Canadian officials observing ‘flow’ of extremists
National Post… Three years after police disrupted an al-Qaeda-inspired bomb plot in Toronto, Canadian extremists are continuing to seek terrorist training, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said Friday.
Mr. Van Loan said in an interview that Canadian security officials were still observing a “flow” to terrorist hot spots but that Yemen was replacing Afghanistan and Pakistan as the preferred destination.
“We’re having considerable success,” he told the National Post. “But there still continue to be cases of people flowing to — we don’t know for sure [they are] gaining terrorist training — but certainly some of the destinations and the countries that people are going to, there are strong implications that people are still going and meeting up with known terrorist organizations.”
As the Minister in charge of the RCMP and CSIS, Mr. Van Loan is largely responsible for Ottawa’s counterterrorism program. He was commenting a day after an Ontario judge sentenced Saad Khalid to 14 years in prison for his role in a 2006 plot to detonate truck bombs in downtown Toronto.
The Saudi Arabia-born Khalid was one of the “Toronto 18,” a group of young men that trained at a camp in Washago, Ont., in December 2005. The group had also allegedly sought weapons training in Pakistan and intended to flee there after the bombings.
The Minister said he would have liked to see a tougher sentence but “there is also a clear message here that terrorism won’t be tolerated and a clear message to Canadians that we do have a real problem with homegrown terrorism.”
The term homegrown terrorism refers to violence by Westerners who are not formally connected to terrorist groups but have embraced the al-Qaeda philosophy. Homegrown terrorists sometimes seek training abroad in places such as Pakistan, but the Minister said they were looking increasingly to the Arabian peninsula.
“A lot of the activity that’s been happening recently in north Pakistan and Afghanistan has caused a lot of disruption to the terrorist training camps, to the efforts of the core of al-Qaeda and associated organizations,” Mr. Van Loan said.
“And I think that has had some impact on the flow and traffic there. But there are other parts of the world, too, where we are seeing flows of people from around the world who are potentially linked with Islamic extremism, particularly to places like Yemen and other parts of the Mideast.”
Poor and unstable, with three ongoing insurgencies, Yemen has long been a jihadist safe haven but there are mounting concerns about al-Qaeda’s expanding presence in the country.
As Saudi Arabia has cracked down on terrorists, and operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan have come under intense pressure due to missile strikes and the NATO mission, al-Qaeda has been establishing a regional base in Yemen.
This year, the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda merged into al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The group is led by several former Guantanamo Bay detainees who fled to Yemen following their release.
“There’s a great, and I think growing, fear among policy makers in Washington, in London, in Canada and in Europe about what instability in Yemen will mean for the future of a group like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and how this organization will take advantage of that,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University.
Senator John McCain led a U.S. delegation to Yemen last month to discuss counterterrorism co-operation and Guantanamo Bay. U.S. President Barack Obama is reportedly reluctant to release roughly 100 Yemenis from Guantanamo, fearing the move might backfire.
The State Department has said it is concerned Yemen could become another Afghanistan, but Mr. Johnsen said he has not seen any evidence that Western youths have been arriving in Yemen for training, although they have come to study at institutes sympathetic to al-Qaeda.
“I don’t have access to classified material but I follow al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula very, very closely,” said Mr. Johnsen, a PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies who recently returned from Yemen.
“They put out statements and videos quite often and we haven’t seen any evidence that would suggest that, say, fighters from the West are joining al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
Western security officials fear that citizens who travel abroad for terrorist training might pose a security risk once they return home. One of the Toronto 18 is accused of travelling to Pakistan to obtain training.
An agreed statement of facts released following Khalid’s guilty plea said the terrorist group built electronic detonators and was in the process of purchasing explosives when police arrested the suspects.
The bombs were to be placed in rented vans and triggered using cellphone-activated detonators. The targets were the Toronto Stock Exchange, the CSIS office next to the CN Tower and a military base between Toronto and Ottawa.
The attacks were meant as a protest against Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan. The Crown, which had sought 18-20 years, is considering whether to appeal. Nine other suspects are awaiting trial.
Mr. Van Loan said Canadians may be “a little bit complacent” because the bombing never happened but added, “This is not imaginary, it is real.”
“There was an agreed statement of facts in this case that laid out, in quite chilling detail, the kinds of actions that were contemplated and that were in the process of being undertaken by this group. And as a result we can’t be complacent about a very real threat that exists in our society.”