More Canadians travelling abroad to join ISIS, other terrorist groups, report says

The number of people with Canadian connections suspected of travelling abroad to fight for ISIS and other terrorist groups has increased to 180, according to a Public Safety Canada report on the threat of terrorism to the country.

At least 60 people have returned to Canada after spending time fighting in Iraq, Syria

A member loyal to ISIS carries the group's flag in Raqqa, Syria. The number of people with Canadian connections travelling to Syria has increased to 180, a federal government report says. (Reuters)

The number of people with Canadian connections suspected of travelling abroad to fight for ISIS and other terrorist groups has increased to 180, according to a Public Safety Canada report on the threat of terrorism to the country.

That number is up from 130, the figure reported by the federal department in early 2014. More than half of these travellers are now believed to be in Turkey, Iraq or Syria.

The increase is attributed to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's declaration of a "caliphate" — an influential recruiting tool for extremists in the West — in June 2014 and the naming of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its leader. The number is relatively low, given that at least 6,600 individuals from all Western countries have travelled to the region to partake in terrorist activities.

"Canadian extremist travellers represent a small but notable part of the broader international problem," the report reads.

The number of women travelling abroad for "terrorism-related activities" also increased substantially. The report adds that female recruits now account for nearly 20 per cent of all people leaving Canada destined for regions where terrorist groups have a foothold, and many of them are training for combat. Others are bringing their children abroad and marrying terrorists, the report says.

ISIS is now 'Daesh'

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale prefaced the report by announcing the federal government would begin referring to ISIS as Daesh, the Arabic acronym of the group's name.

"This group is neither Islamic nor a state," Goodale wrote.

This puts Canada in line with its allies, Western and Arab alike — including U.S. President Barack Obama — that have opted to use the name over other iterations. The word is hated by the group's militants because it is similar to the Arabic word "Dahes," which means "one who sows discord."

The report comes only weeks after ISIS sympathizer Aaron Driver was killed in Strathroy, Ont. by the RCMP ahead of an expected attack. Driver, 24, was under a court-ordered peace bond intended to limit his activities after the RCMP became aware of his communications with what they said were well-known ISIS supporters in the U.K. and the U.S.

Goodale is now in the final stages of picking a senior adviser who will spearhead an anti-terror program to counter this sort of radicalization, with a new national office opening sometime this year.

Canada is also contributing $1 million to Interpol, the group that facilitates police activity around the world, to help countries on the frontline of this terrorism migration stop the flow. That funding will be directed at boosting the "skills of counter-terrorism personnel" at crucial border checkpoints.

Fighters have returned to Canada

The terrorist threat level in Canada is still classified as "medium," meaning a violent act "could" occur. That classification remains unchanged since the attacks of October 2014 when two Canadian Forces members were killed by men with ties to ISIS.

But the report raises red flags about the potential harm people with Canadian connections could do if and when they return home.

According to the report, at least 60 people who have travelled abroad to fight for terrorists groups are back in Canada.

ISIS has used social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to recruit Westerners to fight in Iraq and Syria. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

"The experiences and intentions of these individuals vary," the report said. "They may have skills, experience and relationships developed abroad that could be used to recruit or inspire individuals in Canada. They may also engage in terrorist financing, helping others to travel, or even planning attacks in Canada."

The violent attacks carried out in Paris and Brussels — by fighters loyal to ISIS — were recent returnees from Iraq and Syria, for example.

"An individual or small group can be inspired to carry out an act of violence in Canada with little or no warning," the report reads. "Even small-scale terrorist attacks have significant psychological and economic impacts."

A spokesperson for Goodale said the government is seized with the issue of returning fighters and is prepared to revoke passports and bar potential terrorists from boarding flights through the Passenger Protect Program, Canada's version of the no-fly list. Charges will also be laid against foreign fighters when there is sufficient evidence.

Twenty individuals have been convicted of terrorism offences since 2002. Another 21 charged with terrorism-related offences (including 16 since January last year) are now awaiting trial, or have outstanding warrants for their arrest.

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  • This story has been updated to make it clear the report lists the number of people with Canadian connections "suspected" of travelling abroad for terrorism-related activities.
    Aug 25, 2016 1:57 PM ET