By Wesley Wark, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Wesley Wark is a Canadian expert on security, intelligence and terrorism issues and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He served for two terms on the Canadian prime minister’s Advisory Council on National Security. The views expressed are his own.
When it comes to terrorism, North America is a shared space. That has always been the conviction of Canadian officials and is written into our official counter-terrorism strategy. It is also a belief shared by much of Canadian society, though subject to a multitude of interpretations.
Sometimes the reading of this shared political space is that terrorist events will occur in the United States, and Canada will feel the consequences in things such as tightened border security and more restrictive measures around travel to the U.S., or the movement of goods across our shared border. Since the 9/11 attacks Canadians have gotten used to girding themselves for something bad to happen in the aftermath of a terrorist outrage or foiled attack south of our border. We have also been keenly aware that a perception exists in some U.S. quarters that Canada is “soft” on terrorism. This has been an unhelpful slur.
Canadian government and society at large are profoundly moved when tragedy strikes the United States, as was evident in their response to the tragic circumstances of the Boston marathon bombing last week. What they are relatively unused to is the notion that we might face our own serious terrorism threats.
Certainly, we have ramped up our intelligence and law enforcement capabilities significantly since 9/11, have crafted anti-terrorism legislation and put it to the test against our bill of rights (the Canadian Charter), and we have sought a grand bargain with the United States over border security and trade. We have foiled some significant terror plots and endured a long running saga of efforts to deport non-citizens who are deemed to be threats to national security back to their counties of origin. But through all this, Canadians have struggled with the notion that there might be an endemic terrorism problem embedded in their own society or that we might be a real target for overseas terror plots. Our shield is a profound faith in a multicultural society that works and offers no traction to those drawn down the path to jihad. Our shield is also our notional “difference” from the United States, however ill-defined this difference might be.
So news of the arrests in Canada on Monday of two individuals alleged to be plotting a terrorist attack on the Canadian rail system, with support and guidance from an overseas al Qaeda group, is unsettling. Alongside the train plot, there is reportedly an ongoing investigation into a group of young men based in Ontario, two of whom are believed to have died in the fiery assault on the Algerian gas plant by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-linked militants.
What both of these recent stories force us to ask is whether the Canadian idea of living in a shared North American space where the terrorism threat is largely an American problem has to change. The answer is yes and no.
On the yes side, Canadians do need to understand that acknowledgement of the reality of terrorism as a danger to our national security is not in and of itself an assault on cherished notions of multiculturalism or an invitation to upend society in favor of hard counter-terrorism measures. Nor is it some weird acquiescence to American policies and pressures, however much this idea lurks in the Canadian political psyche. Canada has its share of terrorism problems, its share of threats.
The real challenge is knowing just what that share is. It is certainly less than for the U.S., for obvious reasons. We are not a global power and whatever the fear was that Canadian Middle East policy with its current tilt to Israel, or the combat mission in Afghanistan, might generate a Islamist terrorist blowback, this doesn’t seem to have occurred.
But the rail bomb plot in Canada is revealing. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police stressed that the rail plot was real and potentially serious, but they also admitted that it posed no imminent threat. The arrests of Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser, neither of whom are Canadian citizens, was clearly a preemptive move to foil a plot that may have been some distance from execution. Both men have been under investigation since August 2012, in an operation the RCMP codenamed “Project Smooth.” Few details are available about either man, though Esseghaier, according to the Globe and Mail newspaper, is a native of Tunisia at work on his Ph.D. at a Quebec university. Other sources indicate that Jaser is from the United Arab Emirates.
The strangest aspect of the case is the RCMP allegation that the two men were acting under the “direction and guidance” of al Qaeda elements in Iran, making it the first such terror plot of its kind. The Iranian regime has scarcely been sympathetic to al Qaeda, and indeed has kept some al Qaeda figures who sought refuge in Iran after the 9/11 attacks under virtual house arrest. The Canadian authorities made clear in Monday’s press conference that they do not believe the Iranian state supported the terror plot; but they did not address the question of whether the al Qaeda connection in Iran was known to the government there, or was operating beneath its radar screen. In any event, the Canadian embassy in Tehran is now shuttered and the Canadian authorities will face great difficulties in liaising with their Iranian counterparts in any investigation of this affair.
The rail bomb plot seems to offer a narrative about a pre-empted plot that posed no imminent threat, mounted by two mysterious individuals who are not Canadian citizens, against a rail system that very few Canadians use or care much about, and backed by al Qaeda operating in a country where it does not operate. Canadian officials are typically tight-lipped about such cases prior to their reaching court, and codes of official secrecy are rarely under-minded by cultures of leaking. The Canadian media faces an uphill battle in drawing out more of the story until the court case gets underway, which itself may be significantly delayed.
The rail bomb plot, and before it the Canadian connection to the Algerian gas plant attack, are sufficiently puzzling and lacking in detail to allow for a muted, possibly even skeptical, reaction from the Canadian public. That skepticism is misplaced. But neither should we expect, or welcome, any significant changes to the way Canada arranges for its security, manages its multicultural society, or practices counter-terrorism.
The biggest terrorism problem we face in Canada is a product of the fact that we live in a shared North American space. We just haven’t quite figured out what that means. But one thing is for sure – terrorism is a shared problem, not one foisted on us by exigent geographic realities.
The United States may for all kinds of reasons have the lion’s share of the problem. But like the U.S., Canada needs to soldier on with the right blend of good intelligence, good law enforcement and good societal stamina. The rail bomb plot will change nothing, nor should it, except hopefully to remind Canadians once again that terrorism happens, not just over there, across that now defended border, but sometimes here, too.