Should Canada have a terrorism threat alert system?

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

On Friday, Australia became the latest country to increase their terrorism alert level in light of the emergence Islamic extremists in the Middle East.

Last week, the U.K. did the same. 

Both countries — citing reports of their own citizens fighting for ISIS and threats against the west — raised their public threat rankings to their second highest levels indicating a terrorist risk is ‘likely.’

If you’re waiting Canada to do the same, don’t bother.

While Canada may face the same risks as its commonwealth brethren, we don’t even have a public ranking system.

The UK and Australia terror threat systems mirrors the United States’ color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System — introduced by the Bush administration in 2002 — which ranged from Green (a low risk of terrorist attacks) to red (a severe risk of terrorist attacks).

Since 2011, the U.S. has transitioned to the National Terrorism Advisory System, which provides more timely and targeted information. 

The NTAS “recognizes that Americans all share responsibility for the nation’s security, and should always be aware of the heightened risk of terrorist attack in the United States and what they should do,” notes the NTAS website

Canada, however, has no similar mechanism for public dissemination.

Instead, according to Ministry of Public Safety, the Government of Canada has “a system of measures in place, including: travel advisories, active contact between transportation security officials and transportation providers, a Government Operations Centre that monitors all hazards, and close cooperation between security and police agencies in response to an evolving threat situation.”

Wesley Wark, a national security, intelligence and terrorism expert at the University of Ottawa says that while Canada has never had threat alert system, there was some debate about it after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. 

"The Canadian decision not to have a terror threat warning system was based on their reading of the American system and a feeling on the part of government officials that it was of very little value, subject to vagaries and even political abuse (messaging), and might mislead the public as much as inform it," Wesley Wark told Yahoo Canada News.

"Perhaps there was also some nervousness around the idea of a threat warning system that might impact on the Canadian societal fabric and produce unnecessary tensions in our multicultural system.

Wark adds that the British experience has been different, “largely on the basis of a better public understanding of the reality of terrorist threats and because of long experience with alarms over [Irish Republican Army (IRA)] terrorism.” 

[ Related: Ottawa says terrorists won’t enter U.S. through Canada, despite McCain’s suggestion ]

Michael Zekulin, a terrorism expert at the University of Calgary has no doubt that Canada’s law enforcement have become more vigilant over the past several months in light of the ISIS threats but says that he would urge the federal government to adopt a ”concrete” threat alert system.

"Part of the political calculation [of an alert system] is that you’re trying to increase the awareness of and ask for people’s help," he told Yahoo Canada News

"The sets of eyes and ears that the general population has — as opposed to say intelligence or law enforcement — increases exponentially. So essentially it’s not necessarily so much about the fact that we really believe something is going to happen, it’s just that sort of reminder. It’s that little alarm that goes off that basically says ‘hey everybody, it’s time to once a little more in touch with what’s going on and be vigilant and report these types of things.’”

[ Related: Canadian military advisers to support Iraqi troops battling ISIS ]

With regard to the ISIS threats, Canadian officials should have similar concerns as the British and Australian authorities.

The government’s 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, released last month, says 130 Canadians have traveled abroad and are to support terrorism-related activities with at least 30 believed to be fighting in Syria. 

Moreover, a 2013 Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) reportreminded officials that Canada isn’t immune from other terrorist threats. 

"In Canada, terrorism emanating from Al-Qaeda-inspired extremism remains a serious threat," notes the comprehensive state of terrorism in Canada style study.

"Despite recent successful operations targeting Al-Qaeda Core, the Service continues to see support for AQ causes in Canada. Of particular significance is the above-mentioned investigation into an alleged Al-Qaeda-linked plot to attack a train in Southern Ontario, which led to the arrest of two individuals in April 2013."

(Photo courtesy of Reuters) 

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