April 23rd, 2013
05:43 PM ET

How big is Canada’s terrorism threat?

By Veronica Kitchen, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Veronica Kitchen is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo and the Balsillie School of International Affairs. The views expressed are her own.

News that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s “Project Smooth” foiled an alleged terrorist plot in Canada was greeted in some quarters with the usual tongue-in-cheek surprise that violent extremists would target a “nice country” like Canada. But the fact is that Canada has long been concerned with its status as a potential terrorist target.

Terrorism in Canada (and the United States) is a rare event. In the 1960s, the FLQ, a group of violent and revolutionary Québec separatists, launched a bombing campaign that culminated in the 1970 October Crisis, when they kidnapped and murdered the deputy premier of Québec, Pierre Laporte; Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau controversially enacted the War Measures Act and declared martial law. Canada’s most deadly terrorist attack came in 1985, when Sikh militants orchestrated the bombing of Air India flight 182, which exploded near Ireland killing all passengers, including 268 Canadians. Twenty-six Canadians were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

More recently, it was revealed last month that two young Canadian men from London, Ontario travelled to Algeria and allegedly participated in a terrorist attack on a gas plant that resulted in the deaths of dozens of workers, as well as most of the terrorists. Soon after, it became clear that two others from the same high school were also suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. Coming from different ethnic backgrounds – and not all from Muslim or even particularly devout families – these young Canadians have forced us to confront our stereotypes about what a terrorist looks like. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to score political points by arguing that Canada doesn’t spend time figuring out root causes, understanding domestic radicalization is imperative both to avoid attacks on Canadian soil and to help stop Canadian citizens travelling to other countries to participate in terrorism. (And indeed, as the journalist Paul Wells has pointed out, the Canadian government funds research into precisely that question).

More from GPS: Canada shouldn't be surprised

Canada’s response to terrorism has evolved with the terrorist threat. The response to the Air India attacks was generally considered to be poor, marred by a lack of co-operation between the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP. Now, intelligence and law enforcement officials co-operate on national security matters under a strict set of guidelines through the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSETs) located in Vancouver, Alberta, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.

The Toronto and Montreal INSETs led the investigation in to the plot against VIA rail. Information is also shared beyond Canadian borders; in this case, the FBI was closely involved. Such co-operation can yield excellent results, as it appears to have this week. But we should also be conscious of cases such as that of Maher Arar, where information shared by the RCMP with American officials without the correct qualifications and restrictions led to the detention, rendition and torture of an innocent individual.

This week, the Canadian House of Commons is debating Bill S7, the Combatting Terrorism Act, which would re-introduce controversial provisions allowing for preventive arrest and investigative hearings that expired in 2007. The Canadian Bar Association argues that such provisions duplicate existing laws; the charges in Montreal and Toronto this week would lend credence to that view. While Bill S7 has made its way rather slowly through the legislative process up to now, Harper’s Conservatives now have a majority. The bill is also likely to gain momentum from the arrests in Project Smooth. Indeed, some critics have suggested that the last-minute scheduling of the Combatting Terrorism bill debate is suspicious.

Yet despite a few missteps, the Canadian government has largely avoided excess in its domestic governance of counter-terrorism, as befits the comparatively small magnitude of the terrorist threat relative to other public policy concerns. In some cases, Canada has been able to learn from American errors, for instance, in a more prudently designed no-fly list with clearer provisions for removing names. In others, Canada has bent too much to perceived American priorities. Delays in returning Abfousian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen, to Canada after charges of terrorism were dropped seem to be influenced at least in part by concerns about the American reaction. The reality is that terrorism policy in Canada is shaped by what happens in the United States. Our shared continent and the fact that threats can come from anywhere at home or abroad make this inevitable.

As the rhetoric of terrorism inevitably ramps up in Canada and the United States in the wake of the Boston bombings and the VIA rail plot, we should avoid drifting back into the intense culture of fear and division that characterized the years after 9/11. While the Boston bombings show the impossibility of perfect security from attack, they also demonstrate the superior preparedness of our first responders.

The Canadian arrests demonstrate that our security agencies have the tools they need to work together to investigate and charge violent extremist plotters. Trying Tsarnaev as an unlawful combatant or routinizing extraordinary measures such as those proposed in Bill S7 would be a step backwards. We can’t end terrorism, but we can address it without unduly changing the fabric of our societies.

Topics: Canada • Terrorism

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soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. matslats

    Maybe Canada wouldn't need to instigate and foil terrorist plots if it wasn't in such a security pact with the biggest terrorists of all.
    Any terrorists which have 'Al Qaeda support' must be FBI stooges because everybody except the major news outlets knows by now that Al Qaeda is a fiction, a chimera, a bogeyman, and a psyop.

    April 23, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Reply
    • ronvan

      Are you for real? Off your meds.? What a stupid post.

      April 24, 2013 at 6:20 am | Reply
    • JohnR22926

      You apparently crave attention. Well, it worked....you got me to respond. Happy now?

      April 24, 2013 at 11:48 am | Reply
    • Quigley

      Well said, matslats. Thank you.

      April 24, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  2. d. taylor

    Canada never used to meddle abroad. Now Harper wants us to have overseas bases? I see Australia is currently seen as the Switzerland of Asia and Canada is seen as just a subsidary of the US. Just wait until things get really bad south of the 49th and anyone opposing Ottawa will be 'disappeared'.

    April 23, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Reply
    • JohnR22926

      Canada isn't a target because you're located next to the US, or because of any of your actions. You're a target because you are not a muslim nation under sharia law. Period.

      April 24, 2013 at 11:49 am | Reply
  3. JAL

    Fareed, I respect your inquiry about spying on Muslims in NYC mosques, and how it has proven to be ineffective. But, last Friday, I was on a bike trail riding my bike, which was near a Mosque. Many were headed to prayers and a man walking his dog said, "looks like those Muslims are up to something." I said, "they are just praying bro." Then he said laughingly, "for what?" Then I said, "for peace bro, for peace." Point is, bigotry is always out there, there is no need to fight about it or get people upset about it...not at this juncture. I think you are great!

    April 23, 2013 at 9:56 pm | Reply
  4. deniz boro

    Uups! Whach the Cnadian Bacon

    April 23, 2013 at 10:06 pm | Reply
    • It's HAM

      It's HAM dammit!!!!!!!!!

      April 24, 2013 at 9:10 am | Reply
  5. ronvan

    Again my questions: Muslims- reported to be over a billion in the world, yet only a few are the bad ones? WHY then are not the many yelling, screaming, demonstrating, turning in those that they suspect of being trouble? Their silence screams tacit approval of the few! Is it that jihads and kill all the infidels, US, is supported by the many? I am not the expert here but MANY have commented on the Qura'n stating that its teachings encourage these terrorist killings? Somewhere, someone, has it wrong as if true then why are they killing their OWN? There religious leaders remain silent and actually support & bless jihads and their actions.

    April 24, 2013 at 6:28 am | Reply
  6. Harold Dolan

    Any discussion of terrorism in Canada must include a reference to the "Toronto 18". Arguably if they had succeeded, in addition to major loss of life and damage to property, our economy would have been affected for years. They did not succeed as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services (CSIS) were successful in a joint investigation, resulting in the apprehension of them before they could carry out their plans. The success, in large part, was as a result of the cooperation between a devout Muslim who became a part of the group but as an agent of the RCMP. Similarly, on Monday of this week when arrests were made in a plot to bomb a passenger train in Canada. These arrests were made possible because of cooperation between an Imam and the RCMP. Muslims in Canada have shown, they will not stand idly by, when they see radical fundamentalist in their midst, plotting harm in our country. I am a Canadian. I am a Christian. I am a retired member of the RCMP. I am proud of my Muslim countrymen and their commitment to the protection of all in our Country.

    April 24, 2013 at 7:02 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    Canada is no stranger to Al-Qaeda. Since 2008, when its anti-terrorism legislation saw its first conviction, there has been a steady increase in the number of terrorism-related arrests and prosecutions. More than 20 Canadians have been arrested or indicted on terrorism-related crimes in Canada and abroad, the vast majority inspired by al-Qaeda. Since the 9/11 attacks on the US, as many as 60 Canadians are thought to have travelled to Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere to join militants. The focus for militancy has not just been outside Canada – it has had an increasingly domestic focus as well.

    April 24, 2013 at 8:04 am | Reply
  8. Towel Heads

    Canada lets in too many Towel Heads. Just like the US.

    April 24, 2013 at 9:09 am | Reply
  9. joe anon 1

    how big is the terror threat to Canada?

    how big is babe the blue ox's dump?

    maybe you meant how big of a terror threat Canada is to muslims?

    enough for muslims to be concerned that they will have to kick harper's ass.

    April 24, 2013 at 9:59 am | Reply
  10. Steve

    "The Canadian arrests demonstrate that our security agencies have the tools they need to work together to investigate and charge violent extremist plotters." Actually, these are alleged violent extremist plotters. They've only be arrested, not convicted. The RCMP has a mixed track record when it comes to finding terrorists. Good results around the Toronto 18 case but horribly bad in the case of Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian who thanks to the RCMP ended up being tortured in Syria. He later received an official apology from the government of Canada and millions of dollars in compensation.

    April 24, 2013 at 11:05 am | Reply
  11. Quigley

    How big is Canada's "terrorism threat"? Probably not very big at all. These right-wing politicians love to cry "wolf" just to stir up more of that right-wing lynch mob mentality. Thanks to Canada's right-wing politicians, that country's becoming more and more of a subservient state to the U.S. just like most of the European ones are today!

    April 24, 2013 at 7:58 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well said, Quigley. Thank you.

      April 25, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  12. rightospeak

    As big as their freedoms left. They will "fight terror" till all Canadians are slaves.

    April 24, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  13. Gus

    Canada's terrorism threat is seen among Canadians to be larger than it actually is. The possibility of terrorists living in Canada is probably higher in Canada than in the United States, but the threat of a terrorism act in Canada is lower than the United States. Canada is a mosaic of various cultures and as such allows people of various beliefs to blend in easier than in the United States which has a melting pot society. As such, and strictly in my opinion, it allows such extremists to set up camp easier in Canada than the United States. Many of the 9/11 hijackers lived in Canada before going to the United States... Recent attempt to plant a bomb on a train from Toronto to New York City had these extremists living in Canada as well. Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS) are relatively new, roughly 35 years old. They are simply inexperienced and lack a clear and proven track record. They heavily require the help of other Intelligence Services from other nations.

    April 27, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  14. dane

    FYI, "ALBERTA" is not a city. I'm concerned over the validity of this based solely on the fact that the authors couldn't properly distinguish a province from a city.

    April 28, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Reply
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  19. Katt Paw

    When I recently returned home after a two-week speaking tour of Canada and began catching up on news about Obamacare, I was angry and upset, and not just at politicians and special interests that benefit from deception-based PR tactics.

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