When the above video (start at 5:00)—featuring a Canadian passport set ablaze by a bearded, four-eyed jihadist who, at first sight, looks like your average college classmate—was uploaded to YouTube in April, Canadian media had a field day, with only some dismissing the threat as theatre.
In the video, the young man who identifies himself as Abu Turab—not likely his real name—threatens not only the United States, but The Old True North as well, before burning his passport a symbol of abandoning his former identity and embracing Islamic extremism. “This is a message to Canada and all the American tawagheet [false idols]. We are coming and we will destroy you, with permission from Allah the Almighty…”
Over the years, extremists groups and terrorist organizations have mastered the art of psychological operations—DVDs of suicide bombings and attacks edited to appear devastatingly successful have been available at bazaars in Kandahar and hundreds of those videos can also be found online, notably though their own social network accounts. The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) is among them, active in Syria and one of the groups in which Canadian jihadists join their quest for martyrdom.
Are those propaganda messages hollow threats, or should Canadian authorities gear up and get ready to thwart eventual attacks? Are security agencies well-prepared? What would be the proper response?
I asked former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) senior officer and counter-terrorism expert Michel Juneau-Katsuya if we should be concerned about the recent extremists' threats to Canada and why he believes that our "front door has four massive locks, but we let the back door open."
VICE: Jihadists have threatened Canada numerous times in the past few years, but never in the context of the war in Syria. Why is Canada now on Syrian extremists’ hit-list?
Michel Juneau-Katsuya: It’s particularly interesting. They likely target Canada not necessarily because the country has engaged in direct action against them in Syria, but rather because they either come from Canada or know about it. Overall, it’s nothing new. Terrorists have threatened to carry on attacks in Canada ever since we became part of the international coalition in the War on Terror.
There are numerous reports of those extremists combatants coming back to Canada with a vast array of fighting experience, high-level training and new tactics. What kind of actions are they most likely to carry on?
Mostly bombings. We can expect them to strike in areas where we are the weakest and where security isn’t prepared to respond—open-area events, sporting events, public transit systems. These are all “opportunity targets” which are usually favoured by terrorists, the best recent example being last year’s edition of the Boston Marathon. That kind of public, open-area event is highly vulnerable to such attacks.
Intelligence sources estimate that approximately 80 extremists from Syria might have already made their way back to Canada. Is that number accurate?
It might be more around 100, but it would be unreasonable not to count all the fighters also coming back from Afghanistan and Maghreb countries—that makes their numbers escalate. And more of them are expected to come back to Canada to try and bring their war over here. They do present a clear and present danger to Canada and its citizens, which implies that the Canadian government is expected to deploy its best and biggest investigative assets to thwart the threat.
Those numbers suggest they would not be likely to carry on suicide bombings. Are they expected to try to recruit and train fighters on Canadian soil?
It already happened. Last year, four young men were recruited in London, Ontario. Others tried to carry out attacks in Victoria, British Columbia. A few years ago, 17 young men were arrested in Toronto with weapons-grade fertilizer. Canada is already on the map and there have been terrorist activity for quite a while now and there are several trials currently ongoing. So far, no attack has been successful, but we have been lucky.
There have been temporary installations in remote, isolated areas, which were used as terrorist training facilities, but no permanent camp has been established so far because it would be easily traceable.
Canada’s military counter-terrorism units such as Joint Task Force 2 are unarguably top-level, but their mandate is mainly international, not domestic. Are civilian authorities ready to respond?
Domestic counter-terrorism is an intelligence and law enforcement issue. In Canada, CSIS is tasked with gathering and analyzing information, then turns it over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who carries out interventions when necessary.
One of terrorism’s biggest advantages is that it operates in a permanent state of guerrilla. Billions have been spent on security and counter-terrorism—the United States alone have spent between four and six trillion dollars since the September 11 attacks according to a Harvard University study. In Canada, budgets dedicated to the RCMP and intelligence agencies initially tripled around 2001, but they recently stabilized. Problem is, any twit who manages to blend in and blows up a bomb in his pack sack instantly turns those hugely expensive security measures into a massive joke.
Arresting and dismantling terror cells is one great achievement, but that only takes care of the symptom and not the cause. It’s about time governments, including Canada, start addressing political and economic issues fueling terrorism.