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Colin Freeze

On Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Conservative-controlled Parliament officially voted to send jet fighters to the Middle East, the legislature will hear from the country's top domestic security officials.

Together, at the House national-security standing committee, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, and Canadian spy chief Michel Coulombe will attempt to explain why Canada is really fighting this war.

And that is the notion – deeply held by Prime Minister Stephen Harper – that if Canada and the West do not hit the Islamic State, then the Islamic State (or "IS") is going to strike Canada. "They have already voiced their local and international terrorist intentions and identified Canada as a potential target," Mr. Harper said in a statement released after Tuesday's vote. "Our government has a duty to protect Canadians…"

Such statements can be contentious. Depending on who you ask, the threat of IS members and sympathizers to North America or Europe is either an obvious danger – or an overhyped pretext that's being used to justify Middle East war.

Yet it's to this precise issue to which country's top security officials now must speak.

The RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service have unique insights about the facts on the ground – how the ISIS threat is really playing out on Canada's streets, and the full range of countermeasures being marshalled against it.

Given this, here are five things to watch for in today's testimony:


To date, there have been no known conspiracies involving IS agents or sympathizers hatching a credible or imminent threat affecting targets on Canadian soil – a fact that, so far, broadly holds true for the United States too.

Yet. Australian and European governments have been dealing with IS-related plots – including a "returnee" who killed four people in Belgium in May. More recently, some IS fighters overseas – including a Calgarian who ranted to Vice News – have been expressing hopes that they or their followers will hit North America.

Yet for the moment, the estimated 30,000 or more fighters aligned with IS in the Middle East have their hands full trying to keep the so-called caliphate they have carved out of Iraq and Syria. And a litany of near enemies – local government forces, Iranian and Hezbollah fighters, Kurds and other tribal groups, and even a gamut of other jihadist rebels – are leaving IS fighters with little ability to develop full-blown plots against the far-away countries, such as Canada, now striking them from the air.

To date Canada's spy officials have tended to couch the threat posed by IS as a potential rather than an imminent threat. "Will they use their terrorist training to attempt violent acts here in Canada? This is a very real prospect," CSIS's Mr. Coulombe wrote in a Globe and Mail essay in August. He concluded that "even if a Canadian extremist does not immediately return, he or she is still a Canadian problem."


While it's safe to say that thousands of would-be jihadists from the West have made their way to the Middle East in the past two years, there is much confusion about the precise ranks of foreign fighters from the West in the IS.

In August, Mr. Blaney, the Public Safety Minister, released a report upholding the same lowball foreign fighter estimates the Canadian government has been using for months. He said that 130 Canadians have been known to be involved in foreign terrorist causes globally of late, at least 30 of whom are in Syria. On top of all this at least 80 "returnees" to Canada have returned from terrorist causes abroad.

If this sounds couched, there's a good reason for it. Probably no one knows the precise numbers of foreign fighters in IS, given how the West has lately whipsawed from vastly underestimating the group, to catching up on, even overstating, its current capabilities.

In the United States for example, the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Mike Rogers, last month claimed there were 100 Americans serving in IS. Yet he was later corrected by Pentagon and police officials, who said the confirmed number is closer to a dozen.

What makes all this a guessing game is that Canada and its allies often lack comprehensive exit controls, meaning officials often don't know who is leaving for where, and when. Ottawa also lacks active embassies in Syria, Iraq, or Iran – a foreign-affairs blind spot which further blurs the picture.

Beyond that, path to jihad can take many twists and turns. Authorities have been known to intercept some Westerners before they even board planes.

And Western women who migrate to the IS territory in hopes of marrying jihadis also represent a quandary in terms of the numbers – should they count as foreign fighters?

Finally, some Westerners who get to Syria join other rebel groups who have a less rabid notion of jihad than IS. And still others who get to Syria try to flee the country after they arrive, realizing the conflict is more complicated than they had thought.


In Europe, where states measure IS recruitment in the hundreds of recruits compared to North America's dozens, authorities have campaigned to shut up some firebrand Islamists and shut down some hardline groups.

One famous example is the "Sharia4Belgium" group, alleged to be a front for a foreign fighter pipeline to the Middle East – yet while nearly 50 people charged in that case only eight are standing trial. The rest are said to be in Syria and Iraq.

In Canada and the United States there is no comparison to such a prosecution – on this side of the Atlantic, relatively more radicals are described as self-starting lone wolves who find their beliefs and travel plans on the Internet.

Yet there are clusters of radicals that have arisen in some Canadian cities, such as in and around Calgary – the home of several young men who knew each other before going off to fight for IS in Syria and Iraq.

Do Canadian authorities know enough about the dynamics at play?


Canada's fight against the IS may just be beginning, but counterterrorism authorities are already under huge pressure to do whatever they can to stop the group and its sympathizers, at increasingly early junctures.

Yet this is problematic on a variety of levels. The criminal justice system is not generally a preventative tool. And while some tough new terrorism laws have been passed, prosecuting terror suspects remains difficult in Canada.

Putting IS members in penitentiaries will be a difficult down-the-road prospect. Authorities usually can't gather evidence from a foreign war zone. Even when known Canadian or American IS fighters appear in propaganda videos and blogs, they usually do so using aliases or wearing masks.

So far, Ottawa officials have formed a "high-risk traveller" committee and claimed to have seized passports from an unspecified number of IS fighter or would-be fighters. Yet such measures are a stopgap that only temporarily neutralize suspected threats.

Measures can go too far as well. In past decades, Canadian counterterrorism measures have morphed into overly expansive intelligence-sharing arrangements or disruption methods of dubious legality – strategies and tactics that spawned judicial commissions of inquiry, whose findings were devastating to the RCMP and CSIS.


The emergence of IS has already led Canada's commonwealth counterpart Australia to introduce a bill that critics say would vastly increase domestic surveillance by spy agencies.

Down the road – though probably not in an election-year Parliament – fears about IS-related terrorism could give rise to similar legislation in Canada.

Currently, Canadian counterterrorism officials are troubled by a patchwork of surveillance laws that they say are in a state of disarray. Parliament has spent a decade debating polarizing "lawful access" bills – laws about wiretapping in the Internet Age – but come to no consensus.

Beyond this, recent decisions from the Supreme Court and Federal Court Judge Richard Mosely have aimed to rein in how federal agencies access and share telecommunications data.

Colin Freeze reports on national security from Toronto.

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