Yes CSIS should be on university campuses and yes university students should cooperate

Here we go again.

Another day another article on how Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, is intimidating, cowing and harassing university students while on ‘fishing expeditions’ on the nation’s post-secondary campuses. This practice has some concerned that Muslims in particular are ‘under the microscope’ and can lead to embarrassing situations that can effect their lives down the road.

And, once again, we are faced with an appalling lack of knowledge and appreciation of what CSIS does and why. I have taken it upon myself – yes once again – to explain a bit why this happens.

First and foremost, CSIS is an intelligence service that collects information related to public safety and national security and shares that on a strict need to know basis with others. CSIS intel can provide early indication that something dangerous is developing and can help point law enforcement, which collects evidence to use in any eventual court case, to do their jobs. That is what we expect of CSIS and that is exactly what it does.

In this case, CSIS officers approached members of Muslim Student Associations or MSAs to ask whether they had seen or heard of anyone whose actions or behaviours were possibly indicative of radicalisation to violence. You’d have to have lived in a cave on Saturn over the past two decades to not know that this is a problem here in Canada. Several hundred Muslim Canadians have opted for this course, some of whom planned acts of terrorism here while others elected to go abroad to join terrorist groups. And some were university students. It is important to recall that in this mini-era of panic over white supremacist violence, which is very real even in Canada, Islamist extremists have killed and maimed more people all over the world by several orders of magnitude and will continue to do so. CSIS is there to identify these individuals and help to stop them from acting or traveling to carry out mayhem outside Canada.

To my mind these MSA members are like any other Canadian: they should help our protectors keep us safe. No, they do not have to act as ‘informants’ and yes their cooperation is strictly voluntary, but why would a citizen NOT want to pass on info that can save lives? I know I would.

There is one other aspect of this story that bothers me. A Wilfrid Laurier University sociology prof, Jasmine Zine, who spent six years researching Muslim youth in Canada told CBC that MSAs are “targeted because they are assumed to be places where disaffected youth may be ‘radicalized,’ which is far from the truth.” She added that “none of these youth were known to be involved in the MSA…these groups have repeatedly stated they would be the first to report suspicious persons to the authorities.”

I am sure that MSA members would do that but Ms. Zine’s statement that radicalised students do not frequent MSAs is categorically wrong. I recall the case of three U of Manitoba students who left Canada to fight in Pakistan/Afghanistan back in 2007 and if my memory is not amiss they were in fact part of that institution’s MSA. Furthermore, I don’t recall any call from that particular MSA to the CSIS hotline (full disclosure: I followed that case very closely as it unfolded). Look, the vast,vast,vast majority of MSA members and Muslim students in general are great Canadians but a few are not and it is absurd to state that MSAs are somehow immune from radicalisation, which can occur ANYWHERE.

As I have often said I do think CSIS has to explain better to Canadians why it does what it does and I am pretty sure based on personal experience that some investigators could up their game and change their interview tactics. I worked alongside many, many stellar intelligence officers at CSIS during my 15 years there but there were some who were somewhat ‘less than stellar’ to be honest. CSIS management has to address this issue since any misstep, real or perceived, can only damage the organisation’s image.

Still, is it too much to ask our media to occasionally feature a piece in which CSIS is not hung out after alleged wrongdoing? Can we not hear how CSIS helped bad shit from happening? Or am I living in a world of unicorns and, sigh, where Canadian NHL teams win the Stanley Cup every year? I think I know that answer to that one.

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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