The scene outside the Toronto courthouse today. A photographer tries to shoot a terror suspect through a paddywagon window. Photo by Angela Hennessy.
Just as the Boston terrorist saga was coming to an end, a new Canadian terrorist plot was thwarted. Yesterday the The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) revealed in a news conference they arrested two foreign citizens named Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser from the Montreal and Toronto areas respectively. It’s a good piece of press for the Mounties, who’ve had a banner couple of months with a damning missing women’s report and the Canadian-born terrorists who wound up participating in the Al-Qaeda attack on a gas plant in Algeria. Not to mention, the news comes exactly a week when their American counterparts, the FBI, failed to thwart their own home-grown terror attack in Boston.
According to the RCMP, Esseghaier and Jaser planned on derailing a passenger train and killing innocent civilians. Reuters was reporting they specifically targeted the VIA rail route linking Toronto and New York City (something bound to upset Mr. Obama). Apparently there wasn’t an imminent public threat, but the authorities monitoring them (since August 2012) might’ve been spooked in light of the Boston bombings. It’s also worth mentioning the operation to arrest these suspected-terrorists (literally called "Operation Smooth"), was done with the support of the FBI and Homeland Security.
It’s especially unsettling information for most security watchers who’ve been waxing poetic on the danger of terrorists-in-our-midst for the better part of a decade following 9/11. Yet for even the casual observer, this Canadian flavored terrorist-takedown is not something that should be easily ignored. There are definite signs of concerns coming out of these arrests.
For one, this is the first instance of Al-Qaeda following through with supporting an actual planned attack on Canadian soil. While Bin Laden apparently named Canada as a target in papers recovered from his assassination, we’ve never been considered a prime objective for Islamic terrorists. The reason being—as some intelligence experts have told me in the past—terrorists have historically seen Canada as a home-base, a place to lay low or carry out covert funding efforts for global attacks.
Whether that scenario is true or not doesn’t discount the fact that Canada avoided (narrowly) a strike against its civilians, while their allies like the UK, Spain, and France have unfortunately undergone their own versions of serious terrorist trauma. Then again, just a few years ago the terrorist plans of the Toronto 18 were foiled at the last minute, too. While Canada's involvement in the Afghan mission didn’t exactly endear them to the Taliban or any other cave-dwelling militant the world over, in this particular case Al-Qaeda in Iran was reportedly involved with the planning of the rail attack.
While the Iranian connection makes sense, it also makes none. Not only has Canada been strong-arming Iran (kicking-out their diplomats and siding against their backed Syrian Assad regime), but Foreign Affairs minister John Baird and his government’s unequivocal support of Israel has made Canada’s enemy status to Iran crystal clear.
But Al-Qaeda and Iran aren’t usual bed-mates. Al-Qaeda is an exclusively Sunni Muslim organization that puts Shiite’s (the religious majority in Iran) just after Jews and Americans on their shit-list. I guess they’re both subscribing to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, because Al Qaeda usually considers suicide bombing Shiite targets totally kosher. Although a state-connection to the Iranian government remains unconfirmed (the Iranians deny it), and according to the RCMP altogether unconnected, Al-Qaeda operatives have been known to hide out in Iran before.
Another reason Canadian law enforcement agencies have successfully protected against terrorist plots could simply be that there aren’t too many of them. One televised newscast of the Tsarnaev brothers’ rampage in Watertown was enough to make my head spin with the names of too many American agencies: ATF, Homeland Security, FBI, CIA, Massachussets State Police Force… and the list goes on. On top of that, each agency comes with their unique swagger and ego, making joint policing-cooperation historically difficult in the US. In Canada, the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) trump domestic and provincial police forces, which make for a more streamlined intelligence and counter-terrorism defence plan. Canada also only has 35 million people to keep an eye on, versus the 313 million Americans.
The scariest thing in the short term for Canada is the potential for the conservatives to use recent events as a platform to implement tougher anti-terror laws, a la Patriot Act. Recently they’ve attempted to push through anti-terrorism bill S-7, which among other things would allow authorities to pre-emptively arrest Canadians and hold them for up to three days without charges.
Domestically, beyond the meanderings of Vic Toews or others who buy the “self-radicalization” problem, there’s no denying some sort of terrorist issue exists in Canada. Whether it’s worse than other western countries is up for debate. Canadian terrorists have been in the news lately, what with the recent Algerian terror suspects and the former York University student who may have joined Somalia’s Al Shabab insurgency as a suicide bomber. That could mean beefing up Canada's CSIS in the near future to give it more of a foreign mandate to spy abroad on its citizens or to intercept international threats.
In political terms, with the recent appointment of Richard Fadden (the head of CSIS) as the new deputy minister of Defence signals the Tories may be making anti-terrorism an election issue and policy objective, contrasting them against Justin Trudeau’s “root-causes” Liberals.
Whatever the next few days reveals about the blocked attack, you can count on terrorism being a new, real concern among Canadians and not just some other vague American problem, like gun violence or health-care reform.
Follow Ben on Twitter: @BMakuch
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