An unfamiliar war on terror reveals an uncomfortable truth - Macleans.ca

An unfamiliar war on terror reveals an uncomfortable truth

Why we need to adjust our expectations

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Photograph by Aaron Vincent Elkaim; Lucas Jackson/Reuters; DSAI

The current global war on terror seems unlike any war familiar to Canadians.

From revelations earlier this month that a pair of high school friends from London, Ont., died in a raid led by al-Qaeda on an Algerian gas plant, to last week’s bombing of the Boston Marathon, to this week’s arrest of Chiheb Esseghaier in Montreal and Raed Jaser in Toronto for allegedly plotting to derail a Toronto-to-New York Via Rail train—terrorism, it seems, is all around us.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the clash between radical Islam and the West can never be won in the conventional sense of the word. As such, we may need to adjust our expectations of those charged with keeping us safe, and learn to appreciate notable victories—such as the dismantling of the Via train plot—as we lament high-profile defeats in the war on terror.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, stern criticism has been levelled at the FBI for failing to stop Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar. Sen. Lindsey Graham has argued the agency should have had the pair under constant surveillance. “The ball was dropped,” said the senator from South Carolina. “People like this, you don’t want to let out of your sight.”

In early 2011, the FBI investigated Tamerlan at the request of the Russian intelligence service because “he was a follower of radical Islam,” according to an FBI statement.

The FBI says it responded to this request by searching its databases for suspicious telephone communications, online activity, travel history and known associates. It also interviewed him personally, but didn’t find any evidence of terror activity. Presumably, Tamerlan’s descent into radicalism came after such scrutiny.

Canadians experienced a similar sense of disbelief and anger just a few weeks ago, when it was revealed that two friends from London, Ont., Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, were among the dead terrorists who attacked an Algerian gas plant in January. Again, it was revealed that CSIS and the RCMP had been aware of Medlej as early as 2007. He, too, was investigated and interviewed. This information has prompted many to claim the Canadian government also failed in its duty to fight terrorism.

It is certainly a legitimate question to ask what the security agencies found in their first encounters with the two now-dead terrorists. Did they overlook obvious warning signs of future violence? Possibly. Should greater attention have been paid to their subsequent behaviour? In hindsight, yes.

And yet the attitude promoted by Sen. Graham and others pointing fingers at the FBI, RCMP and CSIS—that every act of terrorism is preventable and anyone who has ever been accused of radicalism or who has adopted a strict religious outlook must be watched forever—raises uncomfortable prospects for individual freedom within a democracy.

To what extent are we prepared to sanction East German-style surveillance of the general populace in order to fight an elusive foe? Recall that, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, nearly one in every 60 East Germans was either working or informing for the Stasi, or secret police. And the files produced by this massive intelligence-gathering system recorded even the most mundane aspects of everyday life for millions of citizens, from smoking habits and food preferences to the route their children took to school.

The uncomfortable truth is that small, independent groups intent on spreading terror among the general public will always be difficult to catch. Security resources are, regrettably, finite. And the practitioners of terror are constantly innovating. The bombing of a public race, notable for large numbers of gym bags strewn around the finish line, was a new twist in the terrorists’ playbook.

It’s also worth noting that our current spate of domestic terrorism is not unprecedented. During the 1960s and ’70s groups with such divergent objectives as the Ku Klux Klan, FLQ and Weather Underground all used bombs to intimidate the public. “The comparative tranquility of the last decade has led to some unrealistic expectations,” says Brian Michael Jenkins, a former presidential adviser and now a security expert for the RAND Corporation. Whether promoting radical Islam or some other cause, there will always be a tiny minority prepared to use violence to advance its cause.

That said, we ought to recognize that Canadian and American law enforcement agencies have done a creditable job in protecting us with the tools at hand. The foiling of this week’s train plot should be considered a notable success, representing a combination of dedicated police work, inter-agency co-operation, sophisticated intelligence gathering and public assistance. A tip provided by a Toronto-area imam concerned about Jaser’s efforts at radicalizing youths apparently played a role in this case. The swift identification and tracking down of the Tsarnaevs after the bombing should be considered another positive achievement.

The current situation also points to the need for constant review of our anti-terror laws. The Harper government’s proposed Combating Terrorism Act would reinstate the now-expired ability of police to make preventative arrests and conduct investigative hearings with respect to terror activity, and would create the new offence of leaving the country to commit terrorism abroad. Is this good policy? From today’s perspective, it seems so, but we need to have these debates regularly.

With luck, hard work by law enforcement agencies and constant vigilance from the public at large, most future attacks in the war on terror may be prevented. But it seems unreasonable to expect no more lives will be lost. This war is not over.