Islamist Terrorims in Canada

Written by Dean T. Olson.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada was severely criticized for stating in 2011 that the biggest security threat to Canada is Islamic terrorism. 1Last year, Richard Fadden, then the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), delivered a warning to the Canadian Senate that the threat of domestic terrorism had increased significantly in the past five years.

Fadden warned that intelligence agencies were privy to much more chatter from Islamist terror groups about small scale threats against less predictable targets, including those in Canada. In this context, chatter refers not only to a surge in intercepted communications, such as phone, e-mail and social media, but also includes suspicious movement of suspects and the transfer of funds and information from human sources. It is a measure of collective behavior of suspect groups or individuals that tends to be a fairly dependable indicator of planning for an attack. 2

Tragically, Harper and Fadden were vindicated when on October 21, 2014, Martin Couture-Rouleau, a Canadian convert to Islam, deliberately drove his car into two Canadian soldiers in Saint-Jean- sur-Richelieu, a small town southeast of Montreal. One soldier was killed and the other injured. Couture-Rouleau was killed by police after a high-speed car chase. Two days later, in a spectacular attack on the National War Memorial and Parliament in Ottawa, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, another Canadian Muslim convert, shot and killed an unarmed soldier standing ceremonial guard at the memorial. Zehaf-Bibeau was killed in a gunfight inside the House of Commons.

Couture-Rouleau appeared on a list of 90 people monitored by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and had been identified as a “high- risk traveler.” The RCMP established the multi-agency High Risk Traveler Case Management System as part of the Air Carrier Protection Program established in 2002 to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001 airline hijackings in the United States. Like the (U.S.) Federal Air Marshal program, it places plainclothes armed Mounties, known as in flight security officers, aboard select Canadian commercial flights around the world. 3The RCMP High Risk Traveller Task Force attempts to track radicalized young Canadians at risk of joining foreign terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or other extremist and rebel groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, the Middle East and North Africa. 4

A RCMP tactical group identified Couture-Rouleau, who was arrested in July as he was departing for Syria. Police seized his passport but lacked the evidence to charge him, so they instead worked with his family and imam, trying to de-radicalize him. 5 On October 20, Couture-Rouleau waited for two hours at a strip mall in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu before running down two unarmed Canadian Armed Forces members, killing 53-year-old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. He fled the scene and crashed his car while being pursued by police. Officers shot him dead after he exited the overturned vehicle and threatened them with a knife.

The radicalization of both attackers is under scrutiny as counterterrorism specialist’s work to prevent future attacks. What appears to be a common factor in both attacks are repeated calls from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for Muslims living in Western countries to conduct lone wolf attacks. Farah Shirdon, a Canadian of Somali descent, joined ISIS and burned his Canadian passport. He produced a propaganda video for ISIS in which he explicitly threatened Canada and the U.S., saying, "We are coming and we will destroy you with permission of Allah." 6

Another Canadian and convert to Islam who joined ISIS is known by the alias “Abu Khalid al-Kanadi.” In numerous Twitter posts, he called on “True Canadian Muslims” to launch attacks in reaction to Canada’s help to the international military campaign against ISIS. On October 4, he wrote in his Twitter account, calling Muslims “to fulfill your duty of Jihad in Canada.” 7 Al- Kanadi echoed ISIS official threatening message issued on September 21, 2014, “Indeed Your Lord Is Ever Watchful,” in which all countries participating in the military coalition, including the U.S. and Canada, were warned of the threat of attacks by their own Muslim citizens, who were called upon to carry out the jihad at home, "you will pay the price as you walk on your streets, turning right and left, fearing the Muslims. You will not feel secure even in your bedrooms." 8

Former Canada Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day stated shortly after the Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau attacks that both men may have visited the same Internet chat rooms, where such messages are posted. 9Numerous Islamist attacks in North America and elsewhere have featured car attacks even before ISIS promoted using cars as weapons against Westerners, and it remains unclear at this point whether either man drew inspiration from the group. 10

While these most recent attacks captured the world’s attention and underscored the dangers posed by radicalized Muslims in Western countries, the reality is that Canada has been a breeding ground for Islamist terror groups as far back as the late 1990s.

In December 1999, Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam was caught trying to cross the Canadian-American border at Port Angeles, Washington with explosives in his car. Ressam belonged to a Montreal- based terrorist cell linked to both the Algerian terrorist group Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and al-Qaeda. The cell was planning a millennium terror attack at Los Angeles International Airport. 11 Among the cell’s other members were Fateh Kamel, convicted in Paris in April 2001 of supplying fake passports to Islamic militants; Mokhtar Haouari, sentenced in New York in 2002 to 24 years in prison for providing a fake driver’s license and other assistance to Ressam; Samir Ait Mohamed, indicted by U.S. authorities in 2001 on charges of conspiring to commit an act of international terrorism; and Mourad Ikhlef, accused by Canadian officials of advising Ressam on how to handle explosives and carry out the Los Angeles Airport attack. An al-Qaeda plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris also had a Canadian connection. In June 2002, Canadian law enforcement agents arrested Algerian-born Montreal resident Adel Tobbichi, a.k.a. Amine Mezbar, who allegedly altered passports and other documents to allow members of the embassy conspiracy cell to travel throughout Europe. 12The ease with which Ressam and his fellow terror cell members entered and left Canada, and Ressam’s ability to assemble bomb-making materials in Canada, heightened concerns about border security and the apparent ease with which potential terrorists can move freely from one country to the other. According to the CSIS, terrorists from 50 different international terrorist organizations come to Canada posing as refugees. 13

Nearly 300,000 immigrants are admitted each year to Canada, many of whom seek political asylum and safe haven. In a stunning lapse of security, Canada does not detain refugee seekers upon entry, even those with questionable backgrounds. Thousands of potential terrorists disappear annually into Canada’s ethnic communities. Armed with a fraudulent French passport, Ahmed Ressam exploited this lapse in security and entered Canada in 1994, claiming refugee status. More recently, Canadian security forces have thwarted many localized plots involving Islamist terrorism. Two large-scale terrorist attacks were planned within Canada in the past year, one on a train traveling to the U.S., and one against the parliament building in Victoria, BC.14

In April 2013, Chihab Esseghaier, a resident of Montreal of Tunisian descent, and Raed Jaser, a resident of Markham, born in Kuwait of Palestinian descent, were arrested on suspicion of planning to blow up a VIA train on the Niagara bridge enroute to the U.S. Ahmed Abbasi, a Tunisian citizen who resided in Canada between 2010 and 2012, was arrested in the U.S. on suspicion of involvement in plans to blow up the train. 15 In June 2013, John Stewart Nuttall and Amanda Marie Korody, a couple from Surry in British Columbia and converts to Islam, were arrested on suspicion of planning to use pressure-cooker bombs at the July 1 Canada Day celebration in front of the British Columbia legislature. 16

According to counterterrorism sources, there are currently 63 open federal police investigations into about 100 suspected terrorists in Canada. 17 Since July 2012 there have been several reported cases of Canadian citizens involved in terrorist activity, suspected of participating in terrorism, or enlisting with terrorist groups overseas, some of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda in Syria and ISIS. They include:18

18 July 2012 Hassan El Hajj Hassan, holding dual nationality, Canadian and Lebanese, Hizbullah activist, member of the terrorist cell that bombed an Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria.
July 2012 William Plotnikov, 23, Canadian of Russian descent. Converted to Islam and joined a terrorist group in Dagestan. Killed in gun battle with Russian security forces.
November 2012 Hussam Samir al- Hams, Canadian of Palestinian descent, enlisted with Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades. Killed in an IDF operation in Gaza.
December 2012 Aaron Yoon, resident of London, Ontario. Converted to Islam and allegedly established ties to groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. Visited Mali. Arrested in Mauritania on charges of ties to terrorist groups.
January 2013 Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, Christian converts to Islam, residents of London, Ontario, joined al-Qaeda, killed in suicide attack in Algeria, after participating in the murder of dozens of civilians. Muhajid “Ryan” Enderi, additional member of this group from London, Ontario. Traveled with them abroad and has since disappeared.
February 2013 Jamal Muhammad Abdulkader, student from Montreal, member of Kurdish family from north Syria, joined Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated with al-Qaeda. Killed in suicide bomb truck attack in central Damascus.
April 2013 Mahad Ali Dhore, 25, Canadian of Somali descent, student at York University, joined al-Shabab group, affiliated with al-Qaeda, killed in terrorist attack in Somalia.
May 2013 unidentified individual, presumably Canadian resident, killed in Syria while planning to carry out a terrorist attack on behalf of group identified with al-Qaeda.
June 2013 Damian Clairmont, young Canadian resident of Calgary, converted to Islam, joined émigré brigade in Syria affiliated with al-Qaeda, active in fighting against Assad regime.
July 2013 unidentified individual, possibly Canadian resident, filmed with weapon in Homs, Syria, while fighting with rebel forces.
September 2013 Omar Shafik Hammami (Abu Mansoor al-Amriki), U.S. citizen, resided several years in Canada and married Canadian woman. Joined al-Shabab in Somalia, affiliated with al-Qaeda. Murdered in internal power struggle.
September 2013 Ali Muhammad Dirie, Toronto resident of Somali descent. Joined Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, affiliated with al-Qaeda and killed in action. Dirie was convicted of involvement in Toronto 18 terrorist plot in 2006 and served a long prison term.

The list identifies fifteen Canadian citizens or permanent residents of Canada, two individuals who resided in Canada for several years, and two unidentified individuals who may have been Canadian citizens. Five of the Canadian citizens were Christians who converted to Islam, including two who are suspected of planning a terror attack within Canada, one who carried out a suicide attack in Algeria, one suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda, and one who enlisted with a Syrian rebel group affiliated with al-Qaeda. 19

The export of radicalized Muslims from Canada is currently estimated at between dozens and hundreds. In February 2013, Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Michael Coulombe testified before the Senate national security and defense committee hearing that an estimated 130 Canadians had joined terror groups in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa.

Coulombe estimated that 30 of them had left to join groups like ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Many analysts estimate that number is now much higher. Coulombe also said that there is “very real prospect” that Canadians who have joined ISIS and other terror organizations overseas could attempt violent acts in Canada.20

Islamist terrorism casts a long shadow in Canada. Like other Western nations with democratic principles, Canada’s struggle to contain the threat of homegrown Islamist terrorism will not end anytime soon. The threat is aggravated by Canadians who have travelled to fight in the various jihadi theaters of conflict abroad. The return of battle hardened Islamists and those who have received terrorist training overseas will add to an already elevated threat.

Continued exhortations to violence by groups such as ISIS for alleged aggression against Muslims abroad will continue to resonate with some of Canada’s Muslims. When calls for religiously sanctified violence combine with unmitigated radicalism, especially among enthusiastic new or recent converts to Islam, the results are often tragic leading to acts of violence like the most recent terrorist attacks on Canadian soil.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mr. Olson is the former commander of the Criminal Investigation Bureau of a Midwest law enforcement agency including participation in the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force. Olson is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and is the security advisor for a division of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. His latest book is Tactical Counterterrorism: The Law Enforcement Manual of Terrorism Prevention (Charles C. Thomas).


Foot notes