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A Somali Islamist militant patrols the streets of northern Mogadishu. Somali militants have recruited and groomed Canadians as fighters, and the group al-Shabab recently vowed to launch attacks in Canada.

Lone-wolf terrorists, cyber thieves and meddling foreign states are among the biggest threats to Canada, a top spy official has warned in a rare public speech.

"The threat is not just one of foreign terrorists invading our borders, but of violent extremists developing from within," Andy Ellis, an assistant director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a security conference in Ottawa on Wednesday. But he added that CSIS is going abroad to counter threats, and continues to dispatch spies to Afghanistan.

Six months after the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden and a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, CSIS's 3,000 employees are grappling with the issue of what constitutes the biggest threats to Canada. "Security intelligence is a bit like microbiology," Mr. Ellis said in his speech, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail. "Just as we make gains in identifying and containing one dangerous germ, it mutates in unpredictable ways."

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U.S. strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan have diminished al-Qaeda's core, but the group's "extremist ideology continues to attract and inspire adherents," Mr. Ellis said. Somalia's al-Shabab militants, who have recruited and groomed Canadians as fighters, recently said they were going to take a page from al-Qaeda's playbook and vowed to launch attacks in Canada.

But terrorist massacres in Mumbai, Oslo and Fort Hood, Texas, have also shown that not every terrorist is part of a wider group. "We must keep in mind the lone-wolf or stray-dog threat … These lone actors are some of the hardest to detect and investigate," Mr. Ellis said. CSIS analysts have devoted much brainpower to studying the phenomenon of radicalization, he said, but no one can identify a predictable pattern.

Formed in 1984 as a domestic agency to spy on Canadian extremists, CSIS is also trying to brand itself as a collector of intelligence in foreign states. In past years, the agency has claimed it has helped save Canadian Forces soldiers from Taliban bomb makers in Kandahar. While the Canadian military mission has become a Kabul-centred training deployment, CSIS has not packed its bags just yet.

"The end of the Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan has changed how CSIS focuses its efforts in that region, but it has not brought those efforts to an end," Mr. Ellis said, without going into further details. "Simply put, we follow the threat."

Countering terrorism remains CSIS's core focus, but a more traditional sensibility – countering espionage – is on the rise. "State-sponsored espionage against Canadian interests – and that includes cyber operations – is being conducted today at levels equal to or greater than those witnessed during the Cold War," Mr. Ellis said.

More traditional means of spying are also being employed, including by foreign states who send in "agents of influence" to shape political decisions. "We also cannot ignore attempts by foreign powers to manipulate and use members of certain communities to unduly influence government of Canada policies," Mr. Ellis said.

Sounding the alarm about such activities is fraught with difficulty for CSIS, given that spy-service director Richard Fadden landed in hot water last year for making similar remarks. On the eve of the G20 conference, Mr. Fadden suggested certain provincial ministers had been corrupted by such agents, but refused to name them. Opposition and provincial politicians castigated him when he refused to do so.

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Mr. Ellis did not give much detail on the problem of foreign interference in Canada. "This can be a sensitive topic," he said, before adding that it is mostly "immigrant communities who are the victims" of such activities.

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