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Members of Canada's Joint Task Force 2 unit escort three detainees on Jan. 21, 2002, as they arrive at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. (Associated Press/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) is Canada's elite special operations unit responsible for counterterrorism.

JTF2 consists of volunteers from three branches of the Canadian Armed Forces. The name comes from the military's standard designation for units that are made up of service members from more than one branch of the military. For example, the multi-branch force responsible for military operations in Northern Canada is called Joint Task Force (North).

JTF2 began in 1993 when it took over counterterrorist duties from the Special Emergency Response Team of the RCMP. Its Canadian base is Dwyer Hill Training Centre in Ottawa's rural west end.

This is Canada's special force, our elite fighters. They are selected and trained as rigorously as any elite force in the world, which includes Britain's Special Air Service (SAS) and, in the United States, the Green Berets, Rangers and Delta Force.

The force consists of combatants, which the unit calls assaulters, as well as support personnel and specialists. JTF2 recruits members from the army, navy and air force. The group says marital status and gender have no bearing on the selection process, although it's not known if there have been female members. Tattoos and other identifying marks are fine, JTF2 says, but members of the Canadian Forces with criminal records must receive a pardon before applying.

While the Canadian government and military are still highly secretive about JTF2's numbers and deployments, the veil of secrecy has slipped somewhat. The group has a website, for example, complete with recruitment posters, FAQs and a section debunking myths about JTF2.

In Afghanistan in 2002

The unit was part of the international coalition of special ops forces in Afghanistan, called Take Force K-Bar, from December 2001 to November 2002. The task force was under the command of the U.S. special forces and included members from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Germany and Denmark.

About 40 members of JTF2 were deployed, but the government at the time didn't announce their involvement. Canada's participation in the mission came to light after a photograph was published of JTF2 members escorting detainees off a military aircraft.

Task Force K-Bar took part in 42 reconnaissance and surveillance missions, as well as what U.S. military authorities call "direct action" operations. JTF2 soldiers were part of commando operations that killed at least 115 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters and captured 107 senior Taliban leaders over a six-month period.

The task force earned a commendation for heroism in 2004 from U.S. President George W. Bush.

JTF2 says this was the first time the unit was deployed in a "major combat role" outside of Canada. It is believed JTF2 was on the ground before 2001 in Kosovo, finding important targets and using lasers to guide military aircraft and smart bombs toward them.

In Haiti, Iraq and Vancouver

Canada sent nine members of JTF2 to Haiti in 2004 during the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to provide security at the Canadian Embassy and the airport.

In July 2005, Gen. Rick Hillier, the chief of defence staff, confirmed that members of JTF2 would be part of a new Canadian deployment heading to Afghanistan to fight the remnants of the Taliban and supporters of al-Qaeda.

During this time, JTF2 was attached to an U.S. special forces command based in Kandahar and took its direction from the Americans.

In 2006, Pentagon sources told CBC News that JTF2 was involved in the rescue of three peace workers held hostage in Iraq for four months. Neither Prime Minister Stephen Harper nor the Department of National Defence would comment on those reports.

In 2009, Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, commander of the Canadian navy, told a parliamentary defence committee that JTF2 would help provide security for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. "Special operations forces will be assigned to support the operation of the Vancouver Olympics," said McFadden.

Besides counterterrorism missions, JTF2 provides personal security for VIPs in combat zones, as when Harper went to Afghanistan in May 2007.

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Master Cpl. Anthony Klumpenhouwer, 25, from Listowel, Ont., died after a fall from a communications tower in Kandahar in 2007. ((Department of National Defence))

"Our job is to eliminate the risk, but over here it's impossible to eliminate all of the risk all of the time. We can only minimize the consequences," a member of JTF2 told a reporter at the time.

The Canadian military has acknowledged one death of a member of the task force. Master Cpl. Anthony Klumpenhouwer, a signals technician from Listowel, Ont., died after a fall from a communications tower in Kandahar in April 2007.

It wasn't until September 2010 that the military publicly acknowledged that Klumpenhouwer was knocked unconscious by an unexpected surge of electricity in the tower before his fall.

"No negligence was involved in the incident," said Maj. Paule Poulin, a spokesman for the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service.

With files from The Canadian Press