May 13, 2019

When ‘foreign fighters’ meant something very different

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on May 6, 2019.

I do not normally read the obituaries. It is not that I have no respect for the dead: it is just that I don’t take the time to see who has passed on. This non-practice is bound to change as I get older and more and more people from my generation, including those with whom I worked alongside at CSE and CSIS, leave this mortal coil.

One obituary did strike my eye this week, however. A featured article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail (April 27) gave the story of William Krehm, calling him the “last of the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War” (from 1936-1939). Upwards of 1,600 Canadians, largely though not exclusively Communist or Marxist, left our country to fight for the Spanish government against the forces of Francisco Franco, supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

I would imagine that this vignette in Canadian history is mostly forgotten, although a memorial was opened in Ottawa by then Governor-General Adrienne Clark in 2001 (NB I devoted a fair bit to this in my second book, Western Foreign Fighters). The Canadians who volunteered to travel to Spain came from all corners of our country and from all socioeconomic sectors. In all somewhere between 400 and 700 of the Canadians died. Many of the rest returned, and not to a heroes’ welcome.

The RCMP of the time was concerned that these ‘foreign fighters’ could pose a threat to national security. As then Commissioner McBrien stated “these youths are being sent to Spain largely for the sake of gaining experience in practical revolutionary work and will return to this country to form the nucleus of a training corps.” The last RCMP file on the returnees was closed in 1984, almost a full half-century following the Franco victory.

Why the Mounties’ concern? Recall the perceived threats of that era. Stalin’s Soviet Union, albeit an ‘ally’ – especially in WWII – was feared as was the spread of communism. Not that the RCMP probably had the whole story in 1939 – this would have to wait for the Gouzenko disclosures in 1945 – but they were worried about the growth of Communist and Marxist thought in Canada. Those who fought in Spain were seen as potential radicalisers of others at best and as fifth columnists at worst. Battlefield-acquired skills could be passed on to followers back home, leading to the fear of possible political violence: i.e. terrorism.

To the best of my knowledge none of this transpired, certainly not terrorism. Does that mean that the RCMP’s fears were unwarranted? Not necessarily as the potential was indeed there.

Fast forward to 2019 and what phenomenon has seized both the attention of the RCMP (and CSIS) and the Canadian public? Returning Islamic State (IS) foreign fighters. Some 200 of our citizens have left to join IS and other Islamist extremist groups in recent years and the concern over possible attacks carried out by returnees is not an academic issue. Several attacks worldwide were indeed perpetrated by such individuals and our government, like many others, is struggling to figure out what to do with those who have experience with terrorist groups abroad: whether even to repatriate them, whether (or how) to charge them, whether to rehabilitate them, etc.

That no Spanish Civil War fighters went on to terrorism careers should not give us reason to breathe easily. Past performance is no guarantee of future action, as our financial prospectuses keep reminding us. The threat of terrorism from today’s returnees is not 100% – not all will go down that path – but nor is it 0% The potential is there and our protectors will have to be on their toes, laying charges where possible. It is best not to panic but also not to dismiss this threat.

Phil Gurski is a former strategic terrorism analyst at CSIS. He will be giving a talk on his latest book on May 27 at the Shenkman Centre.