Paris-style ISIS attacks could hit anywhere, including Canada

Coordinated attacks on civilian soft targets like the deadly string in Paris are a “jihadist fantasy” because they stoke maximum fear and can be executed anywhere, including Canada, experts warn.

Security experts warn civilian soft targets are 'jihadist fantasy'

People react Saturday in Paris near the scene of a shooting the night before, one of a series of deadly militant attacks in the French capital. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Co-ordinated attacks on civilian targets like the deadly assaults in Paris are a "jihadist fantasy" because they stoke maximum fear and can be executed anywhere, including Canada, experts warn.

Wesley Wark, a security expert and professor at the University of Ottawa, said it is inherently difficult to guard against suicide bombs and shooting rampages at cafés, sporting events and entertainment venues.

"You can't harden them through security barriers and use of force. You have to depend on good intelligence and analysis and proportionate responses to known threats," he told CBC News.

"Civilian soft targets are the ultimate symbolic targets. In the minds of ISIS and related jihadist groups, the objective is to sow sufficient fear and discord through terror attacks that countries will lose the will to fight back."

The fact that they cause widespread fear and require tight security at normally open venues makes these types of attacks a "jihadist fantasy," Wark said. While they could happen anywhere in the world, he said ISIS would have a target list of countries.

"Canada could fall on the target list, depending on opportunity, but Islamic State-directed attacks against Canada are less likely than those focused on Europe, including Russia now and U.S.," he said. "Islamic State tried to claim a propaganda victory around the Trudeau government's decision to end its air campaign contribution. We will have to see whether the Liberals will now have to rethink that policy."

Still right to withdraw?

The attacks have already touched off a political debate over the Liberal government's decision to withdraw Canada from the U.S.-led air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In his mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday, new Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was instructed to make the withdrawal a priority, though no time frame was specified.

The NDP supports an end to the mission, but Conservative Party interim leader Rona Ambrose is demanding the Liberal government reverse its decision.

Interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose wants the Liberal government to reverse its decision to end Canada's combat role against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"Canada has been rightly providing both military and humanitarian aid to the region, and we believe it's important to do both," she said during a news conference Saturday.

In an interview with CBC News last week, Sajjan said Canada must contribute to the defeat of ISIS, but he rejected the idea that Canadians should be afraid of the jihadist organization.

"ISIS is a threat, no doubt about that. Should we fear it? No. The Canadian population should have full confidence in all the security services to keep us safe," he said.

But Aisha Ahmad, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said extremist organizations will continue to use the "style" of soft-target attacks to advance their strategic goals.

"The objective of these attacks is not simply to kill people. That's just the trigger," she said. "Rather, each of these murderous acts is a chess move in their global game. We know that they are desperately counting on a particular reaction from the states they target."

As for whether Canada is doing enough to prevent an attack on domestic ground, Ahmad said there is no "magic silver bullet" to deal with this virulent global threat. But, she said, the new government is already building relations with researchers who understand the situation on the ground.

"We will all need to work together to devise strategies on this new, hypermodern security crisis," she said.

Appealing targets

Kyla Cham, a security expert at the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute, believes the attacks in Paris could just as easily have taken place in Canada and that this is becoming the new norm for jihadist warfare.

"Civilian soft targets are often not expecting an attack, and once attacked, are often unable to protect themselves," she said. "This is what makes civilian soft targets so appealing to people who commit acts of terrorism. They try to show their power and strength by targeting those who are helpless."

The RCMP is urging Canadians to be extra vigilant and to report suspicious activity in the wake of the attacks. Wark expects the internal threat level will be raised here in Canada and that security personnel from CSIS, RCMP and possibly CSE will be sent to France to liaise and learn what they can on the ground.


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