They are Canada's most elite troops – the faceless soldiers who go to places they won't name, to complete missions they won’t talk about.
Hailed as a world-class special-operations unit for missions abroad, while facing mounting criticism at home, Joint Task Force Two remains a shadowy counterterrorism force about which little concrete can be said. Save for the fact that observers are clamouring more than ever to lift the veil on the ultra-secretive unit's operations.
JTF 2 bills itself as “a scalpel, not a hammer” – a fighting force that adds a sharp, surgical edge to Ottawa’s foreign policies. It is also the centrepiece of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) a $200-million-a-year grouping of special forces soldiers, sailors and airmen with diverse skill sets, including specialized infantry, rapid-response pilots and cleanup crews trained to deal with chemical warfare, including nuclear attacks.
For all their talent, the CANSOFCOM units are like the backup band to the military rock star JTF 2, whose members are ready to be dropped anywhere in the world to kick in doors and neutralize Canada's enemies. Its can-do attitude is reflected in its man-of-action maxim, “Facta, non verba.” Deeds, not words.
The first “JTF” existed as an ad hoc unit that served a short stint in the Persian Gulf. Its second incarnation came in 1993, when JTF 2 was created as Canada’s leading counterterrorism force. Recruits run a gauntlet of scientifically designed physical and psychological tests. Typically only two in 10 soldiers who train for the unit succeed in becoming “assaulters,” a position that can pay a premium six-figure salary.
Why does the unit disclose almost nothing? “History has shown only too clearly that terrorist organizations will use information about a unit's personnel, weapons, tactics and procedures to great effect ,” JTF 2's media handlers say on the unit’s Web site.
In its nearly two decades of existence, JTF 2 is not known to have fired a shot in the course of any domestic operation – nor has there been a terrorist attack on Canadian soil to warrant that kind of response. It has had a behind-the-scenes role in security events. In fact it was deployed within Canada twice in the past year – to safeguard the Vancouver Olympics and the G8/G20 summits, where the elite soldiers lurked unobtrusively in sites surrounding events.
JTF 2 has meanwhile distinguished itself overseas.
In the 1990s, the unit ventured to Bosnia, Rwanda, Peru on missions to protect Canadian politicians, diplomats and fellow soldiers. Today, those operations seem a prelude to the mission in Afghanistan, where dozens of JTF 2 members headed just days after the al-Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
As part of Task Force K-Bar in 2002, the Canadians’ joined with U.S and other allied forces to launch surveillance operations while capturing and killing al-Qaeda and insurgent leaders.
After Canada accepted the NATO mission to patrol Kandahar, JTF 2 stepped up its operations. In 2008, the then-chief-of-defence-staff General Rick Hillier credited Canadian special forces with playing a “major role” in disrupting Taliban bomb factories. “We’ve removed seven commanders who have been responsible for the deaths of 27 soldiers,” he said at the time.
Only one JTF 2 member, Master Corporal Anthony Klumpenhouwer, 25, has been acknowledged to have been killed in Afghanistan. After he was electrocuted atop a communications tower, his family complained some of the circumstances of his death had been “hidden” from them.
When U.S. forces took charge of the Kandahar area last year, they turned to JTF 2 while stepping up their own special forces operations. It’s rumoured the Canadian unit has had some recent successes in capturing key insurgent figures.
As Canada winds down its mission in Afghanistan, questions about the future role of JTF 2 are heating up.
After Afghanistan: Redefining The Mission
The end of Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan represents a turning point for JTF 2. Will it continue to mount overseas operations, or should it become a strictly domestic counterterrorism force?
On Tuesday a select group of insiders will be given rare insights into Canada's special forces. At a symposium in Kingston, military brass will sit down with informed observers to discuss the future of JTF 2.
It's a timely conversation – albeit one that will be laden with unwieldy military acronyms and inscrutable phrases like “shaping the area of operations” and “special forces as a whole-of-government supporter.”
At its core are stark questions about the country's most formidable fighters: Will they continue their role as a “force of choice” when it comes to hunting terrorists around the globe? Or might they revert to a more defensive mindset – confining themselves to being a national insurance policy, the force of last resort should terrorists attack Canada?
Ottawa has announced that the Canadian Forces' Afghan mission will morph from being a Kandahar combat operation to a Kabul training mission. The distinction accords with the wishes of Parliament, but threatens to sideline the action-oriented special forces.
The Conservative government has not addressed any renewed JTF 2 mission in Afghanistan. The military's ongoing “transformation” exercise – which may include a budget cut – makes it unlikely that special forces squads will continue to reap windfalls in financing, equipment and operational autonomy.
Yet there are factors prompting some observers to call for an increasingly robust Canadian special forces capability.
“It's a meaner world out there,” Robert Fowler told The Globe and Mail.
And he ought to know.
In the 1990s, Mr. Fowler was a Defence Department bureaucrat who helped create JTF 2 by dismantling a less efficient RCMP counterterrorism team. Two years ago he was held hostage in the Sahara Desert – a UN diplomat held prisoner by an al-Qaeda faction.
“The fact that I knew Canada had that capability was comforting,” Mr. Fowler said. “I realized that any rescue attempt would be risky. I also realized there will come a time when even a risky attempt would be better than the alternative.”
A group of JTF 2 soldiers were among the federal agents dispatched to Africa to do what they could to secure the freedom of Mr. Fowler and Louis Guay, another Canadian captured with him. In the end, the hostages were freed without military action, through a negotiated ransom that Canada denies paying.
Clandestine Canadian Forces operations such as these – largely unacknowledged “NEO” (non-combatant evacuation) missions – have taken place in Iraq and other countries.
In foreign theatres including Afghanistan, such operations can forge tighter bonds between Canada and its allies, and their military and spy agencies.
But these relationships can be problematic. While JTF 2 likes to boast that its soldiers operate under the same stringent rules of engagement abroad as they do in Canada, its soldiers risk casting their lot with less scrupulous partners whenever they team up with a foreign ally.
Mr. Fowler says Canada's choices in fighting global terrorism are stark.
In such situations, “What are the options?” he asked. “Give in to everything the terrorists want? Ask the Americans to do it for us? Ask the Brits to do it for us?
“Or,” he says, “do we do it ourselves?”
Under Investigation: Did JTF 2 troops witness a war crime?
Military police probe allegations that members of JTF 2 witnessed a war crime in Afghanistan and failed to report it
An internal investigation known as Sand Trap is working its way through the Canadian Forces.
Following complaints raised by a JTF 2 member, General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of the Defence Staff, asked the military's National Investigative Service to probe certain special forces operations in Afghanistan.
The first investigation – known as Sand Trap 1 – involved an allegation that a JTF 2 soldier had killed a Taliban suspect who was in the process of surrendering.
The soldier was investigated, and the complaint led to no charges. But it laid the foundation for an ongoing investigation ordered by Gen. Natynczyk – Sand Trap 2.
The case, first reported by the CBC, concerns an allegation that JTF 2 members failed to report a possible war crime after witnessing a member of a U.S.-led force killing an unarmed man during a joint operation.
Documents indicate that more than 100 soldiers are in the process of being questioned. Almost no further details about the underlying incident are known.
In Canada, observers have questioned JTF 2's long-standing policy of silence. Opposition MPs last week pressed the Conservative government for details about the “war crimes allegations.”
“There were in fact allegations that stemmed from a Canadian Forces member himself. The original investigation resulted in no charges,” Defence Minister Peter MacKay told Parliament.
He added that “a second investigation continues. With respect to that investigation, we have to preserve evidence, comply with the independence of the process, and we will await the results.”