It was March 2016 and Bob Paulson, at the time RCMP Commissioner, was giving testimony to a House of Commons committee about returning Canadian ISIS fighters. The leadership of the RCMP and CSIS, the two main bodies that track terrorists, are notoriously reluctant to dish out information to the public. So their occasional appearances before committees are incredibly valuable.
While Paulson kept things fairly rote and bureaucratic during his actual testimony, the media followed him out into the halls afterwards to ask about homegrown terrorists. Why aren’t those who commit heinous crimes overseas charged when they come home? he was asked.
“If we’re not getting the evidence, are we satisfying the safety issues by surveillance and other techniques while we collect the evidence, or are there alternative ways of keeping communities safe by direct interventions with the individual or his family?” Paulson said.
This fuzzy notion of “direct interventions” is problematic enough. But then he offered this up: “In other cases, we’ve assessed that they’re back, they’re sorry, they’re working to try to get their heads straight and we’re relying on family members or other professionals.”
It was jaw-dropping. Canada’s top law enforcement official had publicly stated that if a member of ISIS – an organization that has threatened to attack Canada and Canadians – returns to Canadian soil, is apologetic and has a mother or psychiatrist to vouch for him, then the cops will make the discretionary choice not to charge him.
It’s the sort of line that should have haunted Paulson and the government for years. But few in the media really took him to task. It seemed as if they didn’t know what to make of it.
There is a strange tone when it comes to discussing terrorists that you don’t hear when discussing, say, alleged murderers or rapists. There’s almost the implicit notion that terrorists are as much victims as villains.
While politicians and the press have no problem voicing support for a “zero tolerance” policy towards an abhorrent act such as sexual assault, you will not hear comparable language when it comes to returned ISIS members, despite their well-deserved notoriety as mass murderers, torturers and rapists. Why is that? And just how exactly did we get to this topsy-turvy place?
Before we address the legal and policing questions, let’s first establish the problem. Are there actually ISIS fighters walking among us? Yes. Of that there is no doubt. There is confusion, though, over just how many there are, and what kind of risks they represent.
ISIS became what it is today in June 2014 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared parts of war-ravaged Iraq and Syria as the Islamic State’s caliphate and proclaimed himself the caliph. Even before that, however, a startling number of Canadians had joined the Islamist cause in that region, among others.
Public Safety Canada’s 2014 annual report on terror threats summed it up as follows: “As of early 2014, the Government was aware of more than 130 individuals with Canadian connections who were abroad and who were suspected of terrorism-related activities. These included involvement in training, fundraising, promoting radical views and even planning terrorist violence. Some extremist travellers remain abroad. Others have returned to Canada, while still others are presumed dead.”
It’s been over four years since those numbers were first produced. Where do they stand now? Another tricky question. Last November, Liberal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was pressed in the House of Commons to offer up the number of terrorists who’d returned home. He placed the figure at “about 60”.
As someone who has tracked this file closely since 2014, that count struck me as odd. It was the same figure that the government had used in its 2015 and 2014 terror reports.
When I contacted Goodale’s office, I was told that the numbers haven’t changed. That seems improbable. Are we to believe that over the past four years, which saw the rise and fall of the caliphate and something of a terrorist diaspora as the remaining fighters fled, not a single homegrown ISIS terrorist has returned since the initial 60 came back? Or is it just that the raw number is constant but that it’s a different 60 individuals?
Internal CSIS documents marked “top secret” and “secret” that were obtained via access to information and made available to me revealed that through most of 2016 and early 2017 Canada’s intelligence agency was compiling weekly reports on the number of homegrown foreign jihadists. While the exact numbers were redacted, the two column names they were tracking were not. They were headlined “currently in Turkey/Syria/Iraq” and “returned to Canada from Turkey/Syria/Iraq”.
Why would CSIS be compiling weekly reports if the numbers weren’t changing on a more or less weekly basis? Surely this indicated that the numbers were indeed fluctuating. Former CSIS and RCMP contractors I spoke with confirmed this assumption.
It was alarming enough when the former head of the RCMP explained why the government does not charge returning terrorists. It’s equally disconcerting to hear the Minister of Public Safety say the numbers are static when it appears they are not. But it gets worse.
During a 2017 year-end interview, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stressed his support for “deradicalization” programs. “There’s a range of experiences when people come home. We know that actually someone who has engaged and turned away from that hateful ideology can be an extraordinarily powerful voice for preventing radicalization in future generations and young people with the community,” he said.
Did you get that? Being an extremist is apparently some sort of rite of passage one must undergo to become an anti-extremist. It’s a bizarre perspective, but Trudeau gets very testy with anyone who questions his government’s coddling treatment of terrorists.
A few weeks before that interview, the prime minister had a meltdown in the House of Commons after Conservative leader Andrew Scheer asked what plans the government had in store to deal with returning terrorists and why more weren’t being locked up. In a fury that seemed more genuine than contrived, Trudeau accused Scheer of being “Islamophobic”.
Of course, the Trudeau administration prides itself on its progressive approach in all things. “Deradicalization” as a cure for terrorism is certainly a progressive concept, but like many others it is very much a fad, untested and unproven.
Proponents in the media and academic circles have labelled this approach Countering Violent Extremism. It’s become something of a cottage industry made up of a hodge-podge of not-for-profits, researchers and disparate police forces.
The Liberal government supports CVE through an agency called the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence. It sounds robust, but when you drill down into it you discover its main task is to hand out five-figure grants to academics and groups that for the most part write papers and organize discussions.
A similar approach to deradicalization by the Government of France was condemned as a “total fiasco” by a bipartisan report of the French Senate released in early 2017. “Despite their goodwill, several associations, seeking public funding in times of fiscal shortage, turned to the deradicalization sector without any real experience,” Esther Benbassa, a left-wing Senator, told media at the time. If the government is in search of a predetermined solution, there’s always going to be people willing to don their ‘expert’ hats and take the cash to tell politicians what they want to hear.
The conventional approach to crime and punishment agrees that rehabilitation is important, but should be undertaken during and after imprisonment. The progressive approach to deradicalization skips trial and punishment and incarceration altogether and goes right to rehab.
But terrorists are criminals, in any fair meaning of the term, and that’s what’s so perplexing about Trudeau’s repeated downplaying of the threat of returning jihadists. Even if their risk of reoffending is low – and the issue is too new for us to have any reliable evidence on whether this is true or not – they have still committed a serious Criminal Code violation.
While there have been anti-terror provisions on the books in Canada for years, in 2013 the Conservative government amended the laws to also apply to those who wage jihad abroad.
Section 83.181 of the Criminal Code states that “everyone who leaves or attempts to leave Canada, or goes or attempts to go on board a conveyance with the intent to leave Canada, for the purpose of committing an act or omission outside Canada that, if committed in Canada, would be an offence… is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than 10 years.” Then there are of course Canada’s longstanding treason laws that could reasonably be applied to Canadians who leave to join ISIS.
But despite the fact that there are at least 60 Canadians our intelligence services know about who have violated these laws, you can count the number of people charged under these laws on one hand.
In 2014, Toronto security guard Mohamed Hersi was sentenced to 10 years in prison following his arrest in 2011 at Pearson airport as he was leaving to join the Al Shabab terrorist group in his native Somalia. In 2017, Kevin Omar Mohamed was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison – with 2.5 years credit for time served – following his arrest in early 2016 after waging jihad with the Jabhat Al-Nusrah terrorist group in Syria.
Later this year, Rehab Dughmosh will face terror-related charges for her alleged failed attack at a Toronto Canadian Tire, which includes one count of attempting to go abroad to commit a crime.
How is it that the RCMP and CSIS know enough about dozens of returning terrorists to put them on lists and, in some cases, keep watch on them but not to charge them? The stock answer – which Paulson’s comments allude to and many Countering Violent Extremism experts parrot – is that it’s difficult to compile enough information to secure a conviction.
There is no doubt considerable truth to this, given that Iraq and Syria don’t have trustworthy security forces we can rely on for information sharing. But does that explanation suffice?
This spring a man claiming to be a returned Canadian ISIS adherent living in Toronto bragged about his murderous wartime exploits in Syria on a podcast with the New York Times. Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi gave a different story to the CBC, saying he served with ISIS but not as a killer. Police have interviewed him since his return, yet for unknown reasons have declined to charge him. He still walks freely among us.
Prosecutors typically don’t like to hang a case entirely on a confession, but they sometimes use – as with Kevin Omar Mohamed – online and social media comments to help justify charges. If they’re really motivated to prosecute, sometimes they’ll do so even if conviction isn’t a slam dunk. The attempted prosecutions of Mike Duffy and Jian Ghomeshi, for example, were both based on tenuous evidence that entirely fell apart at trial.
Police and prosecutors aren’t immune to politics. Maybe they just think there’s no strong public or political will to go after terrorists. Or maybe they’re feeling political and social pressure to not go after them. Either way, as the podcast boaster suggests, it leaves terrorists in Canada feeling pretty safe.
Other Canadians, however, may be justified in feeling unsafe. Although Canada has so far been spared attacks by returning jihadists, other countries have not been so lucky. The perpetrators of the 2015 Bataclan nightclub attack in France, for example, which resulted in the deaths of 130 people, included at least eight French nationals who were returned Islamist terrorists from Syria.
This suggests that it’s only a matter of time before a Canadian veteran of ISIS or some other terrorist group fails to respond to “deradicalization” treatment and either goes on a murderous rampage themselves or aids and abets a homegrown terrorist. The status quo does not suffice and Canadians would be right to demand that those who have violated our anti-terror laws are prosecuted for their misdeeds.