Homegrown terror plots and crimes fill Canadian courts and spark debate

·Crime Contributor
Left, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shown in a video screengrab; Right, Chiheb Esseghaier is lead off a plane by RCMP. (CP)

Terrorism-related crimes in Canada seem to be in the headlines every day now – but is terrorism on the rise, or are we just more interested in the subject? Yahoo Canada News posed those questions to a number of leading Canadian academics and terror experts.

In recent months, there have been a number of cases before the courts, including plans to bomb the B.C. legislature, thwarted plans to derail a VIA passenger train and arrests in Halifax over a plot to open fire at shopping mall. And of course, there were the two killings of armed forces personnel last October as part of a jihadist movement.

Canadians have also heard more stories of individuals going overseas to join ISIS to fight for the “Islamic State” in Syria or elsewhere.

Dr. Amarnath Amarasingam has studied the radicalization question and estimates about 60 Canadians are fighting in Syria and Iraq, while the government stated last year that as many as 135 individuals “with Canadian connections who were abroad and who were suspected of terrorism-related activities” could be involved.

Not a new phenomenon

While the numbers of Canadians involved in overseas activities may be on the rise, Amarasingam told Yahoo Canada News it would be wrong to think that political violence at home is something new.

“This idea that Canada is only now losing its innocence with respect to political violence ignores all of the violence of the past, whether it be the Sons of Freedom or the FLQ,” said Amarasingham, who is the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow and the co-principle investigator for a study of Canadian foreign fighters based at the University of Waterloo.

“I do think the Syrian conflict and the ripple effects it is having on countries around the world is a bit of a game changer. We have seen an unprecedented amount of Canadian youth go abroad to fight for a variety of different groups active in Syria, and finding ways to address the issue is fundamentally important.”

The increased terror crimes have political ramifications in Canada, including the introduction of Bill C-51 as part of the Government of Canada’s plan to appear tough on terrorism.

Foreign policy fallout

Reza Akhlaghi, Senior Editor of Foreign Policy Association, said Canada is paying the price at home for its foreign policies.

“Canada is experiencing the domestic implications of a foreign policy that is known for its assertiveness and interventionist nature, particularly in the Middle East and greater Muslim world,” Akhlaghi told Yahoo Canada News.

“I believe Canada will continue to face the threat of violence induced by religious ideology and this threat can manifest itself in the form of terrorist incidents as well as cyber-attacks,” he said.

“However, it is also important for many Canadians - as well as for some politicians mostly from opposition parties - to draw a line between awareness on national security and public safety on one hand, and fear mongering on the other.”

‘Lone wolf’ presents new challenges

James Ellis of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) said homegrown terrorism is a reality.

“There has been an increase in the number of “lone wolf” attacks carried out by unaffiliated or loosely affiliated individuals since 2000, and the recruitment, radicalization, and mobilization of foreign fighters may also be accelerating,” he told Yahoo Canada News.

“Some of the recent discussion surrounding the issue of terrorism represents an attempt to grapple with the changing security landscape associated with these more elusive threats.Providing safety and security represents the core mandate and legitimacy of any democratic government, which is why the issue of terrorism evokes strong and spirited debate.

Ellis said TSAS will be releasing updated statistics on terrorism and violent extremism in Canada since 1960 as part of the TSAS Canadian Incident Database (CIDB) project later this month on the organization’s website.

General public is a new target for terrorism in Canada

Dr. Lorne Dawson, Associate Chair of Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo, said there has been some terrorist activity in Canada for decades – far more than the average person realize. But Dawson told Yahoo Canada News much of the activity was between specific groups of people in Canada and not directed at the general public.

“Since 9/11 there has been more activity than ever before, and really since the Toronto 18 case in 2006,” he said. “We have never had two concurrent terrorism trials in Canada before – at least not in recent memory.”

Dawson cautions that the federal government “appears to wish to appear “tough on terrorism” for political purposes, as it is approaching the issue in a highly partisan and uncompromising way.“

“Much of what is in (the Harper government’s) Bill C-51 is not necessary and the anti-terrorism measures in the criminal code are sufficient.” Dawson said he believes there should be increased information sharing among government agencies – but only if accompanied by increase the resources and capacity of the Security Intelligence Review Committee and introducing some measure of Parliamentary review.

Amarasingham said the security debate also has some unfortunate side effects.

“I think the discussion that we are currently having, particularly in the Senate, is deeply problematic bordering on racism and Islamophobia,” said Amarasingham.

“We definitely need to have a national conversation about political violence in Canada, but it needs to include left-wing groups, right-wing groups, along with jihadi groups. Right now, the overwhelming focus on jihadi groups, and the subsequent worry that radicalization is happening in mosques and community centres around the country is a major problem.”

Amarasingham fears that could lead to Muslims feeling increasingly alienated from Canada as their “community is seemingly being used as a tool in electoral politics.”

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