The Edmonton police will be setting up a counterterrorism unit as law enforcement across Alberta struggles to investigate an unprecedented number of terror suspects and threats.
Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht, once the second-in-command at the RCMP, says federal and local resources are stretched thin in Alberta's capital city as police investigate jihadi recruiters and financiers, and terror conspiracies.
The move comes as municipal police forces across the country are being asked to do more to stop Canadian extremists, and as the RCMP is pulling hundreds of officers from drug and crime probes and transferring them to counterterrorism efforts.
"We're seeing significant threats, pedal to the metal," Chief Knecht told The Globe and Mail on Friday. "Even in my time with the RCMP, it has never been as busy as it is now from a counterterrorism perspective. Resourcing is stretched to the limit."
The creation of the specialized unit in Canada's northernmost provincial capital is a sign of the times, when the threats of radicalization and terrorist acts are no longer limited to the largest cities. While around 10 Edmonton officers are currently committed to counterterrorism work, they have yet to be put together in a designated section. That will change "immediately," said Chief Knecht, who will transfer more officers from low-priority areas to staff the new unit. "Certain things that we've invested in historically, we're going to stop doing," he added, allowing that they haven't determined those areas yet.
The spike in terror-related investigations comes as Alberta police are already dealing with the effects of mass layoffs on the oil patch. Calls to police in Edmonton are up nearly 10 per cent this year, fuelled by a sharp increase in domestic-violence calls and property crimes. The Edmonton force will receive 35 new officers this year; Chief Knecht says he needs at least 300 more.
Canadian municipal police forces do not generally have units dedicated solely to fighting terrorism. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the federal government created specialized squads in Canada's biggest cities known as Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSET). Led by the RCMP, the squads include local police as well as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Nearly all big-ticket terrorism prosecutions since 2001 in Canada have relied on INSET investigations. The list includes the so-called "Toronto 18" investigation of 2006 and, more recently, thwarted plots to bomb a VIA Rail passenger train in Ontario and the legislature in B.C. Each of these probes involved dozens, sometimes hundreds, of officers working together to conduct "sting" operations – with undercover agents who sometimes helped entice extremists to cross lines of criminality.
Terrorism investigations are complex and labour-intensive by nature. Suspects tend to exist in what police call the "pre-criminal space" – meaning there are no grounds for immediate arrest. Rather, cases have to be built painstakingly around information flowing from confidential or secret sources.
Lately, some police have wondered if the centralized INSET model works when extremists seem to be popping up in all corners of the country at once.
"The expectation on INSET has grown so dramatically I can't see how they could possibly keep up on their own," said Vern White, a former Ottawa police chief turned Senator. "I think municipal services are at the point where they are going to have to pick up the ball."
Edmonton has no plans to stop working with the INSET team based in Alberta, but the RCMP-led unit is struggling for resources, Chief Knecht says. The RCMP's Alberta division would not provide specifics on the number of officers deployed to Calgary and Edmonton as part of the provincial INSET team, only confirming that the number has grown over the past year to meet increased demands.
"Historically, the thinking is that the problem is in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver," Chief Knecht said. "The message now is that the threat can be anywhere."
The officer-in-charge of Alberta's INSET team put out a call on Wednesday, asking Albertans to notify authorities when they see signs of radicalization in friends or family. "Making the call might be difficult, but not as hard as dealing with what might happen if you don't pick up the phone," wrote Insp. John Baranyi, warning that individuals might engage in violence if authorities aren't notified.