Intelligence beats heavy-handed laws when dealing with terror, Steven Zhou writes

The climate of fear cultivated by high-profile national and international incidents distracts from the need to have a more details-oriented debate on the nitty-gritties of Canadian national security. The assumption that more security legislation is the answer to terrorism is misleading.

The assumption that more security legislation is the answer to solving terrorism is misleading, columnist says

Aaron Driver, here projected on a screen during an RCMP news conference, was killed after the FBI alerted Canadian officials to what they say was an imminent attack. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

As the Liberal government conducts national consultations on the state of cyber security in Canada, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has passed a resolution to call for the ability to unlock digital evidence on electronic devices. They cite the reliance on encryption by terrorists as a major barrier for law enforcement, which needs more tools to do their jobs properly.

This proposal comes at a time when the federal government is supposed to be consulting with experts on how to evaluate Canada's security apparatus, all in order to reform Canada's Anti-terrorism Act, or Bill C-51. Yet the threat of terrorism, as displayed in cities such as Orlando and Nice, have helped delay the reform process, while more recent incidents, such as the killing of would-be jihadist Aaron Driver in Ontario, have further called into question the urge to scale back Canada's security legislation.

The climate of fear that continues to be cultivated by high-profile national and international incidents seems to distract from the actual need to have a more details-oriented debate on the nitty-gritties of Canadian national security. Each example of terrorism is treated as yet another sign that only more laws, surveillance and policing will help the situation. This tendency has existed for the past 15 years, and there's a good case to be made for a change in the national security paradigm.

Intelligence caught Aaron Driver

That the FBI was instrumental in foiling Driver's attempt to detonate an improvised explosive device in Strathroy, Ont., earlier this month has caused many to question the robustness of Canada's security laws. The 24-year-old was a vocal online supporter of ISIS, militants fighting to establish an Islamist state, which prompted authorities to limit his movement and activities with a peace bond.

The FBI then found a video Driver made 72 hours before police shot him down, where he announced a plan to detonate a bomb. Canadian police wouldn't have known about the plot without the FBI's tip, a gap that's caused many to argue for broadening Canada's security measures and for keeping anti-terror legislation intact.

But the assumption that more security legislation is the answer to solving terrorism is misleading. The U.S. security regime has enough resources to keep an eye on many, many more targets than the Canadian system can. Driver should probably have been watched after he had a peace bond slapped on him, but, as many security experts have noted, the Canadian system doesn't have the resources to do continuous surveillance of that sort. 

So the problem here appears to be one that concerns the distribution of resources, as well as how to impose a surveillance regime on particular targets — something that requires specific intelligence and sound judgment. Coming up with more heavy-handed security laws that affect everyone won't help authorities hone in on specific targets of interest. Instead, the provisions in the Anti-terrorism Act help to encroach on the civil liberties of all Canadians, something that doesn't necessarily need to happen in order to stop individuals such as Aaron Driver.  

Community-based approach

An analysis conducted by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in 2010-11, called "A Study of Radicalization: the Making of Islamist Extremists in Canada Today," concluded that mainstream mosques and Muslim community centres are usually not where troubled individuals become indoctrinated.

Rather, individuals such as Aaron Driver, among others, initially take their steps down the path of radicalization away from the gaze of other community members, who're likely to turn them in to the authorities. And while it's easy and convenient to reduce the radicalization process down to singular causes — politics, mental health, social isolation, religious ideology, etc. — the truth, as countless reports and studies have shown since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., is that different individuals radicalize in different ways.

For Muslims in western Europe, where terrible socioeconomic conditions continue to afflict urban Muslim populations, a lack of social integration may play a bigger role in pushing someone into the embrace of extremism. Yet several teenagers who're well-integrated into their local communities have also tried to leave their comfortable suburban lives in the U.S. to join ISIS in Syria. Such teenagers differ still from those who live in places like Yemen, where American drones have dropped bombs that don't always distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. These individuals have lost loved ones to such attacks, and are moved into extremism because of their anger toward American foreign policy. The examples are too numerous to count, but the point is that there are many different ways to become radicalized. What works to foil one incident may not work for all cases.

Specific targeting of a particular person will involve knowing the details of that person's path, which can shed light on his future behaviour. This kind of individual-specific intelligence isn't going to reveal itself without the co-operation of those who're close to the target. Gaining their trust is essential, and that's not going to happen if their communities view Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies as the enemy. 

Anti-terrorism shouldn't be pursued in a vacuum, away from those whose livelihoods are inevitably affected by the decisions of the authorities. Overbearing anti-terrorism laws don't foster trust at the community level. A different approach or paradigm should be pursued, where policing and intelligence groups tailor their game plan for an individual target based on the information they gather at the local level.

Steven Zhou is a Toronto writer who has experience in human rights advocacy. He has worked for Human Rights Watch, OXFAM Canada and other NGOs.