OTTAWA – Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird tried to change the channel Tuesday on a CBC News report identifying the two Canadians involved in January’s deadly terrorist attack at an isolated Algerian gas plant.
Baird, who is overseas, referred questions about the revelations — specifically, why the government has said so little about Canada’s connection to the January attack, which killed at least 38 hostages and 29 militants — to security agencies and his cabinet colleague, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
“Our intelligence services, our law enforcement agencies have been doing some important work and I think it’s best if I refer you to them for further comment,” Baird said during a conference call from the United Arab Emirates.
“I’m travelling in the Middle East right now, and the only thing I can do is refer you to the minister.”
Citing unidentified sources, the CBC said Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, high school friends from London, Ont., were the two Canadians whose bodies were found amidst the carnage.
The report said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service began asking questions about both men after a family member contacted authorities in 2007 with concerns about the pair.
The CBC also said two other individuals from the London area travelled to Algeria with Medlej and Katsiroubas, but it isn’t known if they were involved in the gas plant attack or if they’re even alive.
The RCMP would only say that its investigation is ongoing and that no further information would be released.
Baird was asked to comment broadly on the problem of homegrown terrorism.
“Obviously, this is a challenge that has happened in many parts of the West, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, elsewhere,” he said. “It’s obviously something that deeply concerns us.”
Toews’s office, meanwhile, had no immediate comment.
The four-day siege of the natural gas plant ended when the Algerian military stormed the energy complex.
In the aftermath of the attack, Algeria’s prime minister had said two Canadians were among the band of militants who took hundreds of workers hostage — claims Canada couldn’t initially confirm.
Hostages who escaped recalled hearing at least one of the militants speaking English with a North American accent.
Members of the RCMP were sent to Algiers to investigate.
Last month, the Mounties first said a Canadian was among those killed in the attack, but wouldn’t say if the remains were discovered among the al-Qaida linked terrorists or the hostages.
Police later said the second Canadian was identified from among the bodies of the men accused of being terrorists.
Canadian intelligence officials have said dozens of Canadians have ventured abroad — or tried to do so — to take part in violent operations.
Christian Leuprecht, a professor at Queen’s University and Royal Military College, said the issue raises the question about whether Canada needs a foreign intelligence service that would operate outside the country.
“The fact that CSIS was allegedly on to them shows that both our security intelligence and deterrence mechanisms are working. But keep in mind, once they leave the country, the CSIS Act makes it very difficult to follow them,” he said in a statement.
“Perhaps this is yet another good reason to re-start the debate on amending the CSIS Act to give security intelligence more leeway outside of the country.”
Baird, for his part, highlighted his visit to a local Tim Hortons outlet in Abu Dhabi as part of his lengthy tour of the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
“Today, this morning, we had a great opportunity to visit Tim Hortons with my friend, the United Arab Emirates foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah, which was followed by good and formal discussions,” he said.
In a statement, Baird said that he held talks that will “strengthen and re-energize the Canada-U.A.E. relationship” as part of a strategic partnership.