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How faith built a fragile trust between police, Muslim community

Kamran Bhatti, second from right, a Hamilton software developer who has organized five meetings between federal agents and Muslim youth at mosques in the past year, takes part in afternoon prayer in his Hamilton mosque on Wednesday, April 24, 2013.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

A stronger working relationship between the RCMP and Canada's Muslim community is said to have sparked the investigation that led to arrests in the alleged Via Rail bomb plot. The tips came to Canadian authorities only after they spent years working to rebuild shattered trust.

Relations had reached a nadir around 2006, as the RCMP battled perceptions that its terrorism investigations were misguided exercises in profiling. After that, memos started circulating within the force about how the Mounties needed to change their culture and make some friends.

"If we don't reach out to our communities, terrorists will," reads one warning.

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On Monday, the Mounties summoned about two dozen Muslim community leaders to a police station, thanking them for helping to create an atmosphere in which members of Canada's Islamic community felt comfortable coming forward with information to thwart an alleged conspiracy by two men accused of planning to derail a train.

Police say the case is evidence that they have crossed a cultural chasm. "There's been a huge evolution," Anna Gray-Henschel, the RCMP's director-general of federal policing strategy, said in an interview with The Globe. "What really impresses me is the courage people have to speak up."

A civilian with a psychology doctorate who specializes in the softer side of policing, Dr. Gray-Henschel was among the high-ranking RCMP officials who flew to Toronto to brief Muslim leaders, then reporters, on the terrorism bust.

Several of Southern Ontario's more liberal Muslim figures were at the meeting. But some conservatives came too, acknowledging that they are interested in talking to authorities.

"We've been working with RCMP, we've been working with CSIS, I mean, not working in a sense, but we've been, you know, exchanging … co-operating with them," Saed Rageah, a Saudi-raised preacher based in Toronto, said after the event.

Police and members of the Muslim community say they have spent years working on projects that have nothing to do with police investigations – "cross-cultural roundtables," "citizens academies," police guidebooks, outreach events – as well as many frank conversations held behind closed doors.

All this work may be paying dividends.

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"If something were to happen in the country, it's going to affect us all," said Kamran Bhatti, a Hamilton-based software developer, who was at Monday's event. Over the past 18 months, he has invited RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers to speak to Muslim youth at a half-dozen mosques and Islamic schools.

The son of a Pakistani immigrant who worked as a parole officer in Canada, Mr. Bhatti feels he is in unique position to facilitate dialogue. Many immigrants, he explains, come from countries where government authorities are corrupt, even brutal. They can pass distrust on to their children, who don't necessarily understand how Canada's legal system works, he said.

"It takes two hands to make a handshake," said Mr. Bhatti, adding that such outreach events were unheard of a decade ago.

At that time, he remembers, judges faulted the Mounties for bungling investigations that led to several Canadians of Arab descent being tortured in foreign prisons. The fallout from these cases led police skeptics to laugh off legitimate busts – such as the thwarted "Toronto 18" bomb plot – as police profiling run amok.

"There really was a deep need to rebuild relationships," acknowledged Dr. Gray-Henschel, who joined the RCMP's national security program in 2005.

Today, many Mounties devote themselves full-time to outreach efforts. They are told that this work is not about advancing investigations or recruiting sources – it is simply to make friends and build trust.

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Other countries are watching what Canada is doing – in 2010, Dr. Gray-Henschel went to Washington to give U.S. President Barack Obama's national security staff a briefing on how Canadians try to fight extremism.

Dr. Gray-Henschel avoids any mention of religion in relation to terrorism – "Why would we alienate our friends in the community and then empower our enemies?" – and adds that the RCMP have tried to change their culture.

"You build up trust," she said. "Then if there is a person that is a problem, they will call us."

Still, the Mounties sometimes feel they are battling a rising tide. Already in 2013, three young Canadian extremists are feared to have died while perpetrating al-Qaeda-inspired suicide missions abroad – two in Algeria, and one in Somalia. Before killing dozens of innocents, they had been on the radar of Canadian security officials.

Last week's bombing at the Boston Marathon brought terrorism even closer to home.

Safeguarding national security can be a bit like a being hockey goalie trying to keep multiple incoming pucks out of a soccer-sized net, , Dr. Gray-Henschel said. "Terrorism is the only crime where the expectation that there will be zero incidence of it," she said.

"And it's a crime where some people are willing to die while engaging in it ... It's going to be really hard to stop everything."

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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