“Returned Extremist Travellers”: The Small Numbers Problem for Canada, Part 2

“Returned Extremist Travellers”: The Small Numbers Problem for Canada, Part 2
Image by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay

See Part 1 of this blog here.

The key to a successful response to RETs is knowing who they are and when they will reach your shores. Impossible though this seems, real opportunities for identifying the IS fighter cadre exist: imagery, signal identification, agents (HUMINT), social media, and open source information. A lot of high value documentation has been seized from the Islamic State, which was meticulous about keeping records, as a result of special forces raids and battlefield successes.  Thanks to many Western foreign fighters proclaiming their beliefs and actions on social media, this vapour trail has proven a particularly important intelligence resource. If countries are prepared to share what they know, this further enriches the intelligence pot.

Tracking the outward bound movement of foreign fighters is no easy task, depending on the border control and migration monitoring capacity of states in the region and their willingness to share information. In this regard, Western tensions with Turkey (over a host of issues) complicate the relationship, even while Turkey remains a NATO ally.

If RETs can be identified and tracked before they reach Canadian shores — the ideal situation — what then? The 2017 Terrorist Threat report states that the Canadian government relies on triage, outlined but not detailed in the report. In particular, low-risk RETs and their families “will be encouraged to access social services, which will not only help lessen the security risk, but also reduce the resource burden on the security and intelligence community, so that it may focus on more immediate threats.” This triage process has also been adopted by many of our close allies and makes eminent sense, even if it is fodder for politicized commentary.

The government has launched a new “Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence” to work on partnerships with local organisations involved in de-radicalization efforts and to fund research. The success or failure of de-radicalization, however, will largely depend on the private sector, grassroots efforts, and the engagement of affected communities. But not for the most high-risk cases, of course.

Triaging to identify high-risk RETs is fundamental to dealing with the security challenge. Early identification via access to a wide range of intelligence sources is vital. Three main tools can be used in response:

  1. Criminal charges, including the application of peace bonds
  2. Intervention and threat disruption using legal powers provided to CSIS, the RCMP and, in some cases, the Communications Security Establishment
  3. Covert surveillance and on-going monitoring

As long as Canada continues to have a small numbers challenge, these three strands will not be over-burdened. Of the three, we can see how criminal charges might be applied, as they play out in the public domain; the others are inevitably shrouded in secrecy.

In terms of Criminal Code sanctions, some terrorist offenses are specific to terrorist travel: some date back to the original anti-terrorism act of 2001; more recent ones date from the passage of a Senate bill (S.7) in 2013. The specific provisions can be found at S.83.181 and S.83.201. The distinction between the two is over whether an individual has been alleged to engage in terrorist travel in order to act on behalf of a listed terrorist group. Maximum sentences in these provisions range from 10 to 14 years.

A persistent charge is that successive governments have failed to use the legal powers available to any good effect. So what is the record to date? So far two returnees — Pamir Hakimzadah and Rehab Dughmosh — have been charged with terrorist travel offenses under S.83.181. Four others have been charged with terrorist travel offenses in absentia; the government says that to its knowledge these individuals are not in Canada — some may be dead. One other known returnee who travelled to Syria and made contact with an Al Qaeda affiliate — Kevin Omar Mohamed — was recently convicted on other terrorism charges.

This is a small number of charges, but then we have a small numbers problem with regard to high-risk returnees. We must accept that the arm of Canadian law cannot stretch around the globe to apprehend individuals suspected of being involved with terrorist causes (currently the figure is 190). Even so the evidentiary challenges would be significant. The government’s tools also include the Passenger Protect program (no fly list), passport revocation, and the peace bond process to prevent suspected terrorists from travelling abroad in the first place. This is an international obligation that government must take seriously. It also has some financial sanctions capabilities.

With this small numbers problem regarding returned foreign fighters, the last question we must ask is “why do we care so much?” The answer is complicated, but involves at least five elements:

  1. Even one committed, experienced RET jihadist can do great harm with vehicles, small arms, knives, etc., as recent terror attacks have gruesomely demonstrated.
  2. After 16 years and counting, we are deeply accultured to thinking about terrorism threats as top-tier in nature. Successive Canadian governments have hammered into us that terrorism is the number one threat to national security. This spurious ranking is hard to shake.
  3. Threats of terrorism evoke deeply politicized and emotional responses, as demonstrated in the aftermath of Evan Dyer’s CBC report. Political divides on the issue, as seen in the settlement with Omar Khadr, are also hard to bridge.
  4. The Canadian public expects 100% security, an unrealistic deliverable that governments and their security and intelligence agencies must nevertheless try to live up to.
  5. Finally, in keeping with a long tradition, Canada must be a worthy ally. In this context, we must act as if we didn’t have a small numbers problem to demonstrate to more deeply affected allies that we take the matter seriously.

When faced with the small numbers problem, the key for Canada does not rest solely in any one solution — not arrests, not intelligence investigations, not de-radicalization efforts. Each has their place, in proportion to the scale of the security challenge. Most importantly, the under-represented need is good threat assessment. The system stands or falls on that capability. If we must have political and media storms over the issue, let a little light fall on this central challenge.

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