'Small but notable' number of Canadians engage in terror abroad
A “small but notable number” of Canadians have travelled abroad to participate in terrorism-related activities, including to Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, according to a new report issued by the federal government.
As of early 2014, the federal government was aware of more than 130 people with “Canadian connections” who had travelled abroad and are suspected of engaging in terror-related activity, the report says.
“These included involvement in training, fundraising, promoting radical views and even planning terrorist violence,” the report says.
Some of these travellers remain abroad, while others have returned to Canada. Some are presumed dead.
The findings are part of the 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, which Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney released Friday afternoon.
“Terrorism remains the leading threat to Canada’s national security,” Blaney said in a forward to the report.
“Our Government will continue to take all appropriate action to counter terrorist threats to Canada, its citizens and its interests around the world.”
The report outlines terror-related issues that developed throughout 2013 and early 2014 and the federal government’s response.
Syria is the ‘primary destination’
The report notes that while these “extremist travellers” are not a new phenomenon, “the need to address the threat these extremist travellers pose both to home countries and to the countries to which they travel has become more pressing with their participation in conflicts such as Syria, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Syria has become the “primary destination” for these travellers, the report says.
The report was released amid increasing concerns about North American and European citizens travelling to Syria, Somalia and other countries to engage in terror-related activities. Last month, Mohamed Hersi became the first Canadian to be convicted of attempting to travel abroad to join a terror group, in his case Somalia’s al-Shabab. And more recently, a British citizen was identified as the prime suspect in the recent beheading of American journalist James Foley in Syria.
On Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his country’s terror threat level would be raised to “severe,” the second-highest of five levels, meaning that a terror attack is considered highly likely.
While officials did not provide any details on specific plots, it is believed officials fear that homegrown fighters who have travelled overseas to join extremists will return home to launch an attack.
On the threat here in Canada, the report notes that in 2013, four people were arrested and charged with planning terror attacks on Canadian soil. Two men were arrested in Ontario, while a man and a woman were arrested in British Columbia.
Both of those cases remain before the courts.
Other Canadians have been able to join organizations abroad while staying under the radar.
Two brothers from Calgary are the latest Canadians reported to be fighting for the Islamic State. It is believed that Gregory and Collin Gordon, who are converts to Islam, travelled to Syria two years ago.
Back home, Collin was a talented athlete and popular among his classmates, according to a highschool friend.
“Very humble. He was a great athlete,” Andrea Bell said of Collin Gordon. “He was one of the star players on our volleyball team.”
“Everybody is shocked” by his life today, Bell said.
On social media, Collin Gordon calls himself Abu Ibrahim Canadi. In a recent tweet, he called Foley’s beheading the perfection of terrorism.
He follows in the footsteps of other Canadians who have also reportedly joined the Islamic State, including Calgary Damian Clairmont, who was killed in Syria, and Salman Ashrafi, who died in a 2013 suicide mission in Iraq.
Video of another recruit, Farah Mohamed Shirdon, surfaced showing the Calgarian denouncing the West and burning his passport.
“This is a message to Canada and all American tyrants: we are coming and we will destroy you,” Shirdon says in the video.
Shirdon was later killed, according to tweets from other Islamic State members.
Clairmont, Ashrafit and the Gordon brothers all lived in a downtown Calgary apartment building for a time, where they attended a mosque next to the apartment building.
‘Starts with a grievance’
Mahdi Qasqas, a psychologist who counsels Muslim youth, says one grievance can attract a promising young person to violent extremism.
“It always starts off with a grievance, so you’re upset about something, and you feel there’s a sense of injustice. It doesn’t have to be real,” Qasqas says in an interview with CTV News.
A former counterterrorism operative for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service says radicalization is a national problem.
“It’s not like there’s a cell there … it’s come to light now, that the guys from the same general group went over and did what they did,” said Mubin Shaik.
Meanwhile, the RCMP is developing an intervention program to intervene with those at risk of getting involved in extremist activity before it’s too late.
With files from CTV's Janet Dirks