Why are Canadians used as terrorist group spokespeople?

We Canadians may be shy folk (at least when put next to our southern neighbours) but we also tend to point out, nauseatingly perhaps, when one of ours makes it big on the international scene. Think Saturday Night Live, created by Canadian Lorne Michaels and featuring many, many Canucks over the years: Martin Short, Mike Meyers and Dan Akroyd among others. Or our social gurus: Malcolm Gladwell and Jordan Peterson. Or our singers: Shania Twain, Celine Dionne and Justin Bieber – ok maybe some of us wish the last two were NOT Canadian sometimes, but you get my point. For a smallish nation we do have a presence in the world.

Alas the same goes for terrorist groups. Not only have Canadians participated in heinous acts around the world (Algeria, Bangladesh, Iraq, Somalia – there may even be a Canadian link to the attack this week in Nairobi), but they have featured in propaganda videos extolling the virtues of these groups and making all kinds of threats. My friend and colleague Amar Amarasingham is pretty sure that a Canadian in custody in Syria, Mohammed Abdullah Mohammed, is the long-sought narrator of Islamic State (IS) videos where he went by the name Abu Ridwan. That terrorist was the spokesperson for such jihadi hits as the “Flames of War” as well as the narrator of a piece on attacks in Paris.

For its part, the Canadian government is looking at Abu Ridwan closely. Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale stated yesterday (January 18) that “we will be working on evidence to build the case where we can lay charges and prosecute.” It is also worth noting that the government has said it has no obligation to repatriate terrorists who happen to have been captured by security forces in countries like Iraq and Syria.

What I find most interesting about this case is that it represents yet another example of a Canadian acting as a ‘spokeperson’ of sorts for terrorist groups like IS. Two other salient examples were Andre Poulin of Timmins and John Maguire of Kemptville, both small towns in northeastern and southeastern Ontario respectively.

It seems to me that the choice of Canadians to act in these roles makes a lot of sense, from the perspective of a terrorist group’s leadership. Canadians are fluent in English (or French in some cases, or sometimes in both) and it is important for terrorist organisations to get their message out in that language which is, after all, THE world language. There is no need for subtitling when these videos are shown on newscasts and online. Secondly, it demonstrates that the terrorist threat emanates from within the West, meaning that if a Canadian can embrace the cause just about anyone can. And thirdly, it provides a warning that there are people who live among us who are actually terrorists and these extremists can choose to act violently at any time. The terrorist threat is thus not just one that occurs ‘over there’ but can erupt ‘over here’ (especially if leadership thinks it is a good idea and directs its ‘soldiers’ in the West to do so or if the recruit cannot travel – e.g. because a passport has been confiscated or denied).

What happens next with Abu Ridwan will be interesting. The Kurds have made it blatantly clear that they do not want to keep these guys indefinitely and would prefer that they are taken by their homelands. Most Western countries want nothing to do with them, however. If he returns he should be charged and tried because he seems to have broken at least one law: leaving Canada to join a terrorist group. There will nevertheless be the overarching challenge of gathering and presenting evidence. The fact that he was an IS shill may seem to make this an open and shut case but it is seldom as easy as that.

Whatever happens this will not be the last case of a Canadian who gets caught up in Islamist extremism. A tiny number of Canadian Muslims will continue to think that hooking up with killers is a good idea. Stay tuned.

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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