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CSIS Director Richard Fadden waits to testify at standing committee on national security and defence on Feb. 11, 2013 in Ottawa. Mr. Fadden has told Parliament that the fragmenting of al-Qaeda has made him more “worried” about terrorist attacks in Canada.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The head of Canada's spy service has told Parliament that the fragmenting of al-Qaeda has made him more "worried" about terrorist attacks in Canada.

"Five years ago we weren't as worried about domestic terrorism as we are now," testified Richard Fadden, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, during a Senate hearing on Monday.

He told the standing committee on national security and defence that "dispersed" al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists have set up shop in many grimmer countries, where they call for recruits from the West.

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"In every single case there are Canadians who have joined them," said Mr. Fadden. He added that CSIS, which does the vast majority of its spying within Canada, is "following a number of cases where we think people might be inclined to acts of terrorism."

Canadian citizens have recently been implicated in deadly terrorist attacks against civilians overseas, spawning global concerns about whether federal security agencies know enough about extremists from this country.

Mr. Fadden said that the threat posed by Canadian terrorists "has morphed into something that is harder to get your hands on."

Intelligence agencies are picking up on fewer plans for large-scale attacks against landmarks, he said, but they are catching winds of smaller plots against less predictable targets.

A big part of the reason is that there there are some fundamental differences between today's al-Qaeda and its earlier incarnations. In the 1990s and 2000s, the terror group was concentrated inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, where its leadership plotted dramatic attacks against symbols of U.S. power.

Yet this "core" al-Qaeda has now been reduced to a shadow of its former self. And the affiliates are picking up the slack, getting past their regional grievances to communicate with each other and plot unpredictable carnage.

These once marginal groups – Somalia's "al-Shabab," Yemen's "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," and the Sahal region of Africa's "al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" – are increasingly seen as global players who vex security services such as CSIS.

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"Al-Qaeda in the AfPak area was the directing brain of 9/11; it has been much weakened," said Mr. Fadden. "But on the other hand all of their affiliates … they are much, much more operational than they used to be."

The leaders of these groups are urging their supporters in Western countries to come overseas to join them or, failing that, to become self-starting terrorists who strike at whatever targets they can.

Last month, Algeria's Prime Minister claimed that two Canadians were among the members of a breakaway faction of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that took over a natural-gas complex and held dozens of workers hostage.

The standoff ended only when Algerian commandos raided the facility, leading the terrorists to kill themselves and their captives. Federal agencies are still investigating the claims of the Canadian involvement.

Last week, Bulgaria's Interior Minster claimed that a Lebanese-Canadian was among the key operatives behind a deadly bus bombing targeting Israeli civilians last summer.

Hezbollah, the Shia militant group based in Lebanon and not affiliated with al-Qaeda, plotted that attack, according to the Bulgarian investigation.

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