Canada increasing its intelligence efforts against terrorism a good idea

There was nothing said on the campaign trail, nothing promised in the election platform, nothing laid down in the ministers’ mandate letters made public after the Trudeau government came into office.

But as the Liberals struggle to define a revamped military mission in Iraq and Syria and come under pressure to respond to a recent spate of terrorist attacks that took Canadian lives in Indonesia and in Burkina Faso, the government is increasingly turning to a hidden dimension of Canadian statecraft for some answers. Intelligence, or in the popular parlance, spying, is increasingly on the lips of Canadian ministers.

Stéphane Dion, the global affairs minister, at the cabinet retreat in New Brunswick, talked about using our intelligence assets in combination with allies to fight global terrorism. Harjit Sajjan, the minister of national defence, was more forthcoming about a new role for Canadian intelligence in a weekend interview on CBC’s “The House.”

He said that Canada’s allies were looking to Canada to do more in the fight against ISIL by using our intelligence capability. When pressed, Sajjan suggested that Canadian could do more targeting intelligence for combat missions against ISIL and also conduct more strategic intelligence globally to better understand the nature of trouble spots around the world.

The Liberals might be looking for a way to explain to the Canadian public how they propose to stay in the fight against ISIL while withdrawing the CF-18 air bombing contingent. Substitute intelligence — spying if you must for war planes. It would be a novel concept, and probably a difficult sell politically.

But the idea that Canada could do more to fight ISIL by increasing our intelligence capabilities is not far fetched. What would the more look like? For one thing it would involve sustaining and even expanding the aerial reconnaissance and target collection activities of the Aurora aircraft (originally designed for maritime surveillance) that we have deployed in Iraq.

It would involve doing more target analysis using the skills available in the renamed Canadian Forces Intelligence Command. Increasing intelligence capabilities against ISIL would also require an augmentation of our special forces contingent in the region, and might well put them in the fight directly, operating alongside an expanded U.S. force.

Increased intelligence collection from the air might be a bloodless option; increased intelligence collection on the ground might not be, something that the Liberal government would have to prepare the Canadian public to face. The ultimate irony might be that the more we switch to increased intelligence collection operations, the more likely it will be that we will ultimately add an air bombing campaign back into the mix.

Beyond the application of intelligence to target ISIL military assets, there is much more that Canadian intelligence could be doing, including stepping up our financial counter-terrorism efforts to assist in the attrition of ISIL’s looted, stolen and rapacious treasury. There is much more we could be doing, over time, to assist in the efforts to block the flow of foreign fighters into the region. Take away the military capability, take away the money, take away the foreign fighters, and what you have is a much diminished threat posed by ISIL.

But Iraq and Syria should not be the only conflict zones of concern for Canadian intelligence. If, as Dion is suggesting, Canada is going to step up our intelligence contribution to the global fight against terrorism then there is a lot of work to be done to turn an idea into a reality.

Let’s look at the case of Burkina Faso, where six Canadians were killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by an Al Qaeda offshoot that has been operating in the region for years, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Development aid and diplomatic connectivity to Burkina Faso are things that Canada is currently doing. But on the intelligence side, we could offer assistance to boost Burkina Faso’s own limited security capabilities through training and assistance missions designed to boost their operational counter-terrorism efforts and their ability to conduct good threat assessments. We could also mentor security forces in rule of law operations that are so important to their long term legitimacy.

In order to try to help states that might be under threat, like Burkina Faso, or to identify fragile states that might slide into collapse under any number of pressures (including the impacts of non-traditional threats like climate change), Canadian intelligence needs to take on, as both Sajjan and Dion have suggested, a much larger global role.

To be a useful global partner Canada would need to reinvent its intelligence system and become less parochial. This would take some thinking before any doing. For starters, Sajjan could place the question of a new Canadian global intelligence role front and centre in his promised defence review.

Dion could have a look inside his own department to see whether he is satisfied about the resourcing of the little-known “Global Security Reporting program” and whether Global Affairs Canada has the analytical skills that are needed. Ralph Goodale, the public safety minister, could consider the question of whether one key intelligence agency in his portfolio, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, can really perform well as a hybrid domestic and foreign intelligence agency.

The Liberal government could set aside its promised cyber security review and go whole hog for a “global intelligence” review instead.

The good news is that the Liberal government seems to understand that Canada needs to be a smart power in a troubled world. The bad news is that there is a lot of work to turn us into that smart power, at least on the intelligence side.


This piece originally appeared in The Ottawa Citizen:

Related Articles








The CIPS Blog is written only by subject-matter experts. 


CIPS blogs are protected by the Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Unable to load Tweets