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Parliament Hill, Quebec attacks renew concerns about home-grown extremists
Brazen attacks on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., last week have renewed concerns about homegrown extremists and the ability of Canadian security agencies to identify and monitor potential threats.
On Wednesday, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau went on a shooting spree in the nation’s capital, fatally wounding a soldier at the National War Memorial and entering Parliament Hill before being shot dead.
Earlier in the week, Martin (Ahmad) Couture-Rouleau rammed two Canadian soldiers in a parking lot in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.
One of the soldiers, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, later died of his injuries. Couture-Rouleau was killed after a police pursuit.
The RCMP says Couture-Rouleau was on a list of 90 people under surveillance in Canada because they’re suspected of wanting to join militants fighting abroad.
- Martin Rouleau had passport revoked, was monitored by RCMP
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Here’s a look at the agencies involved in identifying and trying to neutralize the threat of radicalism in Canada.
CSIS: Canada’s spy agency
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) looks for threats inside Canada and is essentially the “clearing house where all the security intelligence threads come together,” says Christian Leuprecht, a security expert affiliated with the Royal Military College and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
According to the agency’s website, “countering terrorist violence is the top priority for CSIS.”
Through a combination of agents in the field and electronic surveillance, CSIS investigates threats and produces intelligence for the government.
While CSIS has the ability to monitor a suspicious individual, the way it gathers evidence does not necessarily meet the standards for a criminal conviction, says Leuprecht.
He says that when CSIS feels there is enough evidence on a suspect for a criminal investigation — say, reasonable cause to suspect a person is planning to carry out an attack — it will hand the file over to the RCMP.
CSEC: Canada’s cyberspy agency
The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) monitors email, telephone and satellite communications — also known as “signals intelligence” — to identify security threats to Canada outside the country.
While CSEC says it only looks at foreign communications and does not actively track Canadians, the agency has acknowledged that it cannot do its job without gathering at least some Canadian information.
When it comes to potential radicals, CSEC shares information with CSIS as well as Canada’s allies in the Five Eyes, a transnational intelligence-sharing agreement.
This is the colloquial name for a treaty involving Canada, the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand to share all electronic intelligence on mutual threats.
FinTRAC: Looking at money trails
One of the federal government’s priorities in confronting the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threat is identifying people who may be supporting extremist groups financially. One instrument for that is the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, or FinTRAC.
The hitch, says Leuprecht, is that it us up to banking institutions to bring such activity to FinTRAC’s attention.
In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, FinTRAC director Gerald Cossette said the centre’s main role in Canada’s current anti-terrorism campaign is “to respond, basically, to the demand for information from our security partners — be it CSIS or the RCMP.”
FinTRAC, Canadian financial intelligence agency, tracks funds to ISIS
Bob Paulson, the current RCMP commissioner, recently told a House of Commons public safety committee that his agency is engaged in 63 active national security investigations into 90 suspects identified by CSIS.
Canada’s national law-enforcement agency not only carries out investigations of suspected radicals but has also created an outreach program to forge links with Muslim communities in Canada. The idea is to make people in those communities feel comfortable enough to provide tips in the case of suspected radicals.
Lorne Dawson, chair of the department of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo and an expert in radicalization, says that RCMP personnel have shown they are “well-informed, well-intentioned and have the capacity to make sincere contact” with members of the Muslim community.
Dawson acknowledges that some people in Canada’s Muslim community are resistant to the outreach because they feel it reinforces a stigma that all Muslims are extremists.
But he says the RCMP’s initiative “seems to be working,” citing multiple instances where tips from the community have led to significant investigations, including the thwarted VIA bomb plot.
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INSET: A multi-agency anti-terrorism initiative
After the 9/11 attacks, the Canadian government formed the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSET) to “track, deter, disrupt and prevent criminal activities of terrorist groups or individuals who pose a threat to Canada’s national security.”
Led by the RCMP, these specialized teams include officers from the RCMP, CSIS, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Citizenship and Immigration Canada and police forces at the municipal and provincial levels.
According to Public Safety Canada, INSET teams are operating in Alberta, B.C., Ontario and Quebec.
Local police forces
In recent years, police forces at both the provincial and municipal levels have become more engaged in combatting the terror threat, says Scott Tod, deputy commissioner of investigations and organized crime with the Ontario Provincial Police.
Tod is also co-chair of the Counter Terrorism and National Security Committee, an initiative created by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to share information and training on how to neutralize “violent extremism in our communities in Canada.”
Tod says that like the RCMP, police services across the country have created outreach programs to trade information with Muslim communities.
“It’s about building trust with communities,” says Tod. “There are still people that don’t trust and will doubt our intentions,” but he says that these programs are “vital.”
- ISIS threat to Canada not imminent but real, CSIS director warns
80 people have returned to Canada from suspected terrorism-related trips abroad, committee hears
The threat of ISIS to Canada is real, but Canada’s spy agency has no information suggesting it’s imminent, CSIS director Michel Coulombe told the House public safety committee on Wednesday.
-The comment by Coulombe, head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), runs counter to repeated warnings by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other government MPs that jihadists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could attack Canada.
“It does pose a real threat, but like I mentioned, we have no information indicating an imminent attack,” Coulombe told MPs.
“We don’t want to sound alarmist. We’re telling people that they should go about their daily life, but we have to be vigilant,” he said.
NBC News reported Wednesday that its sources said Canadian authorities tracking would-be terrorists heard them discussing potential ISIS-inspired “knife and gun” attacks against U.S. and Canadian targets inside Canada.
NBC reporter Pete Williams told CBC News Network’s Heather Hiscox on Thursday that one of the plots targeted a shopping mall, but that authorities stepped in at the very early stages, before there was even a timeline planned for an attack. NBC sources described the attack planning as being at the “aspirational” stage.
CBC has not confirmed the NBC report. The public safety minister’s office says it won’t comment on “operational matters of national security.”
Coulombe also provided more information about an August report detailing more than 130 Canadians who had travelled abroad to join in alleged terrorist activities and 80 individuals “who have returned to Canada after travel abroad for a variety of suspected terrorism-related purposes.”
Some of those individuals could be involved in related work like fundraising or propaganda, Coulombe said.
“I don’t want people to believe that we have 80 returnees who were hard fighters in Iraq and Syria, because that is not the picture we have at the moment, although we have some of them.”
‘We know where they are’
The number of Canadians who have travelled abroad to join in alleged terrorist activities, Coulombe said, varies between 130 and 145. And while others estimate the number to be much higher, Coulombe said CSIS works with facts and has confirmed the 130 who are overseas, as well as the 80 back in Canada.
“It’s a firm number that we’re aware of. And yes, we know where they are,” Coulombe said.
Coulombe appeared at the committee along with Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson. They were there to discuss the risk posed by the Sunni jihadist group ISIS to Canadians at home, and what can be done about Canadians going abroad to fight for it and other militant groups.
The head of the RCMP said the Mounties’ record speaks for itself and that law enforcement agencies are working appropriately.
“It’s nothing for Canadians to be alarmed about,” Paulson told the committee.
Paulson said there are 63 active national security investigations into 90 suspects identified by CSIS.
Blaney said, in response to an NDP question, that Canada won’t implement exit controls at its borders, telling MPs that’s the domain of totalitarian states.
“Let me be very clear: We are really not contemplating exit controls; we’ll leave it to totalitarian [states],” Blaney said in response to an NDP question.
Canada and the U.S. exchange “entry” information on citizens of other countries as a form of exit control; Public Safety Canada’s website explains that entry into one country confirms exit from the other.
Blaney’s office later clarified that when the minister said Canada won’t implement exit controls at the border, he meant Canada would not block people from leaving. The minister does support sharing exit information, his office told Radio-Canada.
The Canadian Press reported last month that Canada was three months behind on implementing a tracking system to stop people in Canada from joining overseas conflicts. Under the Canada-U.S. perimeter security pact, the federal government pledged to begin collecting records as of last June 30 on people leaving Canada on international flights.
“This is part of the tool we can provide our law enforcement agency to have more information on the influx of people and especially those representing a threat. So we are indeed working on information-sharing,” he said.
Their appearance before the committee comes one day after Parliament voted to send CF-18 fighter jets to assist the U.S.-led air war in Iraq.
Throughout the debate about the mission, the Canadian government has asserted that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, is a danger to people in Canada.
On Wednesday, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander reaffirmed his department has revoked passports for terrorism-related activities on “multiple occasions.” But the minister once again did not give a number.
Conservative MP Darryl Kramp, who chairs the public safety committee, told reporters Wednesday that it’s hard to know what lies at the root of homegrown extremism.
“A lot of people feel it’s from basically, let’s just say, fundamentalist teachings. I’m just not even that sure if that is the genesis of all of this. Maybe part of it is … people who have a weakness and all of a sudden, there’s a violent video game and as they grow a little bit older, they outgrow that and maybe think they can take a little dose of reality to some of that fantasy that exists in that world,” Kramp said.
“So who knows. I don’t have the answer to that, but it is a troubling phenomenon, no doubt about it.”
In August, Liberal MP Wayne Easter called on the public safety committee to launch a full-scale parliamentary inquiry into the national security threat posed by individuals who return to Canada after becoming involved with overseas entities, particularly ISIS.
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