Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau: How Canada tracks homegrown radicals

Brazen attacks on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. last week have renewed concerns about homegrown extremists. Here's a look at the agencies watching out for security threats in Canada.

Parliament Hill, Quebec attacks renew concerns about home-grown extremists

An RCMP intervention team was among the groups called in to deal with the shooting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 22. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Brazen attacks on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., last week have renewed concerns about homegrown extremists and the ability of Canadian security agencies to identify and monitor potential threats.

On Wednesday, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau went on a shooting spree in the nation's capital, fatally wounding a soldier at the National War Memorial and entering Parliament Hill before being shot dead.

Earlier in the week, Martin (Ahmad) Couture-Rouleau rammed two Canadian soldiers in a parking lot in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.

One of the soldiers, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, later died of his injuries. Couture-Rouleau was killed after a police pursuit.

The RCMP says Couture-Rouleau was on a list of 90 people under surveillance in Canada because they're suspected of wanting to join militants fighting abroad.

Here's a look at the agencies involved in identifying and trying to neutralize the threat of radicalism in Canada.

CSIS: Canada's spy agency

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) looks for threats inside Canada and is essentially the "clearing house where all the security intelligence threads come together," says Christian Leuprecht, a security expert affiliated with the Royal Military College and Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

CSIS, which is headed by director Michel Coulombe, was recently given enhanced powers to track potential extremists. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

According to the agency's website, "countering terrorist violence is the top priority for CSIS."

Through a combination of agents in the field and electronic surveillance, CSIS investigates threats and produces intelligence for the government.

While CSIS has the ability to monitor a suspicious individual, the way it gathers evidence does not necessarily meet the standards for a criminal conviction, says Leuprecht.

He says that when CSIS feels there is enough evidence on a suspect for a criminal investigation — say, reasonable cause to suspect a person is planning to carry out an attack — it will hand the file over to the RCMP.

CSEC: Canada's cyberspy agency

The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) monitors email, telephone and satellite communications — also known as "signals intelligence" — to identify security threats to Canada outside the country.

While CSEC says it only looks at foreign communications and does not actively track Canadians, the agency has acknowledged that it cannot do its job without gathering at least some Canadian information. 

When it comes to potential radicals, CSEC shares information with CSIS as well as Canada's allies in the Five Eyes, a transnational intelligence-sharing agreement.

'The Five Eyes'

This is the colloquial name for a treaty involving Canada, the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand to share all electronic intelligence on mutual threats.

FinTRAC: Looking at money trails

One of the federal government's priorities in confronting the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threat is identifying people who may be supporting extremist groups financially. One instrument for that is the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, or FinTRAC.

John Forster is head of the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), which monitors 'signals intelligence' outside of the country. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Based in Ottawa, FinTRAC investigates suspicious financial transactions within Canada.

The hitch, says Leuprecht, is that it us up to banking institutions to bring such activity to FinTRAC's attention.

In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, FinTRAC director Gerald Cossette said the centre's main role in Canada's current anti-terrorism campaign is "to respond, basically, to the demand for information from our security partners — be it CSIS or the RCMP."


Bob Paulson, the current RCMP commissioner, recently told a House of Commons public safety committee that his agency is engaged in 63 active national security investigations into 90 suspects identified by CSIS.

Canada's national law-enforcement agency not only carries out investigations of suspected radicals but has also created an outreach program to forge links with Muslim communities in Canada. The idea is to make people in those communities feel comfortable enough to provide tips in the case of suspected radicals.

Lorne Dawson, chair of the department of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo and an expert in radicalization, says that RCMP personnel have shown they are "well-informed, well-intentioned and have the capacity to make sincere contact" with members of the Muslim community.

Dawson acknowledges that some people in Canada's Muslim community are resistant to the outreach because they feel it reinforces a stigma that all Muslims are extremists.

But he says the RCMP's initiative "seems to be working," citing multiple instances where tips from the community have led to significant investigations, including the thwarted VIA bomb plot.

INSET: A multi-agency anti-terrorism initiative

After the 9/11 attacks, the Canadian government formed the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSET) to "track, deter, disrupt and prevent criminal activities of terrorist groups or individuals who pose a threat to Canada’s national security."

Led by the RCMP, these specialized teams include officers from the RCMP, CSIS, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Citizenship and Immigration Canada and police forces at the municipal and provincial levels.

According to Public Safety Canada, INSET teams are operating in Alberta, B.C., Ontario and Quebec.

Local police forces

In recent years, police forces at both the provincial and municipal levels have become more engaged in combatting the terror threat, says Scott Tod, deputy commissioner of investigations and organized crime with the Ontario Provincial Police.

Tod is also co-chair of the Counter Terrorism and National Security Committee, an initiative created by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to share information and training on how to neutralize "violent extremism in our communities in Canada."

Tod says that like the RCMP, police services across the country have created outreach programs to trade information with Muslim communities.

"It's about building trust with communities," says Tod. "There are still people that don't trust and will doubt our intentions," but he says that these programs are "vital."