OTTAWA — The Liberal party is demanding to know whether the government is tracking the 80 individuals it says might pose a terror threat after returning to Canada from extremist-related travel abroad.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney’s office and the RCMP would not say Monday whether any of those 80 Canadians have been charged or even arrested.
In a television interview on Sunday, Blaney said the government was “already laying charges.”
“As you've seen, there are cases this summer, that are individuals that are being prosecuted under the new combat terrorism act. We have a strategy now, ” the public safety minister told CTV’s Question Period.
Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter and national security expert Wesley Wark, however, told The Huffington Post Canada that as far as they know, no one has been charged after returning to Canada following suspected terrorist activities abroad.
“I’m not aware that anyone has been charged under the new provisions of the anti-terrorism act,” Wark, a University of Ottawa professor, told HuffPost.
“We don’t have a case of a Canadian that we know has gone to say fight with ISIL or … a terrorist entity and has come back to Canada and has been arrested and charged.”
ISIL refers to the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), formerly al-Qaida in Iraq. It is also often referred to as ISIS.
The Combating Terrorism Act, the bill that Blaney cited, was passed in the spring of 2013 to add some additional measures to the original terrorism act, Wark said. One person was charged under the original provisions of the terrorism act, “not the revised one, for attempting to travel to Somalia to join Al-Shabab,” Wark said.
This summer, Mohamed Hersi became the first Canadian convicted of attempting to join an overseas terrorist group. The 28-year-old, who was intercepted at the Toronto Pearson International Airport on his way to Egypt, received a 10-year prison sentence. If Hersi had been convicted under the revised act, the National Post noted that he might have faced a 15-year sentence.
Blaney told CTV that, over the course of the last month, “we have seen an increase in young being abducted, being lured, being seduced by those fanatic ideas.” He said law enforcement agencies has the tools to intercept would-be terrorists such as Farah Mohamed Shirdon, a young Calgarian fighting in Iraq with ISIL.
“He's risking his life overseas, and if he returns, he will face the full force of the law,” Blaney said.
Blaney’s office would not say exactly what “the full force of the law” meant. It would not say how many Canadians have been intercepted, either in Canada or on their way back from suspected terrorism-related activities. And it still would not say how many Canadians’ passports have been revoked for such involvement.
“We do not comment on operational matters of national security,” press secretary Jason Tamming wrote in an email to answer both questions.
Easter believes the federal government needs to provide Canadians with more information.
“Are they taking the strong measures that legislation gives them authority to do?,” the Grits’ public safety critic asked.
“What we are not getting from the minister is a brutally honest assessment of the threat and of the numbers, and what the government is really doing about this,” the Liberal MP said.
Taking passports from people who return from terrorist training or who try to leave Canada may not be enough, Easter suggested.
“Are these really the guys and girls you want on the street in the country? I think not.”
Wark, however, said the federal authorities are most likely monitoring those who have returned.
“I assume that the reason that they are indicating that they have a knowledge of a specific number is implicitly to say that these people are being monitored, but they are not saying monitored how, or who they are or where they are. And that’s not surprising. It would be legitimate information to retain confidentiality around as an ongoing intelligence operation,” he said.
“Unless there's a security reason to keep information confidential,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told HuffPost, “[Canadians] should be told the truth.”
The NDP did not return several requests for comment.
The federal government says it knew earlier this year of more than 130 people with Canadian connections who were suspected of supporting terrorism-related activities abroad with various groups, including 30 in Syria. The figures, found in the latest “Terrorist Threat to Canada” report, make no specific mention of the number of Canadians believed to be fighting with ISIL.
The 80 or so individuals that the government is aware of who returned to Canada were engaged in paramilitary activities abroad, studying in extremist schools, or were raising money or supporting terrorist groups in other ways, the report says.
Some may have had to interrupt their travel because of financial issues, injuries or outside intervention and may plan to travel again, the report states. Others may have simply given up and returned to Canada.
“Not all extremist travellers who return to Canada represent a terrorist threat,” the report states. “However, some have the credibility to encourage and recruit aspiring violent extremists in Canada and it is possible that some returnees could plan and carry out attacks in Canada.”
Easter has written to the public safety minister and told the Public Safety Commons committee that he wants to discuss the issue. He also wants a special committee to hear classified information so elected representatives are not kept in the dark on important security matters.
“We have no way... If you were in the United States, in Britain, in Australia, you would actually have elected members of those assemblies questioning, not in a public forum, not before the media, but you would have a process whereby people sworn to see classified information could actually question the security agencies,” he said. “‘Look, I want to know exactly what you are doing. And is that enough?’ And we can’t do that in Canada.”
Wark said that if there were a special parliamentary committee with access to classified information, “it would be able to get answers to those types of questions.”
The real question, he said, is how much detailed information the Canadian government actually knows. “That’s probably something the Canadian government is not anxious to release to any body – parliamentary, public or media or anyone…. It is very difficult to monitor the movement of people going in and out of the Middle East, particularly when those people cover their tracks.”
Wark said the government should provide more information on the trend lines, whether more or fewer people are actually leaving the country to engage in terrorism activities and whether more or fewer are coming back to Canada after their training. He also believes the government should provide some information on what it knows about the terrorism network – how foreign fighters are actually being recruited.
“That is the intelligence challenge that nobody is talking about.”
“You can’t just turn up at ISIL,” he said. “There is some kind of vetting process and facilitation process that an organized terrorist group fighting in the current conflict in Syria or Iraq would apply to any foreign fighter. They just don’t welcome with open arms … they want to make sure that these people are not plants,” he said.
Nobody knows whether the government is having any success identifying how individuals are recruited, how their travel to the conflict zones is arranged and who is part of the acceptance committee at the end of the road, he said.
The government’s 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada is completely silent on this. Instead, it focuses on individual examples of some of the handful of Canadians who were charged in 2013 on terror-related offences and of those who are presumed to have been killed after fighting with an extremist group abroad.
“You’ll never do anything against this problem unless you can dismantle or disrupt the network,” Wark said. “It is not about the individuals.”
The Canadian government is currently weighing options for a potential combat mission in Iraq against ISIL. The U.S. government’s laundry list of desired help includes fighter planes, refuelling planes and listening planes. It is very likely Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government will ask Parliament to approve air strikes in Iraq later this week. The Liberals and the NDP have argued so far that they have been given little information with which to make an informed decision.
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