04/23/2013 10:27 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Terror Lives Here Too

Despite abundant evidence, Canadians still have considerable difficulty accepting the presence of international terrorists. We like to believe that nobody would want to harm us, but the terrible reality is that there are terrorists who would like nothing better than to kill large numbers of us.


Terrorism in Canada? How can it be?

The reaction to yesterday's press conference about an al-Qaeda related plot to kill and maim passengers on a VIA train in the Toronto area is going to have predictable results.

Despite abundant evidence, Canadians still have considerable difficulty accepting the presence of international terrorists. We like to believe that nobody would want to harm us, but once again, the butterfly of beautiful expectation has ended up smeared over the windshield of terrible reality. There are terrorists who would like nothing better than to kill large numbers of us.

Canada has five Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSETs). Headed by the RCMP, these are multi-agency task forces with representation from most major police forces and relevant agencies like CSIS, the CBSA, Transport Canada, DND, the CSE, and all the rest of the alphabet soup involved in our security architecture. They serve Canadians better than most of us know.

The essence of Canadian counter-terror strategy is to disrupt terrorism before it occurs.

Some terrorism of the simple domestic ideologically-driven garden-variety vandalism could already be handled by police and courts with our existing laws, but the growing complexity of international terrorism as demonstrated in the 9/11 attacks required new laws. C-36 was passed in 2002 and made it illegal to support terrorism through recruiting, fundraising, or undertaking support work such as reconnaissance. It also, for the first time, made it illegal to belong to some terrorist groups - those which are listed in the Canadian Gazette.

Among the listed terrorist groups is Babbar Khalsa - the group responsible for the Air India and Narita Airport bombings in 1985. Three hundred and thirty-one people died in those two bombings; most of them were Canadians, and the bombs were assembled in Canada and placed on flights originating from Canadian airports. The automatic reflex of most Canadians was to consider the attacks as an Indian problem.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam eventually made it on to the list. While unlikely to directly kill Canadians, the Tigers played us for patsies while pulling tens of millions of dollars a year out of Canada to pay for a civil war in Sri Lanka. They were also brutal in controlling every aspect of life for Canadian Tamils.

Hezbollah was busy running around in Canada from the 1990s onwards, and were busy raising money and buying equipment here. Hezbollah members are expected to engage in reconnaissance and planning for potential targets, and they eyeballed a lot of sites in Canada.

It took al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks to get Canadians to take terrorism seriously... for a while. The INSET teams are a legacy of those attacks. We finally got the Air India bombers to trial - except that intimidation, perjury, and the murder of two key witnesses kept justice out of the courtroom. The Tamil Tigers got put out of business, although the destruction of their forces in Sri Lanka helped with this. Hezbollah, facing new Canadian resolve, sent its assets here back into the shadows.

Babbar Khalsa, the LTTE, and Hezbollah (despite its dangerously sophisticated international network) do not occupy that much attention from the INSET teams these days. Their main focus remains al-Qaeda and its related Sunni-Jihadist groups.

The first years after the 9/11 attacks saw the global suppression of al-Qaeda and the mop-up of many of its assets. Thereafter, AQ's main emphasis shifted to its regional "franchises" and the recruitment of "homegrowns" inside the Western World. Homegrowns include young Muslims and converts who largely recruit and condition themselves over the internet. They have been coming faster and faster, as the Jihadist movement pumps more resources into the online recruiting and training.

The first defence against Homegrowns is timely intelligence. In Canada, CSIS and the CSE monitored websites, chat rooms, and forums haunted by those sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Talking Jihad and cheering on its partisans isn't illegal, but we found it useful to see who was emotionally engaged in this. If anyone moved beyond expressing support to more concrete activities, the appropriate INSET had to take up the torch. We saw how this worked with the arrest and trial of the "Toronto-18."

Few Canadians realize that the INSETs are swamped right now. The terrible dilemma in counter-terrorism is that success leads to complacency, which in turn leads to vulnerability. This has meant that the INSETs are under-resourced and over-worked, and are now failing to catch all emerging terrorists in Canada.

So far, most INSET mistakes have concerned the recruitment of Canadians to support al-Qaeda franchises in Somalia, Mali, and the Caucasus mountains. A couple of dozen Canadians have slipped out to join the Jihad without being intercepted before they left. The INSETs have done better work at picking up bomb designers inside Canada. They have done good service, yet again, in the VIA Rail plot.

It remains to be seen how lucky we will be in future, unless we reinforce the INSETs with more resources.