April 23rd, 2013
12:32 PM ET

Canadians shouldn’t be surprised about alleged terror plot

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.

More from GPS: Al Qaeda, Iran...and Canada plot?

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.

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Topics: Canada • Terrorism

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soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. matslats

    Sorry but why would Canada make itself a target by standing with the USA on terror? How many actual Canadians want anything to share political space with a political cess pit like USA? Who are you preaching to and for Mr Wark?

    April 23, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Reply
    • Canada

      As much as I slightly agree with you. Canadians cannot fault the American people with bad politics (sometimes I would consider them criminal politics) American citizens need everyone they can to stand with them. and unfortunately, if the world wants to succeed, a common path needs to be followed. Though our paths are slightly different, they are in the same direction at least. It's time to choose a side if we're going to figure human kind's evolution out. We chose America, NATO, and Democracy. The world happens to be very black and white.

      April 24, 2013 at 9:22 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Matslats... The alternative to standing with the USA on terror is standing wit the jihadists on the US. Would you prefer Canada to elect the latter option?

      April 24, 2013 at 11:46 am | Reply
  2. 100 % ETHIO

    Currently, Jewish are celebrating.
    D.S. Chuck Hagel, promised a $10 Billion Dollars value High-Tech weapons to Jews vs the current Iranian caught before explosion done = war with Iran is possible.

    However, Canada permitted Islamic Law (Sharia) to existed in Ontario. Most Islamic extremists and some Anti-Christian Jewish terrorist groups (JDL) Jewish Defence League are emerged and attacked Christian-Ethiopians in Canada and beyond.

    I believe, neither Jew nor Muslims are good for Canada and U.S.A. We could be better off, without them.

    And also, they both are living with past scars, to take revenge, on One Day.

    April 23, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Reply
    • filspa

      Correction – Ontario does NOT have sharia law. There was an attempt to implement it some years ago, but it was very quickly quashed by the outcry. Let's get our facts straight.

      April 24, 2013 at 9:43 am | Reply
    • Canada

      "However, Canada permitted Islamic Law (Sharia) to existed in Ontario. Most Islamic extremists and some Anti-Christian Jewish terrorist groups (JDL) Jewish Defence League are emerged and attacked Christian-Ethiopians in Canada and beyond. "

      100% wrong. please know what you're talking about. some people based on their biases may take this as truth.

      April 24, 2013 at 10:10 am | Reply
      • Thinker23

        This is "100% ETHIO". Don'e expect anything truthful and making sense from him.

        April 24, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  3. Towel Heads

    Towel Heads is what Towel Heads do. No surprise there.

    April 23, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Reply
    • Sasha

      Bwahahahahahaha, too true

      April 24, 2013 at 11:48 pm | Reply
  4. jeremy

    Have to be honest, I am a Canadian and in living and working abroad (7 continents) the last 20 years have come into contact with several Canadian Intelligence members. Although the are usually excellent folks, I am always taken aback by the lack of training and knowledge of the greater world. I should never have to explain to a security or intelligence expert what the letters HAMAS stand for, or who is El Shabab, or what the ISI is. I am a complete laymen, and these sorts of failings greatly concern me. I'm sorry, as proud as I am to be a Canadian, speaking Quebec French should not be all you require to achieve these postings. Scares me a little...

    April 23, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • Jeremy's Father

      You are absolutely correct-the problem for canada is its two languages, It should not be a requirement to know french for top positions in government. The majority speak english. French shold only be considered as an additional asset.

      Further there are really no great targets in Canada for a terrorist to attack. Truthfully nobody even thinks of the country when the word west or western comes up.

      April 24, 2013 at 12:42 am | Reply
    • P

      BS!

      April 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  5. Henri James

    As a Canadian, I sometimes just like that we're noticed by international terrorists.
    It's like "Hey someone's paying attention to us! Neat-O!"

    April 23, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Reply
    • Sasha

      You are an idiot.

      April 24, 2013 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  6. PHILIPPE M MOISAN

    CANADA's UNAMBIGUOUS SUPPORT OF ISRAEL COMES HOME TO ROOST !

    April 24, 2013 at 4:02 am | Reply
    • Canada

      We support sanity. We don't care how it got there 60 years, 40 years, 200 years ago. only about now. and right now, in that region. Israel is the only nation that moves in the direction we agree with (albeit not perfectly) It's the lesser of two (or more) evils. History is important, you do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. But you cannot change it. No one is calling for the destruction of the Americans, or the Canadians for taking aboriginal lands. as a matter of fact, It's happened all over the world. now imagine if everybody asked for their stuff back. What a major upheaval. IE; back to square one. let's look forward shall we. until Gaza can demonstrate it's ability to have sanity, many will not accept a two state solution. West Bank is doing much better, and a two state solution is made possible by its approach.

      April 24, 2013 at 10:06 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, Canada like its powerful neighbour, the US and Western Europe faces a real challenge. Despite a successful, multi-cultural model, some young people in these countries all have the feeling of being alienated from mainstream society. Some are angry about Canada's involvement in the war in Afghanistan, its strong ties to the US, and its increasingly vocal commitment to Israel. The government for its part has shown new vigour in combating terrorism, with Stephen Harper saying that "Islamic terrorism" was the country's biggest security threat.

    April 24, 2013 at 8:47 am | Reply
    • Canada

      A lot of that alienation is coming from the portrayal and imitation of American style politics, and possibly a hidden agenda with that region of the world. There is a broad message from our medium that targets this group, it is a little more veiled than US media, and not as concentrated. However, Media in Canada is not as powerful on the masses. I think it has to do with a deflated ego when it comes to our country. As the not as powerful or influential neighbour of the United States, citizens here look at what is wrong with other countries, and try as hard not to imitate it. You'd be amazed at how a balanced outlook can shape a community. As for the people that feel alienated from mainstream society, that's a good thing. We should all take a step back from the mainstream, that where the media and it's message has it's nose. and it is very powerful. Also, about ego. remember, it's best your country is not "The greatest country in the world" but rather a excellent country, and you are positive there are other excellent countries with just as many or more freedoms.

      April 24, 2013 at 9:39 am | Reply
  8. joe anon 1

    "Canadians shouldn’t be surprised about alleged terror plot"

    fiction exists in canada as well as in old glory land.

    April 24, 2013 at 10:01 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      So you're telling us that Canadians SHOULD be surprised about alleged terror plot?

      April 24, 2013 at 11:56 am | Reply
      • joe anon 1

        alleged/fabricated, no
        real, yes

        April 24, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
  9. willownamdar.wallinside.com

    Awesome issues here. I'm very happy to see your post. Thanks so much and I am taking a look ahead to touch you. Will you please drop me a e-mail?

    April 24, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
  10. Concerned Canadian

    I was a little shocked when I heard of the Via train plot, but I guess I really shouldn't be. It seems that young angry and easily led individuals are everywhere. We need to band together with our friends in the US if we hope to stop these senseless acts of violence. Anyone who thinks this is a US problem only has their head in the sand.

    April 25, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply

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