Arctic terror threats real: security agencies

The chilling prospect of terrorists or other extremists exploiting the Canadian Arctic has attracted the watchful eye of federal security agencies.

The chilling prospect of terrorists or other extremists exploiting the Canadian Arctic has attracted the watchful eye of federal security agencies.

A newly declassified intelligence assessment, obtained by The Canadian Press, raises the spectre of the North as a conduit for international or domestic radicals.

"In recent years, vessels with links to human smuggling, drug trafficking, and organized crime have attempted to access the Canadian Arctic," says the report.

The assessment was prepared by the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre, which includes representatives of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and other agencies.

A copy of the January report, titled "The Canadian Arctic: Threat from Terrorists and Extremists," was obtained under the Access to Information Act. Considerable portions of the document remain secret.

Growing population, traffic

The population of the Canadian Arctic has climbed 16 per cent over the last decade, and the vast, frozen region draws an increasing number of tourists, with some 15 cruise ships operating in its waters, the report notes.

Roadways and other infrastructure are limited due to the sprawling expanses of tundra, but that hasn't made the area immune to crime.

The assessment points out the RCMP works with other federal agencies to monitor incoming people and goods from the North, and a multi-agency border team patrols the Mackenzie River and other Arctic waterways.

The assessment indicates the security agencies are wary of threats from both within Canada and beyond its borders.

"Issue-based activist groups in Canada continue to engage in generally peaceful protest activities to promote their respective causes," the report says. "Some activist groups have also resorted to the use of direct action tactics to further their aims.

"While protest activities by activist groups generally take place in large urban centres, they have also occurred in remote locations, including the Canadian Arctic."

Identified as target

The assessment also mentions that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network has identified Canada as a target on several occasions, though any analysis of those threats in the northern context have been struck from the report.

The document wisely raises looming issues that policymakers will soon have to confront, said Rob Huebert, a political science professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in Arctic studies.

"I find it encouraging, the fact that they are stopping to think about it," he said in an interview.

"The Arctic is changing is so much. To simply pretend that we'll just constantly live in the state of the 1990s when no one could get there and nothing could happen is just wrong."

The possibility of a terrorist attack in the North is highly unlikely, he said. However, foreign extremists could take advantage of spotty surveillance in the region as a means of entering North America.

"They're not going to attack a small-level target when they can attack a big-scale target. But the big concern has always been the North as an entry point."

U.S. notes threat as well

Huebert recalls the 1999 arrival of the Xue Long, a scientific research vessel, at Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., catching Canadian officials off guard — an event that suggests slipping into an Arctic port undetected is not as far-fetched as it might seem.

The RCMP has previously underscored the rapid loss of ice shelves in the Canadian Arctic due to rising temperatures. The opening of viable shipping and navigation routes will lead to soaring levels of marine traffic of all kinds in the area, the force predicted three years ago.

In addition, labour market shortages in the North have prompted employers to turn to a foreign work force which "for the most part is not subjected to security screening prior to entering Canada," the Mounties said.

A January 2009 U.S. presidential directive on Arctic policy also flagged the possibility of security threats. 

It said Washington had fundamental homeland security interests in "preventing terrorist attacks and mitigating those criminal or hostile acts that could increase the United States vulnerability to terrorism in the Arctic region."