Where’s the Megaphone on the Threat to Canada?

Published in the Ottawa Citizen on September 6, 2014

The Conservative government has a strange way with public pronouncements on security issues. When it comes to the gravest of international crises, the government is prone to bold, headline-grabbing statements, whether on Putin’s role in stoking the flames in the Ukraine, or the threat posed by Iran, or the crisis in Syria/Iraq, or who is right and who is wrong in the eternal Palestinian conflict. Critics are quick to point out that some of this megaphone diplomacy seems divorced from actual Canadian action, but no one doubts the government’s tendency to reach for the megaphone on the global stage.

Curiously, megaphones are far from the preferred instrument when it comes to statements on domestic security and the threats faced by Canadians.

We need a little less megaphone on the world stage and a little more at home.

The most recent example of an opposite tendency to quiet pronouncements handed off with an air of indifference is the 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada. If you missed the publication of this document, you are forgiven. It was released by the public-safety department on a Friday afternoon preceding the Labour Day long weekend. Parliament was, of course, still on its long summer break. There was no press conference, no speech by the public-safety minister, no mention by the prime minister. It was almost as if there was something slightly shameful in the act.

But surely, the government’s view of the terrorist threat to Canada and its plans for meeting it are worth, if not the megaphone, something much more than a whisper. The message of the 2014 Public report confirms this.

The terrorist threat to Canada persists, says the report. More interestingly, the nature of the threat has changed.

We are no longer menaced principally by Al Qaeda, but by what al Qaeda has left behind with its demise. Al Qaeda has been decimated in its Pakistan/Afghanistan heartland; its charismatic leader is dead. It has bled fighters into other jihadist conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Its once-upon-a-time affiliates have become independent actors in regional insurgencies; the worst of them, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS, or IS), which the surviving Al Qaeda leadership attempted to cast out, has proven to be very much more effective and deadly than anyone had imagined. Al Qaeda’s message, its call to arms to Muslims to join an armed terrorist struggle against all who would oppose a vision of a caliphate strong enough to rule the world and punish all unbelievers, continues to resonate, even if from the Al Qaeda boneyard.

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There was much that was unique about Al Qaeda, not least its effort to create a global, transnational terrorist movement. The global AQ is gone, but a globalized threat remains which reaches its tentacles into many places, destabilizing fragile states abroad, inflaming civil wars and ethnic conflicts, beckoning to a tiny minority of Muslims and Muslim converts with a taste for violence and a limitless tolerance for indoctrination.

All of this affects Canada. We have legitimate things to worry about:

  • Canadians radicalized into terrorist causes and acts;
  • Canadians travelling to overseas jihads to swell the ranks of “foreign fighters” in places like Iraq, Syria, Mali and East Africa;
  • Canadian returnees from overseas terror conflicts, capable of doing who knows what.

Of this trio of dangers, we have seen the first two realized, while the third remains on the horizon as a threat.

If you want the statistics, the report states that some 130 Canadians have been identified recently as travelling abroad for various (suspected) terrorism-related causes (30 are believed to be in Syria). Some 80 individuals have returned to Canada from their alleged “terror travels,” an unknown number of which might be returned fighters. But the statistics will change and are not really a pointer to anything. It is not a large number, but then one might be one too many. Trends would be worth knowing; interviews with returned fighters worth having for intelligence purposes, if obviously difficult to acquire. Interviews or debriefings of the lucky few who have escaped their captors or been released will also shed valuable light, as suggested by the recent CBC story regarding the involvement of three Canadians who were alleged to have joined the Al Nusra terrorist group in Syria and who had a hand in the detention and exploitation of two American journalists held captive in Syria: Matt Schrier, who was released last month, and Theo Curtis, who escaped last year.

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The Canadian government has given itself new legal tools to meet these threats, particularly criminal sanctions aimed at targeting those who would leave Canada to join terrorist groups abroad. They have stepped up intelligence gathering and intelligence assessment capabilities and even sponsored independent academic research on terrorism. They have moved forward with an effort at community policing and community outreach to try to protect vulnerable communities in Canada and gain early warning of potential threats.

The 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada sums all this up. Whether you agree with the government statement or not (and maybe there are other things we should be worrying about, such as cyber threats, climate change impacts, pandemics, a new Cold War, etc…) the report moves our thinking into the present and nudges us out of a frame of reference dominated by legacy fears of Al Qaeda.

So why the whisper? Maybe the government can’t find the headline in its own report. Maybe it feels uneasy because it can’t say with certainty what the exact threat to Canada from terrorism is in the post-Al Qaeda age. Maybe it feels the public doesn’t really need an education on the new terrorism threats or is not interested. Maybe it thinks there are no votes here. Whatever the answer, it’s simply not right. We need a little less megaphone on the world stage and a little more at home.

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