02/18/2012 11:47 EST | Updated 04/19/2012 05:12 EDT

New Counter-Terrorism Strategy Overlooks Most Obvious Breeding Ground

On February 9, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews released Canada's counter-terrorism strategy entitled Building Resilience Against Terrorism. The headline of the Globe and Mail's response read, "Ottawa's new anti-terrorism strategy lists eco-extremists as threats."

Despite the Globe's attention-grabbing headline, the Counter-Terrorism Strategy does not focus on eco-extremists. In fact, the document contains only a single reference to environmentalists, describing them as domestic issues-based groups that pose a threat of "low-level violence." While the government does seem intent on picking a fight with advocacy oriented environmental groups on issues such as the Northern Gateway pipeline, the primary evidence for that fight is not to be found in this publication.

Building Resilience Against Terrorism focuses instead on "violent Islamist extremism" which it explicitly identifies as "the leading threat to Canada's national security." More than a dozen times, the document refers specifically to "Sunni Islamist extremists." I assume that the repeated reference is meant to signal that Canada thinks Shi'a or Ismaili Muslims do not pose a similar threat.

Though the document makes several references to Hezbollah, it does not identify this Islamist extremist group as being Shi'a. While the omission of explicit references to Shi'a and Ismaili Muslims is likely intended to be a friendly gesture to those religious groups, it is almost certain that the vast majority of Canadians do not know the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. Nor do Canadians recognize that the phrase "Sunni Islamist extremists" is likely the government's code for Wahhabi or Salafi Muslims. Though the authors of the strategy may have had good intentions, by identifying "Sunni Islamist extremists" as a serious terrorist threat, they risk creating backlash against the Muslim community in general.

What I found most intriguing about Canada's new Counter-Terrorism Strategy is that it did not once refer to Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Nor is CRA referred to in the strategy's "Annex A: Roles and Responsibilities Relating to Counter-terrorism" which lists 20 agencies that play a role in counter-terrorism. CRA is absent from the document entirely.

This omission is striking because CRA is well-positioned to be on the frontlines of the Canadian counter-terrorism movement. It's reasonable to assume that most Sunni Islamist groups in Canada meet at mosques, most of which have applied to Charities Directorate and been registered as charities by CRA. It is also reasonable to assume that extremist Sunni Islamists from abroad will attempt to infiltrate non-extremist mosques and try to radicalize ordinarily moderate Canadian Muslims.

The Counter-terrorism Strategy acknowledges this problem stating, "violent 'homegrown' Sunni Islamist extremists are posing a threat of violence within Canada" and "homegrown extremists are those individuals who have become radicalized by extremist ideology."

This radical agenda is achieved by importing money from religious charities abroad and by indoctrinating individuals. Given its mandate of monitoring and regulating charitable organizations such as mosques, CRA's Charities Directorate could play an important role in limiting the spread of extremist activities. In fact, sophisticated charity audits are potentially the most effective tool the Canadian government has to deny terrorists the financial means to pursue terrorist activities.

The Counter-Terrorism Strategy operates through four mutually reinforcing elements: Prevent, Detect, Deny, and Respond. In my opinion, Canada Revenue Agency's Charities Directorate should be on the frontline of Canada's counter-terrorism strategy. Charities Directorate is better positioned than most of the 20 government agencies mentioned in Building Resilience Against Terrrorism to accomplish prevention which the document says is focused on the motivations of individuals who have the potential to engage in terrorist activity at home and abroad. CRA has an even better chance of succeeding in detection which the document says is centered on identifying terrorist organizations and their supporters.

Charities are such obvious settings for the dissemination of Islamist extremism that the government must have compelling reasons to exclude Charities Directorate from having a specified role in Canada's Counter-terrorism Strategy. Presumably, this decision reflects a lack of confidence in Charities Directorate's sophistication and effectiveness in dealing with issues related to terrorism. The implications of this failure extend to all terrorist threats germinating in any registered charity and not just to Sunni Islamist extremists.