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The New Terrorist Threats Against Canada & the Components of Effective Countermeasures

By January 26, 2015 No Comments

In late October 2014, Canada experienced two significant back-to-back terrorist events. On October 21, twenty-five year old Martin Rouleau [1] intentionally ran his car over two soldiers in a parking lot in Quebec, killing Patrice Vincent, a 53-year-old warrant officer, and injured the other soldier. In the second incident, two days later, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, aged 32, shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo [2] while on ceremonial guard at a memorial in the center of Ottawa and then forced his way into the nearby Parliament building where he continued firing his weapon, shooting an officer in the leg to enter the facility. In both events the perpetrators were immediately killed by the local security officers.

Although investigators believed that there was no apparent link between the two attackers, Canada now found itself threatened by the worrisome parallels of the two incidents. Both attackers were Canadian citizens with troubled personal circumstances; Zehaf-Bibeau had a long history of drug abuse, criminally-linked arrests, and imprisonment[3]; both had converted to Islam and were radicalized into becoming adherents of what had become the world’s most militant and ambitious Islamist group—the Islamic State (IS). Notably, the IS has been successful in exploiting extremist’s social media websites to attract a continuous wave of hundreds of radicalized Westerners into its ranks as foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Most worrisome was that prior to carrying out their attacks both perpetrators were known to Canadian law enforcement authorities as risky individuals. In fact, Rouleau was included in the list of 90 Canadian nationals considered at ‘high risk’ for possible involvement in terrorist activities; yet, this risk did not warrant tighter surveillance of their activities that would have prevented their attacks. In Rouleau’s case, he had sought to travel to Syria via Turkey to join ISIS in July 2014, but was prevented from doing so by Canadian authorities who had seized his passport at the airport. Moreover, in a follow up meeting on October 9 he was interviewed by the RCMP who later explained by RCMP Supt. Martine Fontaine that, “We did not have an indication, none whatsoever, of his wanting to commit a crime here or overseas. Because if we did we would have arrested him.”[4] Similarly, while Zehaf-Bibeau reportedly had ongoing connections online with other Canadian Islamist extremists, he was considered by RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson as having “a very developed…non-national security criminality of violence and of drugs and of mental instability”[5] and therefore not a terrorism risk.

The parallels between the two attacks highlighted the capability of militant Islamic movements—like the Islamic State—to catalyze their Western-based adherents to conduct “lone-wolf” type attacks. These “lone wolves” are conceived and carried out by disparate individuals or small groups whose only connection to the Islamic State may exist in the extremist social media forums where an ever-growing community of westerners are becoming radicalized into violent extremism. In fact, about a month prior to these attacks, the Islamic State’s propaganda media arms had begun exhorting Muslims in the west to conduct such attacks in their own countries, especially in response to the American-led bombing campaign against their fighters in Iraq and Syria—although it is likely that they would have called for such attacks even without western intervention in the Middle East. In any case, both attacks were launched during the period when Canada had deployed additional fighter aircrafts to the Middle East to take part in the American-led campaign of air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Zehaf-Bibeau’s shooting rampage was especially worrisome for two reasons. First, it was reported that the day prior to his attack, he was overheard by several bystanders at an Ottawa shopping mall engaged in an angry and loud discussion with a stranger about the justification of killing of civilians by soldiers, in which he stated that “If soldiers bombed your family, wouldn’t you want to kill them?”[6] Since such angry statements, especially when directed against a stranger, can raise warning signals that such an individual may be predisposed to act on this sentiment—especially during the current period of heightened levels of terrorism threats—why did the bystanders not report this exchange to the appropriate law enforcement authorities prior to the incident?

The second worrisome aspect of Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack was his relative ease in entering Parliament’s Centre Block’s main door, controlled by a security officer—whom he shot in the leg—to prevent his access to the building.[7] In fact, many of the uniformed guards on Parliament’s grounds are unarmed as part of Canada’s relatively lax security culture. Liberal senator Jim Munson explains that Canada is “avoiding becoming an ‘armed camp’ like Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., or London’s Westminster, where guards hold machine guns.”[8] The attack is viewed as a wake-up call for a complete overhaul of security practices on Parliament Hill.

Most worrisome about these two attacks is that they represent the first instances of successful terrorist attacks by extremist Islamists on Canadian soil.  In order to assess the significance of these attacks on likely future trends in the terrorist threats against Canada and the components of effective counter-measures to substantially upgrade its counterterrorism capabilities, this article is divided into two parts. The first part presents an historical context for understanding the magnitude of the Islamist terrorist threats against Canada. The second part outlines the components of effective counterterrorism to prevent the recurrence of October’s attacks.

Part I: The Historical Context for Islamist Terrorism in Canada [9]

The October attacks represented the latest phase in a 15-year-long Islamist terrorist presence in Canada. In the first significant Islamist-linked terrorist event, although Canada was not the immediate target, in mid-December 1999 Ahmed Ressam, a 32-year-old Algerian (and resident of Montreal at the time) who was traveling on a false Canadian passport as Benni Antoine Noris, was arrested at the Port Angeles,[10] Washington, border crossing, with more than 100 pounds of explosives in the trunk of his car. Ressam was allegedly headed for Los Angeles International Airport where he planned to blow up a terminal on New Year’s Eve. Despite its preemption, Ressam’s plot raised major concerns in Canada and the United States because Canada’s lackadaisical immigration policies had made it possible for him to enter the country in 1994 with a false passport,  [11] succeed in claiming refugee status, commit numerous petty crimes without law enforcement intervention (while at the same time receiving welfare benefits), and even evade deportation by establishing a false identity as a Canadian citizen with a Canadian passport. Since then, with Canadian counterterrorism measures substantially upgraded, al Qaida-related or inspired plots had continued, although all of them had been thwarted.

Thwarted terrorist plots in Canada had included the following:

In 2006, in what was called the “Toronto 18” plot, 18 people loosely tied  to al Qaida were arrested for planning a series of coordinated attacks, such as detonating truck bombs, shooting in a crowded area, and attacking prominent government buildings, including taking hostages. [12]

In August 2010, three Ontario men were arrested for terror-related activities as part of what became known as Project Samossa, and charged with making or having explosives and participating in the activities of a terrorist group.[13]

In April 2013, Tunisian-born Chiheb Esseghaier, a Ph.D. student in Montreal, and Raed Jaser of Toronto, were arrested as part of an alleged al Qaida in Iran plot to derail a New York to Toronto passenger train on the Canadian side of the border.[14] Neither man was a Canadian citizen. Although the RCMP alleged the two men received “guidance” from al Qaeda in Iran, they stated the plot was not state-sponsored. A third man, Ahmed Abassi, was arrested in the U.S. and faces terrorism charges there. Prosecutors alleged that Abassi had “radicalized” Esseghaier.[15]

On July 1, 2013, two Canadians, who were allegedly inspired by al Qaida, were arrested in Abbotsford, British Columbia, for plotting to plant pressure-cooker bombs at British Columbia’s provincial legislature headquarters on Canada Day (July 1). The suspects, John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, had reportedly been monitored by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police since February 2013.

In addition to these domestic incidents, Canadian security authorities are also concerned about two other manifestations of Islamist terrorism. The first concerns the several dozen Canadians who have traveled overseas to fight on behalf of their militant co-religionists, whether in Somalia, Syria or Iraq, or the Russian Caucasus. Notable examples include the following:

Mohamed Hersi, who was arrested in March 2011 at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, had allegedly planned to travel to Somalia via London and Cairo to join al-Shabaab.

William Plotnikov, a former Toronto boxer and Seneca College student, who had reportedly left Canada in September 2010 after being radicalized by a Toronto imam following is conversion to Islam, was killed by Russian security forces in Dagestan in July 2012.

In July 2012, 25 year old Hassan El Hajj Hassan (who held a dual Canadian and Lebanese citizenship) was alleged to have been a member of the terrorist cell that bombed the Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria.[16]

In November 2012, Hussam Samir al-Hams (a Canadian of Palestinian descent) who had joined Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades, was killed in an IDF operation during the Gaza War.

In January 2013 Xris Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej (high school friends from London, Ontario) took part in an al Qaida-related siege of the Amenas gas facility in the eastern Algerian desert, whereupon they were killed by the countering Algerian security services. Both had reportedly traveled to Morocco in 2011, eventually making their way to Mauritania and Mali, where they trained under Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaida-linked terrorist leader who had masterminded the attack. A third Canadian, Aaron Yoon (a friend of the pair), was arrested in Mauritania prior to the attack in Algeria and was subsequently extradited to Canada.

In February 2013 Jamal Muhammad Abdulkader, a Montreal student, who had traveled to Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra (an al Qaida affiliate), was killed in a truck explosion in central Damascus.[17]

In April 2013, Mahad Ali Dhore (a Canadian of Somali descent), was killed in al Shabaab attack in Somalia.[18]

In September 2013, Ali Mohamed Dirie (who had been convicted as part of the 2006 Toronto 18 terror plot), had traveled to Syria in 2012, a year following his release from prison, and was killed while fighting alongside al Qaida-affiliated insurgents in Syria.[19]

The second manifestation of terrorist threats against Canada consists of terrorist attacks overseas that target Canadian citizens and interests. Although in this example Canadian interests were not directly targeted, Annemarie Desloges, a Canadian consular officer, and Naguib Damji, a Vancouver businessman, were among those killed in al Shabaab’s attack against the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013. Canada regards such threats seriously because they affects how the country conducts diplomacy, business, travel, security and development assistance abroad

With the two extreme, Islam-based terror attacks in Canada in October 2014, which were accompanied by similar types of lone wolf attacks in the United States, it appeared that North America was facing a new wave of extremist terrorism—influenced by the Islamic State’s expansionist movements in Syria and Iraq, and the west’s countermeasures against its fighters.In particular, the late September 2014 beheading by Alton Nolen—a recent convert to Islam—of a female co-worker in Oklahoma City, and the axe attack against policeman by another recent convert to Islam in New York City on October 23, 2014.

Part II: The Components of Effective Counterterrorism [20]

The fact that the two terrorist attacks in October 2014 had succeeded (even with relatively low fatalities), the way they had been able to execute their attacks represented a significant setback to Canadian counterterrorism measures, which had actually proven quite successful over the past decade, when the majority of al Qaida-related terrorist plots were successfully thwarted by Canadian security services during their formative pre-incident phases. In fact, this period of relative success had represented a substantial upgrade following a period of relative laxness in the 1990s when militants associated with foreign terrorist groups, such as Ahmed Ressam, had operated relatively freely in Canada by taking advantage of the country’s liberal immigration and political asylum policies, as well as the porous Canadian-American border. This situation changed dramatically after Ressam’s arrest and the 9/11 attacks against the United States when Canada began implementing a series of comprehensive and integrated counterterrorism measures. This included close cooperation with counterpart agencies in the United States in programs such as the Beyond the Border Action Plan, which focuses on improving the management of individuals crossing the two countries’ shared borders.

The primary counter-terrorism agencies include the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the country’s national police service (and an agency of the Ministry of Public Safety Canada); the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which investigates threats, analyzes information and produces intelligence; the Criminal Intelligence Service Canada (CISC), which exchanges criminal information and intelligence within the Canadian law enforcement community; and Public Safety Canada (Canada’s equivalent of the American Department of Homeland Security), which provides coordination across all federal departments and agencies responsible for national security and the safety of Canadians, ranging from terrorism to natural disasters.

Another important Canadian counter-terrorism agency is the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), which analyzes, among other threat

areas, terrorist-related financial transaction data to provide such intelligence to domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies and financial intelligence units around the world.

Canadian government agencies also perform security screening on those who intend to travel to Canada, in order to prevent entry of foreign nationals who pose a terrorism risk.

As stated in its June 2013 counter-terrorism strategy, “Building Resilience Against Terrorism,” the overreaching priority of Canada’s counter-terrorism agencies is to protect the country and the safety and security of its citizens at home and abroad. This strategy document—the first issued by the Canadian government—is intended to guide these and other federal departments and agencies to align them to the four elements of “prevent, detect, deny and respond,” with resilience positioned at the core of these four elements.[21]

In terms of detecting potential terrorist activity, Canadian security services monitor suspected violent extremists who operate domestically, while largely successful over the years, the two attacks in October 2014 demonstrated that the monitoring of such suspects was still not as tight as was required at the time.

On the other hand, the counterterrorism measure to track Canadian nationals who intend to travel abroad to possible conflict zones for training or indoctrination in extremist ideologies, as well as participating in terrorist activity, appeared to be effective, as demonstrated by the prevention of suspects such as Rouleau, who was prevented in July 2014 from traveling to Turkey to make his way to Syria.

Canada’s counterterrorism measures also appeared effective at stopping or monitoring the activities of Canadian Islamist extremists upon their return to Canada, where they might attempt to radicalize others into violent extremism or conduct attacks themselves, with no attacks conducted by such individuals (although they may have radicalized Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau—with the investigation on their attacks still ongoing as of early November 2014).

Countering Homegrown Violent Extremism

According to CSIS and the RCMP, “more than 130 Canadian citizens have left the country to join terror organizations in other countries, including the Islamic State (also known as the Caliphate, ISIL, ISIS, or IS) in Iraq and Syria, and about 80 of these individuals have returned to Canada.”[22] And with homegrown violent extremism posing the most significant domestic terrorist threat to Canada (as well as other Western countries)—particularly as demonstrated by the two attacks in October 2014—due to upgraded border controls and other preventative measures, the Canadian government has implemented a variety of programs that attempt to prevent extremist ideologies from taking hold of vulnerable individuals. These focus on outreach programs and engagement with Muslim community leaders and local organizations to raise awareness and to help identify extremists who may be attempting to radicalize others and promote violence. However, at least as evidenced by the hardened radicalization of Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau, who were known to law enforcement authorities, Canada’s counter-extremism programs appeared to face new challenges in de-radicalizing such susceptible individuals and promoting their disengagement from potential terrorist activity.

With the continued radicalization of numerous Canadian Muslims into violent extremism, it was also not known how effective was another component of the country’s outreach program  in informing policy development through the promotion of academic research on terrorism and counter-terrorism (including countering violent extremism) through a [Canadian] $10 million Kanishka Project (named after the Air India 747 jet destroyed in the 1985 bombing).[23]

Conclusion

Following a period of lax defenses against terrorist operatives in the 1990s—as exemplified by the relative ease of movement of Islamist militants such as Ahmed Ressam—Canada’s counterterrorism measures were substantially improved and upgraded, although, as demonstrated by the two attacks in October 2014, these measures still proved insufficient. Even before the events of October 2014, although the terrorist operatives during that period had failed to execute a successful attack on Canadian soil, their motivation and intent to launch terrorist operations appeared to have remained constant, especially if the opportunity arose, which it did in October 2014. Thus what many perceived as the worrisome future development produced by the prolonged conflicts in Syria and Iraq came into fruition in October 2014, with radicalized Canadian Muslims, especially young Sunnis, attempting to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the militant insurgent forces linked to al Qaida (even, however, faintly in the case of the Islamic State). In another new trend, which had still not occurred in Canada, the unknown variable remained whether the escalating conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the Middle East would spill over into intra-communal acts of violence between their counterparts on Canadian soil.

Finally, several major security vulnerabilities were revealed by the attacks in October 2014. These included the relatively lax security around the country’s Parliament, with the emphasis on “being accessible.”[24] As explained by Conservative MP Randy Hoback, “Today was a wake-up,”[25] with a spectrum of security upgrades required to prevent such attacks in the future. One measure, which was proposed by a 2012 Auditor-General’s report, called for “the possibility of moving toward a unified security force for the parliamentary precinct,” as opposed to the current system of several different security forces having responsibility for protection.[26] Another security upgrade involved providing Parliament’s security forces with “the capacity to receive classified information from intelligence partners” on potential threats —a capability that was not reported to be present as of October 2014.[27] Finally, measures were being considered to beef up the security forces’ weaponry, tightening the screening of visitors into the buildings, installing video cameras at the various entrances, and, in general, increasing “the domestic terrorist threat level in Canada…from low (“unlikely”) to medium (“could occur”).[28] In the final analysis, although Canadian officials expressed the necessity to toughen the country’s laws against terrorism, they still recognized that the country’s vibrant democratic nature militated against any steps that would severely curtail civil liberties in the pursuit of greater security.