The threat of ISIS to Canada is real, but Canada's spy agency has no information suggesting it's imminent, CSIS director Michel Coulombe told the House public safety committee on Wednesday.
The comment by Coulombe, head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), runs counter to repeated warnings by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other government MPs that jihadists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could attack Canada.
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"It does pose a real threat, but like I mentioned, we have no information indicating an imminent attack," Coulombe told MPs.
"We don't want to sound alarmist. We're telling people that they should go about their daily life, but we have to be vigilant," he said.
NBC News reported Wednesday that its sources said Canadian authorities tracking would-be terrorists heard them discussing potential ISIS-inspired “knife and gun” attacks against U.S. and Canadian targets inside Canada.
NBC reporter Pete Williams told CBC News Network's Heather Hiscox on Thursday that one of the plots targeted a shopping mall, but that authorities stepped in at the very early stages, before there was even a timeline planned for an attack. NBC sources described the attack planning as being at the "aspirational" stage.
CBC has not confirmed the NBC report. The public safety minister's office says it won't comment on "operational matters of national security."
Coulombe also provided more information about an August report detailing more than 130 Canadians who had travelled abroad to join in alleged terrorist activities and 80 individuals "who have returned to Canada after travel abroad for a variety of suspected terrorism-related purposes."
Some of those individuals could be involved in related work like fundraising or propaganda, Coulombe said.
"I don't want people to believe that we have 80 returnees who were hard fighters in Iraq and Syria, because that is not the picture we have at the moment, although we have some of them."
'We know where they are'
The number of Canadians who have travelled abroad to join in alleged terrorist activities, Coulombe said, varies between 130 and 145. And while others estimate the number to be much higher, Coulombe said CSIS works with facts and has confirmed the 130 who are overseas, as well as the 80 back in Canada.
"It's a firm number that we're aware of. And yes, we know where they are," Coulombe said.
Coulombe appeared at the committee along with Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson. They were there to discuss the risk posed by the Sunni jihadist group ISIS to Canadians at home, and what can be done about Canadians going abroad to fight for it and other militant groups.
The head of the RCMP said the Mounties' record speaks for itself and that law enforcement agencies are working appropriately.
"It's nothing for Canadians to be alarmed about," Paulson told the committee.
Paulson said there are 63 active national security investigations into 90 suspects identified by CSIS.
Blaney said, in response to an NDP question, that Canada won't implement exit controls at its borders, telling MPs that's the domain of totalitarian states.
"Let me be very clear: We are really not contemplating exit controls; we'll leave it to totalitarian [states]," Blaney said in response to an NDP question.
Canada and the U.S. exchange "entry" information on citizens of other countries as a form of exit control; Public Safety Canada's website explains that entry into one country confirms exit from the other.
Blaney's office later clarified that when the minister said Canada won't implement exit controls at the border, he meant Canada would not block people from leaving. The minister does support sharing exit information, his office told Radio-Canada.
The Canadian Press reported last month that Canada was three months behind on implementing a tracking system to stop people in Canada from joining overseas conflicts. Under the Canada-U.S. perimeter security pact, the federal government pledged to begin collecting records as of last June 30 on people leaving Canada on international flights.
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Blaney said at committee Wednesday that the government is contemplating exchanging information with the U.S., as detailed in the government's Beyond the Border plan to co-ordinate national security efforts and ease the flow of goods and people across the border.
"This is part of the tool we can provide our law enforcement agency to have more information on the influx of people and especially those representing a threat. So we are indeed working on information-sharing," he said.
Their appearance before the committee comes one day after Parliament voted to send CF-18 fighter jets to assist the U.S.-led air war in Iraq.
Throughout the debate about the mission, the Canadian government has asserted that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, is a danger to people in Canada.
On Wednesday, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander reaffirmed his department has revoked passports for terrorism-related activities on "multiple occasions." But the minister once again did not give a number.
Conservative MP Darryl Kramp, who chairs the public safety committee, told reporters Wednesday that it's hard to know what lies at the root of homegrown extremism.
"A lot of people feel it's from basically, let's just say, fundamentalist teachings. I'm just not even that sure if that is the genesis of all of this. Maybe part of it is … people who have a weakness and all of a sudden, there's a violent video game and as they grow a little bit older, they outgrow that and maybe think they can take a little dose of reality to some of that fantasy that exists in that world," Kramp said.
"So who knows. I don't have the answer to that, but it is a troubling phenomenon, no doubt about it."
In August, Liberal MP Wayne Easter called on the public safety committee to launch a full-scale parliamentary inquiry into the national security threat posed by individuals who return to Canada after becoming involved with overseas entities, particularly ISIS.