Quebec terror decision lauded as proof Canadian authorities have tools they need

A Montreal man's conviction this week of trying to join the terrorist group ISIS is being heralded by intelligence experts as proof Canadian laws can deal with national security threats.

Ex-CSIS analyst warns other Quebecers could also be looking to join terrorist groups abroad

Ismael Habib, 29, is accused of trying to leave the country to commit terrorist acts. (Facebook)

A Montreal man's conviction this week of trying to join the terrorist group ISIS is being heralded by intelligence experts as proof Canadian laws can deal with national security threats. 

The significance of Monday's ruling is also heightened by the belief of some observers that many more Quebecers could be seeking to take part in terrorist activities overseas.

Ismael Habib, 29, is the first adult to be found guilty following a trial of a new Canadian law that prohibits people from trying to leave Canada to participate in the activities of a terrorist group.

"My reaction was very, very positive, in fact I was quite thrilled," said Phil Gurski, a former CSIS analyst and author of several publications dealing with terrorism. 

"I thought it showed a few things: First and foremost that the Canadian justice system does take terrorism and the threat of terrorism seriously."

But Habib's conviction also demonstrated that investigators have the tools at their disposal to gather the evidence they need to secure a guilty verdict, he said. 

​"The evidence stands the court's test and it can be used to get a conviction," he added.

The law, section 83.181, was created by the Harper government in 2013. Habib's case is the first time the law was tested in an adult's trial: a 2016 case saw an Ontario man plead guilty to the charge and an earlier case in Quebec youth court saw a teenager found guilty of the same section.

"We are very satisfied," federal prosecutor Lyne Décarie said Tuesday.

Ismael Habib speaks to an undercover officer during a Mr. Big sting. (Court Evidence)

Mr. Big tactic helpful to get confession

The Crown and investigators have two reasons to celebrate: the guilty verdict, and an earlier decision in the Habib trial that allowed evidence obtained through a controversial police tactic.

In the weeks leading up to his February 2016 arrest, undercover RCMP officers were buddying-up with the would-be terrorist.

They asked about his motives, his contacts and his eventual goals.

The undercover operation culminated in a Mr. Big sting, wherein an undercover officer pretending to be a crime boss teased out a confession. Unbeknownst to Habib, a camera was rolling.

During the sting, Habib admitted to wanting to go to Syria to join ISIS, to his willingness to die for God and spoke of how his religious convictions compelled him to live under sharia law.

The defence challenged the admissibility of the confession, but the judge ruled otherwise. Though the prosecution had evidence to corroborate the confession, the taped interview was the Crown's smoking gun.

Gurski said it makes sense to use the Mr. Big sting in the context of a national security investigation.

"You're trying to determine what the person's actual intent and capability are. I think that's a very, very valid police tool to use," he said.
Crown prosecutor Lyne Décarie in the Montreal courthouse in November 2016. (CBC)

Investigation still ongoing

In the middle of the trial, the Crown let slip that the RCMP investigation that led to Habib's charges was still ongoing.

They may not have initially intended to arrest him last February at all. Habib was arrested by local police in his home in Gatineau, Que. following an apparent domestic altercation with his girlfriend.

Once he was in custody, he was slapped with the terrorism-related charge.

Court documents show Habib's links to terrorism were being investigated under an operation called Projet Solaire, but the RCMP won't talk about what that is, who it's targeting or whether more arrests are coming.

But RCMP spokesman Cst. Erique Gasse confirmed Tuesday that the investigation is ongoing.

Gurski believes the RCMP is looking into other possible foreign fighters from Quebec.

"I do know that there are a number of Quebecers that have been identified as expressing an interest in travelling outside of Canada to join groups like the Islamic State [ISIS]. That's not a state secret, that's pretty open," he said.

"I'm not surprised at all that Habib was part of a larger investigation, because open-source information indicates that the problem is much bigger than just him in the province in Quebec."