Canadian Intelligence Tracking 80 Men Who Have Fought With Militants in Syria or Elsewhere Abroad

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Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag)

Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag) (Photo credit: Lone Primate)

March 24, 2014

CSIS tracking 80 Canadians who came home after going abroad for ‘terrorist purposes’

Douglas Quan Ottawa Citizen March 24, 2014

Intelligence officials are aware of about 80 Canadians who have returned home after going overseas for “terrorist purposes,” according to speaking notes prepared for the director of the nation’s spy agency.

The document obtained by Postmedia News does not offer explicit information about their activities, though it makes it clear that not all were involved in combat. While some individuals may have engaged in paramilitary activities, others are believed to have studied in extremist Islamic schools or provided logistical or fundraising support. Others never achieved their goals and simply returned home.

The so-called “foreign fighter” phenomenon has become a growing concern for the intelligence community, stoking fears that individuals could return to Canada more radicalized than when they left.

“Most troubling, if they participate in a foreign conflict or train with a terrorist group, they might return with certain operational skills that can be deployed themselves or taught to fellow Canadian extremists,” the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said in its annual report released earlier this year.

The 80 Canadians on CSIS’s radar were referenced in speaking notes prepared for the agency’s director, Michel Coulombe, ahead of his Feb. 3 appearance before the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. Postmedia News obtained a copy of the notes through access-to-information legislation.

During the hearing, Coulombe testified that the agency was aware of more than 130 Canadians abroad who were believed to be supporting extremist activities. And he expressed concerns about the threat such individuals posed if they return home.

However, a review of Coulombe’s testimony shows no mention of the 80 individuals, who, according to his speaking notes, had returned to Canadian soil.

The director’s speaking notes do not indicate where they travelled or when. Coulombe did tell the committee that of the 130 Canadians who were still abroad, about 30 were in Syria. Other destinations included Somalia, Yemen and North and East Africa, according to the speaking notes.

It is not clear what specific action authorities have taken against those individuals who have returned to Canada. But Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence officer with CSIS, said Sunday that the 80 individuals have to be considered “very high risk” and are likely being closely watched.

“We don’t know their state of mind. … No one goes to a war zone without being affected, especially if they were exposed to a long period of indoctrination,” he said.

CSIS spokeswoman Tahera Mufti confirmed Sunday in a statement that “CSIS is aware of Canadians who have returned to Canada after having been abroad for terrorist purposes.” She added that the agency “actively investigates such individuals and is coordinating with the RCMP in order to keep Canadians safe.”

RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Julie Gagnon said she could not “confirm or deny the existence of a national security criminal investigation for privacy concerns. Also, to do so could potentially negatively impact ongoing investigations.”

Last year, the federal government passed a set of anti-terrorism laws that included new penalties for those who leave or attempt to leave Canada to participate in terrorist activities.

But the speaking notes provided to the CSIS director acknowledge that the intelligence community faces challenges identifying and tracking the movements of such individuals, and bringing charges against them.

The number of individuals overseas is constantly in flux and their motivations are not always easy to discern, according to the notes. Their destinations are often in active conflict zones or failed states, meaning cooperation with foreign partners — and getting sound intelligence — can be difficult.

Further, those engaged in terrorist activities often travel on falsified documents and “Canada has not, to date, systematically collected exit information that could be used to reliably confirm an individual’s departure,” the notes state.

“Despite our best efforts it is highly likely there are Canadians we do not know of who are travelling overseas to engage in terrorist activities.”

These challenges are not unique to Canada, Juneau-Katsuya said. “All Western countries are facing similar challenges.”

At least three Canadians have reportedly died over the last several months while fighting in Syria’s civil war.

Two young men from London, Ont., died last year after taking part in an al-Qaida-linked terrorist attack at an Algerian gas plant that killed 40 workers.

The government has previously acknowledged the involvement of Somali-Canadians with the al-Qaida-linked Somali militant group al-Shabab. One Canadian reportedly was killed while taking part in a deadly attack on Mogadishu’s Supreme Court complex last April.

Here at home, two immigrants were charged last year with a plot to derail a Via Rail passenger train that officials said had the support of al-Qaida elements in Iran. One of the suspects reportedly travelled to Iran prior to his arrest.

By the Numbers:

130: Number of Canadians abroad suspected of engaging in extremist activities.

30: Number of Canadians in Syria suspected of engaging in extremist activities.

80: Number of Canadians who have returned to Canada after having been abroad for terrorist purposes.

Source: Speaking notes for CSIS director, Feb. 3, 2014

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