Jun 17, 2017

Could the terrorist threat to Canada get a lot worse?

Most people in Canada have a good impression of Sweden I would think.  Whether it focuses on tall, blonde attractive men and women or the increasing number of star hockey players – the Ottawa Senators have been blessed with both Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson – the images are positive ones.  And if you have had the pleasure of traveling to this Nordic nation you know it is stunning.

Somewhat unexpectedly, then, it also has a significant terrorism issue.

According to the head of SAEPO, the Swedish equivalent of CSIS, the numbers of ‘militant extremists’ have risen from 200 or so not that long ago to ‘thousands’, the vast majority of whom are ‘violent Islamists’.  SAEPO does not think the majority of them have either the intent or the capability to plan a terrorist attack, but still, this increase must keep Sweden’s spies awake at night.  Monthly intelligence tips to their Service have skyrocketed from 2,000 to 6,000.

Why the change?  Well, it is complicated with contributing factors including the influence of Islamic State, the ubiquity of terrorist messaging on social media and the Internet, socioeconomics and ‘tame’ counter extremism programmes.  Luckily in a way, the Swedes are not surprised by this development and are taking steps to deal with it.

Sweden of course is not alone in having a significant terrorist problem.  To put it in context the UK has identified 23,000 such individuals, while France registers 17,000 and neighbouring Belgium 18,000.  All of these nations have suffered from terrorists attacks in the last few years and there are more to come.

What about us here in Canada? How big is our extremist population?  Should Canadians be worried?  Is it time to hit the panic button and implement draconian laws such as immigration bans and the suspension of civil liberties?

In a word, no.  When I worked at CSIS we were looking at, at any given time, a few hundred cases of individuals identified as ‘Islamist extremists’ (this information was made public) and, although I have not been at the Service in almost four years, I would be surprised if that number were significantly higher.  Furthermore, just as in Sweden, the vast majority did not go on to plan attacks although there were clearly some (Toronto 18, Project Samossa, VIA passenger, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, etc.).  The lack of action does not imply that CSIS was investigating the wrong people: quite the contrary as it was doing its due diligence to determine capability and intent consistent with its mandate.

So the question remains.  Could we see a Sweden-like escalation?  Will Canada emulate the UK and France?  Will the problem get so big as to swamp CSIS and the RCMP?

I think not.  Our resident terrorism issue is unlikely to get out of control for a variety of reasons, some of which we can point to and some intangible.  We screen immigrants well in this country and we have the luxury of two large oceans separating us from conflict zones (Europe has no such buffer).  We do a better, albeit imperfect, job of integrating newcomers.  We have worked with communities to sensitise them to the signs of violent radicalisation and are developing new strategies to make that even better.  And we have very good security intelligence and law enforcement agencies that collaborate hand in glove with each other (this is not a criticism of European agencies that are going flat out to keep their citizens safe  in a very challenging environment).

As I wrote recently I am not a fortune teller and I would never write that it is impossible for the violent extremist situation in Canada to get worse.  If you look at the data available, however, you can confidently conclude that a lot would have to change in this land to get to where our European partners are.  And I just don’t see that.

In this light our approach should be steady as she goes.  Make sure CSIS and the RCMP are adequately funded and resourced to identify and investigate those who intend us harm.  Take CVE (countering violent extremism) seriously and work with communities as partners.  Challenge those who think all Muslims are terrorists and who advocate harsh measures.

As we look forward to our 150th birthday as a nation in a few weeks we can take pride in what we have built as a modern state, warts and all.  Canada is a safe, prosperous and welcoming land and I would not want it any other way.