Benoit Gomis
Associate Fellow, International Security (based in Vancouver)
Two tragic events occurred in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa this week. While these attacks raise important security questions, they do not suggest an unmanageable terrorist threat, and Canada is well resourced to respond.
Police surround the War Memorial as they investigate the aftermath of the shooting in Ottawa on 22 October 2014. Photo by Getty Images.Police surround the War Memorial as they investigate the aftermath of the shooting in Ottawa on 22 October 2014. Photo by Getty Images.

Terrorist attacks in Canada are extremely rare. Between 2002 and 2013, only one person died in the country as a result of a terrorist attack, according to the Global Terrorism Database. It is fair to say that despite some home-grown challenges, Canada has not traditionally been a primary target of international terrorism.

But this relatively low threat level is perhaps in contrast with the country’s foreign policy. Once a world leader in peacekeeping, Ottawa has recently closely aligned its strategy with the US, strengthening its relations with Israel and intervened militarily in Afghanistan. More than 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces personnel served in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, playing in particular a key role in Kandahar from 2006 onwards. A Chatham House study of 12 Islamic terrorist plots planned or carried out in the UK in the decade after 9/11 showed that the main expressed motive of perpetrators was their anger with the country’s foreign policy, especially its military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nonetheless, Canada has been spared major terrorist attacks since 9/11,partly due to Ottawa’s counter-terrorism efforts. In recent years, the Canadian government has increasingly invested resources into identifying the challenges posed by domestic terrorism. In 2011, the government launched the Kanishka project (named after the Air India Boeing 747 “Emperor Kanishka” bombed in 1985), a five-year $10M initiative that has invested in research on various issues related to terrorism and counterterrorism, including preventing and countering violent extremism. More recently, a High Risk Travel Case Management Group was created to investigate individual cases of Canadians travelling abroad to join extremist organizations and determine tailored courses of action. Six entities were added to Canada’s Criminal Code for their links to terrorism, as the 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada points out.

Following most terrorist attacks, there is often a risk that governments overreact and put in place knee-jerk and disproportionate measures to tackle the threat. Early statements from politicians and media reports seem to suggest it might not be the case in Canada. In his official remarks after the Ottawa shootings, Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted on the resilience of the country. Several journalists have thoughtfully urged for a return to normalcy, through a balanced response respecting civil liberties and aiming to carefully manage and mitigate the risk posed by terrorism.

This kind of measured approach is likely to reduce the probability of copycat attacks in the short term, and avoid creating a whole set of unintended, yet foreseeable, negative consequences in the longer term. However, as always, the devil is in the details.

Policy Pressure Points

In the next few months, there will be pressures in four main policy areas. First, many will demand a tougher counter-terrorism response. In particular, intelligence agencies are likely to push for greater surveillance powers. However, any reform would do well to introduce stronger checks and balances, including strengthened parliamentary and judiciary oversight mechanisms.

Second, security and crisis management procedures at parliament and government buildings, which had been criticized in a 2012 report from Canada's Auditor General, will need to be reviewed further. The fast-growing use of social media by the public, the police, and plotters, is certainly an important component to investigate. As events unfolded on Wednesday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police  tweeted to urge people not to post pictures and videos on social media, in order to ensure the safety of the public and first responders.

Third, there will be calls for tougher actions against individuals suspected of travelling to Syria and Iraq or on their way back from the region. New measures will need to be weighed against their potential counter-productive impacts – for instance, removing online content may have the unintended ‘Streisand effect’ of publicizing the information far more widely, while indiscriminate treatment of these ‘extremist travellers’, the confiscation of their passports or the revocation of their citizenship may further anger and marginalize some individuals. If applied to those currently abroad, this may simply ‘pass the parcel’ to other countries, as the UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation David Anderson QC recently argued.

Last but not least, some commentators will argue for a rethink of Canada’s foreign policy towards a less pro-US stance, pointing that the attacks occurred the same week as the country’s first aerial strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, as part of the US-led campaign. Regardless of the often-disputed links between domestic terrorism and foreign policy, many would welcome a return to a strategic focus on peacekeeping.

Ultimately, Canada is a well-functioning multicultural society where extremism and terrorism remain important yet marginal issues. The country holds all the tools to respond effectively, measuredly and proportionally to the disturbing events that unfolded this week, and avoid repeating some of the mistakes made by the US in the aftermath of 9/11.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback