Reports of Canadians involved in two terror attacks are raising new concerns that the Canadian passport might become tainted in the eyes of the world.
The link of two Westerners – a Canadian and an Australian – to a fatal attack in Bulgaria has heightened the fear that Hezbollah and other terrorist groups are deliberately using dual-citizen operatives with the so-called “clean” passports of unassuming, supposedly “low-risk” nations.
That comes on top of an Algerian claim, still unconfirmed in Ottawa’s eyes, that two Canadians, including a ringleader, were involved in the crisis at the Tigantourine gas plant in Algeria, which left at least 38 hostages and 29 attackers dead. The two links are raising uncomfortable questions about whether security services around the world will start to eye Canadians more suspiciously when they cross their borders.
“In all good intelligence services, you look at patterns, you look at trends, you attempt to try to weight things, and say, ‘Given the preponderance of activity with Canadian passport holders, they seem to be representing a higher threat profile, maybe we should take other measures,” said Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s spy agency.
Foreign intelligence services don’t yet view Canada suspiciously as a source-country for terrorists, Mr. Boisvert said, but he noted that CSIS said last year that 50 to 60 Canadians had left the country to train as terror operatives. “That’s not onesies or twosies. Secondly, we’ve had two back-to-back,” Mr. Boisvert said.
U.S. intelligence officials have already expressed concern over the Canadian link to the Algerian case, even though Ottawa insists it has yet to see the evidence.
But it’s a problem without simple solutions. The Canadian suspect in the Bulgarian bombing, according to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, came to Canada at 8, became a citizen, and returned to Lebanon at 12 – suggesting there’s little Canadian intelligence could have done to intervene. The case put a spotlight on the many dual-citizens living abroad – an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 in Lebanon. But most counterterrorism experts don’t see links to a pair of attacks as reason to place tight restrictions on dual citizenship – and Mr. Kenney insists that’s not “viable.”
Bulgarian investigators have linked last July’s bombing in Burgas – which killed five Israeli tourists, a Bulgarian driver, and the bomber – to the Lebanese-based militant group Hezbollah. That group has a practice of recruiting overseas sleeper cells, according to Israeli terrorism expert Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. But there are also signs that Hezbollah is using dual citizens to conduct terrorist attacks in third countries, using their real passports so they don’t need counterfeited documents.
“When you come in with your real identity, the risk that you will be exposed prior to your attack is much smaller,” Dr. Ganor said. That makes someone with a Canadian passport a useful operative. “It would be easier to move from state to state, from border to border, with the Canadian passport, than for example, a Peruvian passport.”
The actions of the Burgas bombers demonstrate that advantage. Two of the plotters entered the country with real passports, one Canadian and one Australian. Once inside Bulgaria, they adopted false identities using crudely faked Michigan drivers’ licences, counterfeits so bad that a rental-car agency in Pomorie, near Burgas, refused to rent a car to one of the plotters.
Politicians have scrambled for a response: Mr. Kenney has proposed stripping citizenship from those who commit terror acts, but that’s an after-the-fact, symbolic response – not prevention.
Canadians have seen terrorism threaten their easy passage across borders before, notably after Sept. 11, 2001, when U.S. lawmakers repeated false assertions that the attackers entered the U.S. through Canada’s porous borders. The two recent cases raise concerns Canada’s reputation will be challenged again.
“We should take these sorts of incidents very seriously, but we should not overstate the issue,” Mr. Kenney said, arguing most Western nations have bigger problems with “homegrown” terrorists. The Harper government examined dual citizenship after Canada evacuated tens of thousands of Lebanese-Canadians during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, Mr. Kenney noted. Revoking citizenship for those who leave Canada for years, he said, “is not a viable idea.”
Mr. Kenney said the government is increasing efforts to ensure that those who do become Canadian citizens have greater ties to the country – increasing checks to ensure immigrants have lived in Canada for three years before becoming citizens, and tests of attachment, like requirements citizens speak English or French and understand Canada’s democratic “values.”
One measure expected to start next year, exit controls – so that there’s a record when Canadians leave the country – will help investigators trace people they view as threats, and perhaps prevent the departures of people plotting to commit an act of terror abroad, Mr. Boisvert said. There aren’t simple prescriptions, he said, but Canada does have to worry that its “reputation is taking a bit of a hit.”
“Eventually, it’s going to have consequences.”