“Returned Extremist Travellers”: The Small Numbers Problem for Canada, Part 1

On 21 December, the Public Safety department released the government’s “Terrorist Threat to Canada” report for 2017 to no fanfare and little media attention. If you want something to get no attention, send it out just before the Christmas holidays. The release came too late to help the government make its case that they had a reasonable plan for dealing with one of the most contentious and deeply politicised aspects of national security policy — the security challenge posed by returning foreign fighters (officially called “returned extremist travellers” or RET). The report landed after a barrage of criticism in the House of Commons and media for the government’s allegedly laid-back handling of the problem.

The flare-up followed a CBC news story on 17 November featuring an inflammatory quote from the UK’s Minister of International Development, the flamboyant Rory Stewart, who stated that the only way of dealing with people who left to join Islamic State would be “in almost every case to kill them.” CBC reporter Evan Dyer contrasted the apparent kill policies of some of our key allies with a Canadian approach depicted as much softer in nature. Dyer quoted Public Safety spokesman Dan Brien saying, “returning foreign fighters and their families, specifically women and children, require the appropriate disengagement support.” An update on 20 November quoted Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale about the importance of collaborating with allies to track foreign fighters outwards from the sinking ship of the Islamic State caliphate, emphasizing the “greatest seriousness” with which Canadian security and intelligence agencies view the threat.

But by then, opposition Conservative politicians and other media were in full cry, wanting tougher “lock them up” measures against returnees and full disclosure on what the government’s tracking efforts revealed. The combination of “soft on terrorism” and “what are you hiding?” innuendoes roiled question period and committee hearings until the Christmas break. The last stab in 2017 was to ridicule de-radicalization efforts by asking the Minister of Public Safety whether he supported reading poetry to returned foreign fighters.

This silliness should not obscure the serious issues involved, which are two: 1) understanding the nature of the threat to Canada; and 2) deciding on the place of de-radicalization efforts among the available policy options in response to that threat.

The Terrorist Threat report provided some updated statistics on the numbers of Canadians suspected of being involved in terrorist activities abroad — 190 — and the number returned — 60. These numbers have remained fairly stable over the past two years and suggest that Canada has been a relatively minor exporter to the key terrorist conflict zones of Iraq and Syria. Regarding the 60 returnees, “only a relatively small number” have come away from Iraq, Syria, or Turkey (an important transit country for foreign fighters) but the majority are suspected of having been engaged in combat. So, vaguely, a majority of a relatively small number of the 60 returnees could be a problem. More precision is not forthcoming, despite the opposition’s efforts to demand more transparency in numbers. For the sake of argument, we could imagine 12 being the “relatively small number” of returnees from Iraq, Syria, and Turkey and the “majority” of these who might be fighters at, say, 7.

This is what I call the “small numbers” problem for Canada. It is a good problem to have, compared to countries like Russia, Tunisia, the Gulf States, or some western European states like the UK and France who face a much greater tide of returnees. But it is still a problem that has to be confronted and, of course, the future might present a different picture.

One Canadian expert put forward a higher number, trying to steer the conversation towards the importance of de-radicalization efforts. Lorne Dawson, a religious studies scholar who directs the Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) Network and who holds a government research grant on de-radicalization measures, wrote that the number of serous cases of RETs was probably 12 and that the costs of surveillance and prosecution “are still prohibitively high.” While that assertion misrepresents the range of options available, Dawson’s purpose was really to call attention to de-radicalization efforts as a key alternative to the “arrest your way out of the problem” mentality and to urge Canadian authorities to develop a more structured, better resourced system.

Dawson’s argument, in keeping with many others, is that the value of de-radicalization is grounded in three assertions:

  1. That many terrorist returnees will come home from overseas conflicts “disillusioned” and will therefore be amenable to de-radicalization initiatives.
  2. That de-radicalization programs will produce among their successful graduates individuals with “street cred” who can mentor in youth campaigns designed to dissuade the next generation from taking up any jihadi call.
  3. While Islamic State may have been defeated militarily, the appeal of jihad will continue to resonate as the underlying geopolitical factors have not changed. The ideas that Muslim majority countries remain corrupt and unable to adopt Sharia law, that the Muslim community globally is oppressed and subject to hate crimes and violence, and that Western countries and Israel conspire to keep Muslims down will continue to reverberate, creating fertile ideological and emotional ground for the next generation of jihadi terrorists.

These plausible and arguable propositions, however, do not address the most serious class of returnees — the unrepentant fighters — nor do they zero in on the government capacity that matters most.

These issues are discussed in Part 2 of this blog.

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