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Take with grain of salt reports of Canadian extremist deaths: CSIS head

CSIS director Michel Coulombe shown March 9, 2015 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Experience has taught the head of the country's spy agency that reports of suspected Canadian extremists being killed overseas should be taken with a grain of salt.

Michel Coulombe, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says claims of Canadians killed fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant have in the past turned out to be wrong.

Coulombe, testifying Monday before the Senate defence and security committee, wouldn't comment specifically on the case of Owais Egwilla, an Ottawa-area university student whose cleric father encouraged Libyans to "take part in jihad."

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Published reports say Egwilla was a member of the Omar Al-Mukhtar Brigade militia — something the spy director would not confirm. Nor would he say whether the young man — or his father Abdu Albasset Egwilla, a Libyan-Canadian cleric — had been under surveillance.

"I'm not saying that I doubt this person is dead," he told reporters following the hearing. "What I've said and we've seen this a number of times, people are reported as being killed, just to resurface two, three, four weeks, a month later on Twitter or Facebook."

Word of Egwilla's death came through social media from accounts associated with Libyan fighters. He was reportedly killed fighting government forces near the embattled city of Benghazi.

The situation in many failed states is chaotic and Coulombe says the agency attempts to verify extremist deaths.

"All I'm saying, and I'm not talking specifically this last report from Libya, we have to be really careful before jumping to the firm conclusion that somebody was killed," he said.

Foreign Affair Minister Stephane Dion confirmed his department was aware of the report, but couldn't shed any more light on it.

"We are looking at that, but I have no details to communicate," he said.

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About 180 Canadians are suspected of being involved in terrorist-related activities overseas, approximately 100 of whom are in Iraq and Syria, the director testified, repeating numbers that were recently updated and released.

An additional 60 are reportedly back in Canada after taking part in extremist activities and roughly 90 would-be jihadists are attempting to leave the country to join the fighting in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

Conservative Sen. Daniel Lang was mystified at the notion people who had potentially taken part in terrorist activities abroad or were known sympathizers are allowed to walk the streets.

"My understanding is, it's against the law," he said. "Am I missing something here?"

Dealing with suspected terrorists is the job of law enforcement, particularly the RCMP, Coulombe said.

He did say, however, that much of the surveillance information gathered by CSIS does not meet the threshold of the justice system and it's up to the Mounties to build a criminal case.

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The director said gathering evidence of terrorist activity — acceptable to a Canadian court — in countries torn by violence and civil war is extremely difficult.

"It's not a simple task," he said. "The RCMP would be better placed to explain the challenges."

Coulombe also revealed Monday that the spy service's newly enhanced powers to disrupt terrorist activity under the former Harper government's Bill C-51 have been used on a half-dozen occasions.

But he underlined that the "threat-reduction measures" used were carried out without the need for a Federal Court warrant and in some cases simply involved letting suspects know they were under suspicion.

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