Why did it take Canada so long to list a far right terrorist group?

Canada’s ‘listed terrorist entities’ program is an odd beast. It only came into force after 9/11 and that is odd in that terrorist groups certainly existed prior to that day. As we all know, however, 9/11 changed EVERYTHING when it comes to our reaction and responses to terrorism and I suppose the list was just waiting to be developed.

Full disclosure: I was part of the team that wrote the synopses for the original listing process way back then and it was a strange time. Despite all the intelligence we had – I was with CSIS after all – we were told to use only unclassified information to draft the write-up. I suppose this was justified as the listings were to be made public but it did strike me as dumb to ask intelligence analysts to forsake their best sources (for the record Public Safety Canada’s Web site says “criminal and/or security intelligence reports are submitted to the Minister of Public Safety for consideration”: that was not my experience) . Maybe things have changed since then but all I know is that every two years we had to come up with new open data to justify keeping a group on the list.

The primary raison d’etre behind the list seems to be financial in nature. Again from the Web site: ” It is not a crime to be listed. However, one of the consequences of being listed is that the entity’s property can be the subject of seizure/restraint and/or forfeiture… It is an offence to knowingly participate in or contribute to, directly or indirectly, any activity of a terrorist group. This participation is only an offence if its purpose is to enhance the ability of any terrorist group to facilitate or carry out a terrorist activity. ” I have already weighed in in a previous blog on the non-sensical nature of throwing out terrorism charges if someone does not belong to an actual group, so I won’t re-hash that argument.

The list has ebbed and flowed and currently contains 60 entities. Of no surprise is that 48 (80%) are Islamist extremist in nature. Interestingly, the newest additions include two far right groups: Combat 18 and Blood and Honour, two particularly nasty neo-Nazi violent organisations. The fact that they have been listed is clearly tied to pressure and criticism levied on the Canadian government that it was not paying enough attention to this brand of terrorism (that has been changed as CSIS has told us in its 2018 annual report). Nevertheless, I can find little to no overt evidence that either group is active in Canada or has engaged in acts of terrorism here (if they are I am sure someone will tell me!). In that vein I can think of other far right groups much more worrisome in Canada, even if those are largely a joke (La Meute, the 3%ers, the Soldiers of Odin…).

I have said it before and I will say it again here: I believe that the far right does pose a violent threat to Canada and elsewhere and that groups which espouse these views should be monitored and members arrested when they pass the criminal threshold. It does NOT however pose a larger threat than jihadis do even if the latter themselves are relatively quiet in Canada. We do not have to shift our security focus disproportionately.

A bigger question is why have the list in the first place. Does it facilitate investigations? No. Does it facilitate prosecutions? Maybe, but probably not. Does it facilitate funds seizure? Probably and that is perhaps where it has its only real purpose. I agree with former CSIS analyst colleague Jessica Davis that the list is largely symbolic.

So the list gets longer and Public Safety Canada can point to an accomplishment. This does not take away from the larger question surrounding what value the department adds to Canada’s counter terrorism effort. Maintaining a list seems to me to be a poor justification for having a whole department to oversee and guide our protectors.

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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