Wesley Wark is co-director of a research project at the University of Ottawa studying Canadian national security and its impact.
The Islamic State terrorist group now commands the greatest army of foreign mercenaries in modern history. Current estimates of its size range from 20,000 foreign fighters to a Central Intelligence Agency figure of 31,000. This army of fighters is essential to IS's battlefield power, at least in terms of providing it with cannon fodder, and critical to its effort to recruit believers from around the world to help it build the infrastructure of a state, and ultimately a caliphate. The greatest number of recruits globally for IS has come from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia; from European countries, France, Belgium and Britain are the leading contributors. Canadians have also left to join IS since its dramatic rise to power in Syria and Iraq, although we don't have an exact fix on the numbers. But the Canadian Prime Minister has signalled his belief that one is too many, telling a Montreal audience that "there is no legitimate reason of any kind in this country for someone to become a violent jihadist or terrorist or to join any kind of group that is involved or advocates that kind of activity."
The more that political rhetoric swirls around national-security threats such as the foreign-fighter problem, the more difficult it will be to establish the exact scale of the threat. In reality, the danger posed by the relatively small Canadian foreign-fighter stream is threefold – it bolsters IS psychologically; it conjures up concerns about battle-hardened veterans who might return to Canada to incite and commit terrorism; it puts Muslim communities in Canada under an unwanted spotlight and may create a new set of tensions for them as they work to contribute to de-radicalization measures. Our biggest concern is not about how we prevent Canadian foreign fighters from blowing things up in Iraq and Syria, or even blowing things up if they manage to return to Canada, but how we stop them from blowing up community stability and inciting tensions within Canada.
When the government first announced a counterterrorism strategy in 2012, it used a model borrowed from the British, with four "pillars": Prevent, Detect, Deny, Respond. The respond pillar is meant to ensure a capacity to deal with terrorist attacks that occur on our soil. When the CT strategy was launched, there hadn't been any. Now there have been two – the attacks in Quebec and near Parliament Hill in October of 2014. The one good thing the October attacks brought to light is the degree to which Canadian society poses a strong, innate resilience to terrorist violence.
The Deny capacity, when it comes to foreign fighters, has been strengthened in recent years by a variety of new legal tools to prevent would-be jihadis from travelling. That includes criminal sanctions, passport revocation and the imposition of peace bonds, including the physical monitoring of so-called "high-risk" travellers. The controversial anti-terrorism act (Bill C-51), currently before the Senate, would add yet further to these capacities, including through a strengthening of our no-fly list. Even without C-51's new measures, Canadian authorities had the tools to stop Canadian jihadis from travelling, so we are in a relatively strong place.
The Detect pillar is all about old-fashioned intelligence work, with some new twists. These include the need to monitor social media for clues to terrorist intentions, a high level of operational pressure that puts stresses on agency resources and the importance of being able to work with affected Muslim communities for early warning. The recent Montreal airport interdiction against 10 young Muslims alleged to have planned to travel to the Middle East to join the Islamic State appears to show that detection is working, aided by social-media garrulousness, alarmed families and communities, and heightened security-agency focus.
But what about Prevent? Here, the greatest challenge lies, and potentially our greatest weakness. Some will always slip through the cracks, notably the convicted "Toronto 18" member, Ali Mohamed Dirie, whose incarceration and subsequent release did nothing to dissuade him; who obtained false identity documentation, travelled to Syria and was killed in the fighting in 2013. We risk failure on the "prevention" front if the RCMP's efforts at community engagement do not gain a stronger foothold, if CSIS is too emboldened by its soon-to-be-granted "disruption" mandate and if the government (of whatever stripe after October, 2015) fails to find a better way to justify Canada's actions in the world, especially its international efforts against terrorist groups.