When terrorists infiltrate legitimate protest

And so the outrage begins.  A Transport Canada report that states that terrorists could use legitimate, Charter-protected protest activity as a cover to carry out violence (see story here) has caused a kerfuffle.  A director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has expressed concern that the report and its authors paints “(lawful) activism as a potential cover for terrorist activities.”

No it doesn’t Mr. Zwibel.

Let’s face facts.  Peaceful, legitimate protest and dissent is a cherished right in our country.  If you disagree with the government at any level or any corporation for that matter you have recourse, protected under the law as it should be, to picket, demonstrate, lobby, seek change and create a nuisance. As long as you do it non-violently.  Once you cross that line and embrace violence, you have committed an offence.  It’s not that complicated.

At times, not always, maybe not even very often, a march or a demonstration descends into mayhem when a few hooligans decide that breaking a window or torching a police car is a good idea.  And if those hooligans are doing so because they subscribe to an ideology such as environmental activism or anti-capitalism then their act is by definition terrorism (a serious act of violence carried out against non-combatants for idelogical reasons).  I am puzzled as to why there is even any debate over this.

We have seen this happen.  The  Seattle 1999 WTO protests.  The Toronto 2010 G20 riots.  And there are more.  Even when violence does not erupt there is often a violent undercurrent that could explode given the right circumstances.  Should we ignore the possibility?

Just as I would not want to taint all protesters as terrorists, nor should we taint all security and law enforcement action as draconian and overbearing (I have no intention of addressing accusations that police overreact and deal roughly with those whose intentions are peaceful, simply because I do not have the facts at hand.  That is a subject for some other specialist to deal with).  If our agencies receive intelligence that someone or some group is considering disrupting an event with violence, then those agencies have a legal – and moral – responsibility to investigate that possibility both to protect property as well as the lives of ordinary people who may be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In a related matter, I lectured at Ottawa University today and was asked this question: “Why do we need CSIS in cases like this where lawful protest turns violent – isn’t that an RCMP issue?” This was precisely why, in part, CSIS was created in 1984.  It is mandated to look into threats to national security (including terrorism) BEFORE it becomes criminal.  And that’s why it is the right body to gather information on protests where there are reasonable grounds to suspect violence (that phrase is taken right from the CSIS Act).

So before some more well-intentioned activists raise a hue and cry over government interference in lawful action, let’s remember that violence is illegal and we have agencies that work to prevent it.  And they do a darn good job at it.


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.

One reply on “When terrorists infiltrate legitimate protest”

This and other manufactured controversies about CSIS’ so-called “enhanced powers” proves that even among the allegedly enlightened there is a fundamental misunderstanding around what CSIS does and does not do. It would be a treat if even one member of the media would bother to read the CSIS Act. It would be an even bigger treat if rational minds would reach the logical conclusion that with limited personnel and a small budget CSIS couldn’t take the time to monitor law-abiding groups even if it had the inclination.

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