Al Qaida threatened attacks against Canada in 2006 as Canadian troops fought in Afghanistan. There were terrorists, terrorist facilitators, and active plots, but in the end, no successful attack. Canadians had reason to hope that alert defences, good intelligence, and a strong common identify and values would continue to be a deterrent.

This hope was not naïve, but the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere have generated the rise of forces even more extreme than al Qaida. Western and Middle Eastern countries alike have seen large numbers of young men leave, inspired by religious fervor, ethnic pride, and a belief they were on the side of right.

This immediately raised the question of what would happen when the fighters returned, possibly more inspired by Islamic extremism than before, but now experienced with sophisticated weapons systems and explosives. Would they bring home a determination to commit terrorist attacks?

Official estimates are that there are about 160 Canadians with militias, with 30 in Syria. Two Canadians were identified as participating in the January 2013 attack on the gas plant near Amenas, Algeria.

How many will return, and to do what? Casualty rates in the battle zones in the Middle East and North Africa are high. Those who do return may be thankful to be alive and want no more of violence. Some may have PTSD, traumatized by what they have seen, or worse, what they have done.

But if only a small portion of those who leave Canada return with terrorist intentions, then Canada will experience more attacks, and they will be carried out by professionals careless of their own lives and those of others.

As the October attacks demonstrate, a second danger exists from those prevented from going abroad.

Identifying those who are abroad, or intend to go, will require close cooperation between Canadian security agencies, parents, and Islamic religious leaders. Will this cooperation be there?

The answer should be yes. While some parents and religious leaders will not be troubled by the departure of young men to fight a holy war, many more will see fanaticism, religious misunderstanding, and above all, the loss of their sons or daughters. A young man who succeeds in travelling to join an extremist militia will probably succeed in being killed. For those not killed, serious wounds, psychological stress, and the real possibility of pursuit for terrorist activities, will destroy their future in Canada.

Others may be under suspicion of committing atrocities and actively sought for prosecution. Even those who succeed in returning to Canada without physical or psychological damage will find it difficult to build an ordinary life. They will be detained, or watched, for a very long time.

Security and intelligence agencies now have to prepare for the worst, without any easy means of estimating the ultimate nature of the threat. The possibility of further violent attacks within Canada is clear, but how do we calculate the extent of the danger. We can’t know without more experience what threat is posed by returnees. Those unable to go abroad may hide their intentions, knowing any kind of signal of intent, or evidence of radicalization, will bring close scrutiny.

The cost of the uncertainty we now face in Canada is very real. Security agencies want more powers – but Canada still lacks the open accountability balance that would make Canadians comfortable with the privacy and security tradeoff. Most government buildings in Ottawa are more vulnerable than the Parliament Buildings to an armed assailant, but the financial costs of substantially increased security are high.

Canadians are still not completely settled in their minds on the nature of terrorism. After the October attacks commentators asked if the attacks were criminal, the result of mental disturbance, or terrorism. All terrorist attacks are criminal in their substance, but criminal and terrorist acts have different motives. The October attacks were deliberate murder, but in both cases the public evidence makes it clear they were carried out for terrorist reasons – violent religious extremism. If the perpetrator of an attack is mentally disturbed, this will have an impact if he or she is captured, but the nature of the attack is unchanged. The distinction between criminal, terrorist and mentally unbalanced motivations is a significant one, but the significance varies depending on whether we are looking at prevention, protective measures, or legal consequences.

Attacks within Canada have now become a reality, and the risk of others is high. We must hope that the civic glue that has made us a stable society continues to hold, and makes the challenges for security forces manageable.

The odds are no longer on the side of immunity.
CASIS Symposium January 23, 2015. “The Adversaries: Russian, Chinese and Western Geopolitical Agendas and Intelligence Systems.” For the program see