Canada’s allies are killing their ISIL fighters, while we put our hope in counselling
by John Ivison (feat. D. Michael Day)
November 21, 2017
Justin Trudeau batted away claims that the Liberals are soft on terror this week, as the government faces the prospect of more jihadists returning from Syria after the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate.
National security agencies are monitoring returning fighters, revoking passports and laying criminal charges, he said in the House of Commons.
Besides, the government has launched the new Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence to help jihadists “let go of that terrorist ideology,” he said.
So sleep easy. Nothing to see here. Hardened extremists can be relied upon to change their minds, if given the “appropriate disengagement and re-integration support.”
Ralph Goodale, the public safety minister, was equally reassuring in the House Tuesday when he was asked by Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel how many returnees are under 24-hour surveillance. Goodale said he couldn’t discuss operational matters, but said security agencies are doing everything possible to keep Canadians safe, while respecting the rights and freedoms of returnees.
“The answer should be all of them,” said Rempel.
But that is unlikely, according to people more familiar with the security situation on the ground than the prime minister.
“You can’t monitor them all — the number of targets are exceeding capacity,” said Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director of intelligence at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. “We have a proper security dilemma that no positive progressive thinking program can easily fix.”
Other governments have been less conflicted about the solution. Rory Stewart, the U.K. minister of international development, said last week the only way of dealing with British citizens who joined ISIL is to kill them. The British have also been active in stripping citizenship from dual nationals and banning them from returning to the U.K.
The U.S. has stated explicitly that its mission is to make sure that any foreign fighters who joined ISIL in Syria, die in Syria. Australia and France have taken a similar approach, with French special forces co-operating with Iraqi units to hunt down and kill French fighters.
Goodale said, “Canada does not engage in death squads.”
The minister said Canada will pursue criminal charges where possible and withdraw passports. Yet only two returnees have been charged with participating in terrorism and the immigration department could not supply information on the number of passports that have been withdrawn.
Canada would struggle to block its citizens from returning to the country, regardless of the crimes they are suspected of having committed. The right of return has been established by the courts, not least in the case of Abousfian Abdelrazik. The Federal Court judged his right to mobility under the Charter was infringed when he was barred from returning to Canada from Sudan, after being wrongfully accused of terrorist connections.
One person familiar with the situation said it is no surprise prosecutions are rare.
Once returning jihadists go to ground, CSIS is forced to employ surveillance teams, intelligence officers, analysts, translators and technicians to monitor as many suspects as possible.
“What does that mean? It means I’m spending a ton of resources on what might be yesterday’s threat,” said one source.
“The newly radicalized kid goes uninvestigated for lack of person power.”
The feeling among veteran analysts is that the majority of returning foreign fighters will want to move on with their lives. At the end of 2015, about 180 extremists “with a nexus to Canada” were active in terror groups around the world, according to government figures. Around 60 have returned to Canada.
However, experience suggests hard-core extremists will go to ground until courts advise the security agencies that they have “no current threat” information and resources are redeployed. “Then the danger begins,” said one person with knowledge of the security landscape.
Michael Day, a retired lieutenant-general and former commander of Canada’s special forces, is sceptical about Trudeau’s emphasis on persuading jihadists to let go of the terrorist ideology.
“Having profiled these gents for many, many years, (the idea) that everyone is suitable, let alone able, to be reintegrated is absurd,” he said.
The Conservatives claim the Liberals are welcoming jihadists back to Canada with the promise of reintegration services and that the new security legislation weakens national security agencies at a dangerous time. The latter point is debatable — Bill C-59 retains CSIS’s threat-mitigation capacity and takes away powers it never used.
But the consistent refrain of balancing rights and security will come back to haunt the Liberals, if a returning fighter commits an atrocity in Canada. Let’s remember whose rights are being protected.