Has Ottawa been too slow to take on radicalized Canadians?

The government says it has a comprehensive strategy to deal with homegrown jihadists. But the plan seems more weighted towards punishing than preventing, Chris Hall writes.

Government's plan to deal with jihadists recruits more weighted to punishing than preventing

Canada's Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney (C) arrives with Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director Michel Coulombe (L) and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner Bob Paulson to testify before the Commons public safety and national security committee. (Reuters)

Canada is sending fighter jets to take part in air strikes against Islamic State fighters abroad. That we know.

But closer to home, the Conservative government isn't saying much about its promised comprehensive plan to deal with jihadist recruits who are either planning to go to, or are returning from, overseas conflicts.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney appeared before a Commons committee on Wednesday, flanked by the heads of the RCMP and CSIS, to discuss the government's efforts to combat homegrown extremism.

What he had to say amounted to a recap of criminal legislation the government has already passed, measures aimed at punishing rather than preventing, the radicalization of Canadians.

It's one thing for Liberal leader Justin Trudeau to ramble on about the "root causes" of terrorism, as he did with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge after the Boston Marathon bombing, but no Conservative wants to be heard saying the same.

Instead, Blaney ran through a set of now well-worn numbers.

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Among them, Canadian authorities are aware of at least 130 Canadians suspected of taking part in terrorism-related activities in places such as Syria, Iraq and Somalia. About 80 have returned to Canada.

"I can confirm for Canadians that, as we speak, the RCMP is investigating these individuals and will seek to put them behind bars where they belong," Blaney solemnly informed the public safety committee.

But who these individuals are — what they have done, how they became radicalized — on those matters, Blaney offered little.

Instead, he repeated the pledge made last week by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that additional measures are coming soon.

"Preventing violent extremism is an essential element of our response, and that is why some of the important work is being done in this regard as we speak.''

More talk than action?

It's a standard refrain these days in Ottawa, where the government's statements on the threat posed by ISIS suggest more action than is actually taking place.

For example, the government announced up to 69 military advisers are going to Iraq, though less than 30 are in the country. Six fighter jets are going to take part in air strikes, but where they will be or when they will arrive in the region has yet to be determined.

The same is true for promises to combat homegrown extremism.

The Canadian Press reported last month that Ottawa is three months late in delivering exit controls on those leaving Canada on international flights, a tracking system the government had promoted under the Canada-U.S. perimeter security agreement that was first announced three years ago as a means of stopping Canadians from joining conflict zones.

University of Calgary political scientist Michael Zekulin says stripping dual nationals of their Canadian citizenship may not be much of a deterrent. (CBC)

Other promised measures, such as seizing passports and stripping dual nationals of their Canadian citizenship may be of limited value, says Michael Zekulin, a political science professor at the University of Calgary who has done extensive research on radicalization and terrorism.

"I'm not convinced this deters people,'' he said in an interview with CBC News, noting Canada's tracking efforts seem to occur after the fact.

'Trained in war'

Zekulin compares the radicalization process to a winding staircase, with the top rung representing those who have chosen to fight overseas.

"But how many are lurking on the lower rungs?'' he asks. "We just don't know.''

Zekulin had hoped to hear details of a counter-radicalization strategy announced months ago by the RCMP. He didn't get it.

"The whole counter-radicalization strategy is to prevent the next generation of fighters. We need to get into communities, recognize the threat at home because groups like ISIS are very sophisticated using social media to recruit to their cause."

In fact, Canada is well behind other allies in developing a counter-radicalization strategy. Britain, the U.S. and Australia already have such plans in place.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson says cooperation between his force and CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) has provided timely information that has led to successful arrests and prosecutions in recent years.

"We have about 63 active national security investigations on 90 individuals related to the travelling group — both people who intend to go or who have returned — so the pace and tempo of the operations is quite brisk," he told the committee on Wednesday, adding "that it's nothing Canadians need to be alarmed about.

"I think we are managing through our collective efforts our response that is appropriate to the nature of these suspected offences."

Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director of CSIS, points out that while Canadian security agencies have increased their vigilance, Canadians still wind up in conflict zones.

Are any of these jihadists Canadian? How do we find out? (CBC)

"At the end of the day when they come back there's a good chance they are deeply radicalized,'' he told CBC News. "They are trained in weapons of war and they may hurt Canadians at home.''

For his part, Zekulin also worries that those radicals will become effective recruiters once they've returned. As fighters and as Canadians, he says, they have credibility and a story that can influence others in their community.

So while the federal government is sending jets to stop the spread of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, an important battle over radicalized Canadians may also be taking shape here at home — a battle in which Ottawa may already have waited too long to intervene.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.