Oops—Ottawa has suddenly realized we may have a problem. CHARLIE GILLIS and JONATHON GATEHOUSE report.

July 25 2005


Oops—Ottawa has suddenly realized we may have a problem. CHARLIE GILLIS and JONATHON GATEHOUSE report.

July 25 2005


Oops—Ottawa has suddenly realized we may have a problem. CHARLIE GILLIS and JONATHON GATEHOUSE report.

YOU COULD FORGIVE a humble commuter for feeling confused. Not so long ago, Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan was reassuring Canadians that a terrorist attack like the passenger train bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people in March 2004 was unlikely to occur on domestic soil. Authorities at home would surely catch wind of the plotters long before the bombs were in place, she assured reporters a few weeks after that attack, adding: “There is no necessity for Canadians to be in any way unusually alarmed.”

Odd, therefore—and not a little disconcerting—to watch McLellan do a 180 last week and start selling the worst-case scenario herself. With workers still prying apart the subway wreck-

age in London, and news breaking that most of the bombers were born and raised on British soil, the minister spoke ominously of Canadian-based operatives who just might choose to do the same here. And like someone who suddenly finds religion, she seems to have determined that it’s high time for everyone else to repent as well. “I do not believe that Canadians are as psychologically

prepared for a terrorist attack as I think probably we all should be,” she chided. Sound spiritual advice perhaps, but not exactly reassuring coming from the woman charged with protecting the public.

So what happened? A tragedy that almost

The scene in Montreal after the firebombing of a Jewish school

Oops—Ottawa has suddenly realized f1 mWI M Iv we may have a problem. CHARLIE GILLIS

lilt ■ m and JONATHON GATEHOUSE report.

everyone agrees should serve as a giant wake-up call. As details about the bombers’ backgrounds flow out of Britain, our politicians and citizens alike were slowly realizing the warnings we’d heard from security hawks just might be more than lurid imaginings. Not only is Canada a potential target, as we’ve been told repeatedly before, but the threat might well come from within.

Accounts from overseas helped drive the point home, not least because they gave the eerie sense of gazing into a mirror. Three of the four young men identified as suicide bombers had been raised in peaceful, ethnically mixed neighbourhoods much like ones found in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal. (The

computer engineer, is facing charges under the Anti-Terrorism Act for his alleged involvement in a bomb plot foiled by British police in 2004. Last October, Russian troops in Chechnya killed Rudwan Khalil Abubaker, a 26-year-old Vancouver man, who they claim was part of a rebel group. Ahmed Said Khadr, a Torontonian linked to al-Qaeda, was killed in a shootout in Afghanistan in 2003, and his four sons have all been held for their terrorist ties. And past experiences, like the 1985 Air India bombing that killed 329 people, or more recently an act of arson at a Jewish school in Montreal, have provided chilling proof that savage acts can be hatched within our own borders.

In the Internet age, distance and national boundaries are increasingly irrelevant for those peddling a message of hate. Gabriel Weimann, chair of the communications de-

emotions, grievances and vendettas that fuel attacks in Iraq, Chechnya and Israel have been widely exported. Rona Fields, a Washington psychologist who has studied members of paramilitary organizations and terror groups for three decades, says they are generally neither intellectually stunted nor sociopaths, but shockingly normal people. Organizations like al-Qaeda groom recruits by focusing on the civilian Muslim victims of conflicts, fostering a sense of outrage that can be shaped into a desire for revenge. “The image of the victim, the selfless victim, becomes an iconic memory,” says Fields. Sympathizers start to see themselves as part of a marginalized, oppressed group, developing a “we/them mentality” that transcends their ties to their own birthplace, community or even family. Religion doesn’t necessarily play a major role in the process.


—ANNE McLELLAN, public safety minister

fourth, a Jamaican-born convert to Islam, apparently spent much of his life in the U.K.) None of their friends or neighbours in West Yorkshire seemed to have an inkling of the bombers’ plans, or even a sense that they had embraced the views that led them down that path. This despite repeated pleas from British authorities for people to be on their guard, because terrorists had long been trying to launch just such an attack.

Canadians, it could be argued, have been similarly reluctant to heed signs of our own “homegrown” dangers. Al-Qaeda has twice threatened this country, including once in a post-9/11 tape from Bin Laden himself. And our residents have been implicated in several terrorist investigations around the world. Momin Khawaja, a young Ottawa

partment at Israel’s Haifa University, has studied more than 4,500 terrorist websites over the past eight years. “In the 21st century terrorism has changed,” he says. “They don’t meet in training camps anymore. They live in a virtual world.” Targets are selected and researched, money is raised, bombers recruited and trained, all online. Increasingly, that means an Internet café in Leeds is as fertile a breeding ground for a suicide bomber as an Afghan cave, or a suburban Toronto basement.

The cherished belief that Canada’s kinder, gentler values might somehow exempt us from the horrors suffered in London, Madrid, Bali and New York may also be misplaced. Those who study the psychological makeup of militants and suicide bombers say the

“It’s an ideology, not a theology,” says Fields.

Ariel Merari, a psychologist at Tel Aviv University and expert on suicide bombers, says al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups are finding a different class of would-be “martyrs” in the West—people who drift into terrorism because they feel somehow rejected by society. It’s a sharp contrast to what’s happening in Israel or Iraq, where the ongoing conflict generates a large pool of volunteers eager to make what is often perceived as a heroic sacrifice in an all-out war. Merari says he doubts the London bombings are the beginning of endless waves of suicide attacks like those in Baghdad. “The general society in Europe and North America and even their own communities don’t support them,” he says. In the West, it will be more

Security | >


hit-and-run. But as evidenced by the Spanish withdrawal from Iraq in the wake of the Madrid bombings, or the U.S. reaction to 9/11, one catastrophic attack is enough to transform a country’s entire outlook.

All of this suggests the war on terror has entered a new phase, posing pressing questions for an ever-expanding circle of target countries. Do police, intelligence agencies and prosecutors have the powers necessary to fight an unseen enemy from within? Do they have the necessary resources? If so, are they using them?

In Canada, the answer is both yes and no. The Anti-Terrorism Act enacted after 9/11 bestowed on authorities potent tools with which to go after suspected terrorists. Among them: the ability to make arrests without warrants if they believe a terrorist attack is imminent, and the power for judges to compel terrorism suspects to answer questions. Civil libertarians greeted the laws as the framework of a police state, but to date Khawaja’s arrest marks the only time that the act has been used. Five other Muslim men are being held without charge (one, Syrian national Hassan Almrei, has been in jail for almost four years) for suspected al-Qaeda ties under security certificates. The certificates, jointly issued by the Public Security and Immigration Ministers, allow for indefinite detention and secret hearings in preparation for eventual deportation, but that power is useless against Canadian citizens. The small number of terror arrests and prosecutions can be interpreted in two ways, says Wesley Wark, a security and intelligence expert at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies. “It’s either a sign there are only low levels of terrorist threat in Canada, or that whatever activity exists hasn’t been spotted by the government.”

If nothing else, experts say, cases like the London bombings demonstrate our desperate need for better intelligence from ethnic communities. This could mean something as simple as recruiting more staff who can read Arabic newspapers, or who regularly

attend prayer services in certain mosques, says David Charters, a terrorism specialist with the University of New Brunswick’s Centre for Conflict Studies. But it could also mean negotiating with community leaders to help monitor their own. Past attempts by CSIS to do so have been greeted with suspicion. “But there are some people out there you’re not going to be able to satisfy, no matter what you do,” says Charters, and the first step in intelligence-gathering is understanding the mentalities within larger

groups. “You may be able to identify some of the lightning rods—militants in mosques, or individuals taking part in militant activities at demonstrations,” says Charters. “Demonstrating is legitimate political activity, but it may tell you that there’s something simmering out there.”

The next question is, what would we do with that information? Some, like University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper, believe authorities have been too easily cowed in the past by accusations of racial bias to act effectively against suspects in minority groups. “We’re probably even more politically correct than the Brits on dealing with Islamic fundamentalism,” he says. “We need much, much closer monitoring of what is said in various mosques, and

much greater co-operation from the mainstream, moderate Muslim community.” On the other side of the Atlantic, that seems exactly the course Tony Blair has embarked on. Last week he proposed a sweeping new strategy to confront the “perverted and poisonous interpretation” of Islam that is offering encouragement and cover for terrorist activities. His plan, which won allparty support, includes an overhaul of immigration and asylum laws to make it easier to deport some extremist Muslim clerics and screen their replacements, making the “glorification” of terrorism a criminal offence, and new efforts to promote the peaceful face of Islam at home and abroad.

So far, the debate over whether Canada should be heading in a similar direction has been muted. Wajid Khan, the Liberal member of Parliament for Ontario’s MississaugaStreetsville riding—which has a sizable Islamic community—says he still thinks an attack on this country is unlikely. “Our foreign policy is a little different, our Canadian values are a little different,” he notes. “We’re not as aggressive.” But at the same time, he says, there’s a growing sense among Muslim Canadians that they have a role to play in the battle against terrorism. Khan endorses the idea of making the glorification of attacks a crime, and says the majority, moderate Islamic viewpoint must be brought to the forefront in Canada as well. More encouragement and guidance is needed from police, intelligence services and governments, he says. But the responsibility must be shared by everyone. “People talk about these fellows in London being of Pakistani origin, but they’re not. They’re British.”

Khan, who came to this country three decades ago, talks about his own son, born in Toronto General Hospital, fluent in both official languages, a true Canadian. “What were the circumstances with these people who could be brainwashed into killing themselves? I cannot imagine it with my son.” Some horrors may just be too difficult for any of us to comprehend. UH