Terrorism experts say a recent speech by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale provided some much-needed clarity about Canadians who have travelled overseas to fight in conflicts and the few who have returned home.
Speaking in Regina this week, Mr. Goodale said that about 250 high-risk extremist travellers with a connection to Canada have travelled overseas – about half into Syria, Iraq and Turkey, he said, and the rest into Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of north and east Africa.
“Some of them have become battlefield combatants. Others did fundraising, operational planning, online propaganda, recruitment, training and other complicit activity. Some were just camp followers,” Mr. Goodale said.
Mr. Goodale said about 190 of the 250 people who left are still abroad, with many of them likely dead. Some who are alive have spouses and children, he said. The remaining 60 have returned to Canada, but only a small number of that figure travelled to Syria, Iraq and Turkey, and most have travelled elsewhere. He also reiterated there has not been a “recent surge” of returnees to Canada.
Amarnath Amarasingam, a Western foreign-fighter expert and senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said he is glad the minister is being more detailed in his public comments about foreign fighters.
“I think just throwing around the numbers in the past, without disaggregating them appropriately for the public, only led to more people getting more and more freaked out. There was even chatter that there were 60 hardcore ISIS [Islamic State] fighters walking the streets of Canada,” he said.
Mr. Amarasingam later called it “an important speech” on Twitter, because it quells the misinformation he described.
There are still a number of questions that remain about the 60 returnees, such as when the government started counting and keeping track of individuals. And the government has not provided a detailed breakdown of what conflicts the returned Canadian fighters participated in.
Mr. Amarasingam created his own database and identified only two former members of the Islamic State who have returned to Canada and who have not yet been charged.
Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor at Carleton University and former national security analyst, said in a recent interview that one of the issues with returnees is that the number is not static because it’s slightly in flux.
“One of the No. 1 activities of returnees is trying to return to a conflict zone, so that could be why there’s a stable number,” she said, adding that more information is still needed to show how the number of returnees is generated.
Mr. Goodale also raised the fact that a number of terrorist travellers with a connection to Canada are known to be in the custody of Kurds in Syria, which he called a “volatile and dangerous region” with no governance and where Canada has no diplomatic presence.
“It should be noted that while every Canadian citizen, no matter how reprehensible, has the legal right to re-enter Canada, the government of Canada has no legal obligation to facilitate their return.”
Lorne Dawson, a terrorism researcher and sociology professor at the University of Waterloo, said the government has been using the same numbers since 2016 without clarifying what those numbers meant. He said the 2018 public report on the terrorism threat to Canada, coupled with Mr. Goodale’s remarks, are an improvement.
“I think it often created confusion … that there were 180 serious people abroad involved in terrorism, that 100 of them were fighters and that 60 returned who were potentially serious fighters or threats to Canada.”
Mr. Dawson also said the Public Safety Minister is putting more emphasis on law-and-order measures in his recent comments than in the past.
Mr. Goodale acknowledged that evidence that can be used in a Canadian courtroom is hard to get when it’s derived from a foreign war zone “half a world away, in a place that is still dysfunctional and dangerous,” and that Canada’s democratic allies face the same challenge.
But while evidence is being collected, or where charges are difficult to lay, Mr. Goodale said, a “full suite of other measures” are used against terror suspects. The measures he listed include surveillance, interrogations, further investigations, intelligence-gathering and lawful sharing, continuing threat assessments, no-fly listings, Criminal Code listings, the refusal or revocation of passports, terrorism peace bonds and legally authorized threat-reduction measures.
Mr. Goodale closed his speech by saying that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are not the only sources of dangerous extremist violence, and of increasing concern are right-wing white supremacists and neo-Nazis who incite hate, which manifests itself into violent acts.