyard…) it is definitely a very happy occasion even if, as Canadians, we tend to downplay our successes and focus on all the things we are not so proud of.

July 1 marks a very different occasion in Bangladesh, one that is as far from celebration as you can get.  On July 1, 2016 in the late evening five armed men entered the Holey Artisan bakery in Dhaka and took hostages.  By the time commandos stormed the venue, 29 people were killed, including 20 hostages.  Islamic State (IS) typically claimed responsibility for the attack although government authorities maintained that a local group, Jamaat -ul-Mujahideen (JuM) were behind the violence.  The impact on Bangladeshi society was so great that the day is now referred to as 7/16.

Why am I bringing this event up two and half years later, aside from the fact that the trial of those involved is getting underway?  It is simple: the mastermind of the attack was a Canadian from Windsor, ON named Tamim Chowdhury.  Born in Bangladesh but raised in Canada, Chowdhury is believed to have left for Syria and IS in 2012-2013 after which he returned to his native land.  After the attack Bangladeshi police issued a bounty for Chowdhury and he was killed along with other IS terrorists in a raid on a safehouse in late August 2016.  Whether the dual citizen terrorist was IS or JuM is still open to debate.

What this incident shows is that Canadian violent extremists like Chowdhury can inflict death and injury not just here at home but abroad as well. The list of those who acted in ways similar to the Windsor jihadi is a long one: Salman Ashrafi of Calgary (Iraq); Mahad Dhorre of Toronto (Somalia); Xristos Katsiroubas of London (Algeria); and hundreds of others who left our country to join terrorist groups in a wide swath of nations, sometimes acting as spokespersons for those groups (John Maguire (Ottawa), Andre Poulin (Timmins) and Farah Shirdon (Calgary) each made videos for IS).

This is an important matter since we should not be seen as net exporters of terrorism (fact: more Canadians have carried out terrorist acts abroad than foreigners have here by a wide margin).  What this implies is that our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies have to have the tools and resources to identify and neutralise these violent extremists while they are still here and have not had a chance to kill and maim in other countries.  This means that we have to find ways to successfully investigate and prosecute these terrorists in our court system: the perennial problems of intelligence to evidence and a woefully ignorant legal regime is hampering these efforts.

What is also important is that we argue against two positions I have come across over the past few years: those that say we should ‘just let them go’ (i.e. be rid of them) and those who shockingly maintain that there is such thing as a ‘universal right to travel’ that applies in all cases.  The correct counter to these ridiculous statements is that Canada has an obligation and a moral duty to deal with its own cases of radicalisation to violence and that the government cannot turn a blind eye to those with violent intent, irrespective of where they plan to operationalise that intent.

To add yet another wrinkle there is the challenge of what to do in cases where we prevent terrorists from leaving but do not have enough evidence to charge and go to trial.  In these events we are left with individuals bent on joining their terrorist friends but who have their desires frustrated by their government.  In the worst cases, as we have seen, these extremists elect to turn their rage inward and kill Canadians.  This is exactly what happened over a two-day span in October 2014 when wannabe foreign jihadis Martin Couture-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed members of the Canadian Armed Forces in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa.

The bottom line is that we will see more Canadians who think traveling to hook up with terrorist groups is a good idea.  We must not allow that to happen as we cannot allow innocent lives to be lost to these extremists.  We need o take care of our own problems.

Phil Gurski is the Director of Security and Intelligence at the SecDev Group in Ottawa and a former strategic analyst at CSIS.  His most recent book is An End to the War on Terrorism.

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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