So far, all indications are this may just be a summer with few surprises. This week, the Harper government is making announcements about the billions of dollars to be spent on the military, commitments made earlier by the Liberals. And then there’s another story that is likely to resurface, which just may have a serious impact for/on Canada’s foreign, and possibly immigration, policies. It involves 17 terror suspects.
I’ve written about this issue, and a version of my piece, which follows, appears in the upcoming issue of Belgrade’s Vreme
(as Kandski dzihad - Terorizam u domacoj radinosti
by Sten Markovic
). Canada’s Terrorist 17?
According to estimates, Canada has a Muslim population of roughly 750,000. Almost all of these people were shocked and outraged by what recently took place. Islamic Community leaders stress they do not condone violence, and over the past days have renewed calls for public officials and law enforcement agents to join with them in efforts to combat radicalism.
And Canadian government leaders have also said those who have been apprehended conspired, but their actions had nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with faith.
Some of the details remain murky, but what we do know is that beginning 2 June 2006 police launched a wave of arrests in southern Ontario that eventually led to a total of 17 alleged terrorists being rounded up. All are either Canadian-born or have legal status, resulting in what many officials have dubbed “a home-grown” terror threat. Five of the accused are just youths, high school students. Canadian privacy laws protect their identities.
For at least several days, these developments not only made headlines across Canada, but much of the world as well. At first many Canadians seemed to be in shock over what had been planned. In a rather surprising twist, it was an attorney for at least one of the accused who went public with the news that his clients would be accused of kidnapping leading politicians; blowing up key targets, including Parliament or possibly the Toronto Stock Exchange and other landmarks; demanding that Canada withdraw its roughly 2,300 soldiers from Afghanistan or face dire consequences; and attempting to carry out a plot to kidnap and behead the Prime Minister.
Some information about the accused is now on the public record. The leader, or spiritual mentor, appears to be the eldest of the group. He’s 43-year-old Qayyum Abdul Jamal, originally from Pakistan. He led prayers, occasionally, at Mississauga’s Al-Rahman Islamic Centre Mosque and presumably converted the 16 others to radical causes. There at the Al-Rahman Mosque this reportedly sullen man was known for impassioned rhetoric emphasizing sacrificing for Islam, and for stressing the point of view that Muslim peoples remain the targets of Western repression. The first two to be arrested, in a warehouse while making preparations for deploying a truck bomb, were 19-year-old Saad Khalid and a youth co-conspirator. Steven Vikash Chand, alias Abdul Shakur, is reported to have some military training, having served in the Royal Regiment of Canada.
Within days of the arrests, it became clear to some people that the apprehended may not have been the most competent of radicals. The group may have been extremely motivated, but they were lacking when it came to any ability to carry out their schemes. In fact, some might suggest that much of how they operated undermines claims of this cell being a dire threat to public safety and national security. First of all, the gang seemingly conspired in broad daylight, with undercover agents being aware of their operations at least six months ago, and possibly even as far back as two years ago. Some of their tactics were utterly outlandish, involving such schemes as deploying remote controlled model cars, completely outfitted with lethal explosives. Then there are reports of at least one of the suspects insisting on taking pilot training prior to be talked out of that approach, after being reminded that such tactics just might draw too much unwanted attention from authorities. And, when Khalid and his accomplice were arrested, they were preparing cardboard boxes for what they thought would be a shipment of three tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer to be used to destroy a target building. In fact, Canadian security agents, aware of the plot down to seemingly every detail, managed to intervene and substitute the fertilizer with a completely harmless substance. Just as Khalid and his associate were preparing a bomb that might have contained three times as much fertilizer as used in the Oklahoma bombing, police descended and rounded up the 17 during the course of the evening of 2 June.
Then there are supposedly divisions among the conspirators, which, unconfirmed reports suggest, were conveyed in email messages and chat room discussions. Some wanted to bomb targets, while others allegedly wanted to make use of firearms in kidnappings. There was possibly much discussion before a compromise was reached, as the woud-be terrorists agreed on both guns and bombs. But again, many of the discussions were carried out across the internet, in broad daylight, with security officials monitoring.
The fact that no one was hurt may also be a factor contributing to the arrests being ripe fodder for humourists. The fact there was no tragedy might have lent circumstances ideal for comedy. And even here, the event transcended Canada’s borders. For at least several evenings American late night comedians used what was going on in Canada to gain audience laughs. Jon Stewart, host of the popular Daily Show
, a mock news broadcast, used his forum to question the judgment if not the sanity of the terrorist 17. He asked, how could they possibly dislike Canada, a country so innocuous? The point, said Stewart, was that saying you hate Canada is about as meaningful as “hating toast.”
Many observers noted that even Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognized there was much humour in the situation. At one point a reporter asked him what he thought of the death threat, and what was his opinion about the terror suspects wanting to behead him? Harper replied there was no news here, and that he could live with any threat, so as long as it didn’t come from his own Conservative caucus. Days later he refined his position, saying that he could withstand any threat, but that such things were having a profound emotional impact on his family.
In reality, what had happened with the arrests of 2 June was as far from comical as possible. Once again, across international borders, just how serious the development was become clear within a matter of hours. At first, official Washington lauded Ottawa, noting the arrest of the 17 showed just how serious Canada’s commitment to fighting terrorism really was. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the arrests proved “Canada is on the job.” But soon Harper’s joke came back to haunt him. American politicians seemed to be lining up to suggest Harper was ultimately not serious about recognizing how meaningful a threat terrorism really was and is. Such sentiments were even echoed by Canadian politicians. Liberal Member of Parliament Mark Holland, representing a Toronto constituency, spoke to the Canadian public broadcaster, the CBC, saying, “I'm very concerned about the amount of play in the U.S. that the threat Canada poses as a ‘gateway to terrorism.’” Harper’s fellow Conservative Party members were also quick to stress how serious the matter was. Tory MP from Ontario Peter Van Loan described the activities of the arrested 17 are “very serious,” and quickly added that he felt what they did was not “the only threat out there.”
Indeed Van Loan was far from the only one concerned about how serious the threat just might be. Again, the implications went well beyond Canada’s borders. Within days of the arrest of the 17, British police acted, making their own arrests. At first the BBC reported the British terror suspects had ties to the Canadians, but UK officials have not confirmed this. And there are accounts the Canadians had ties in the United States, to other suspected radicals in the South. Indeed, because of those ties to possible terrorists in the US, FBI officials reportedly alerted the Canadians of the possible threat, allowing Canadian security officials to begin monitoring some time ago. And after what happened in southern Ontario, security forces worldwide reacted, moving against suspects or intensifying investigations and crackdowns in such far-away places Sweden, Great Britain, and Bosnia, to name but a few locations.
We may not really know exactly who they are until the trial begins, but analysts are already starting to weigh in about just what might have motivated the Canadian 17. Most speculation suggests the suspects had no direct ties to terror master Osama bin Laden or the Al Qaeda network. To be sure, the Canadian terror suspects may regard bin Laden as their hero, as their inspiration. Perhaps they found some wisdom in his speeches and actions. Perhaps they were moved by what they regarded as the accomplishments of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. It’s very likely Abdul Jamal, the man identified as their leader, converted them to extremism. It is also very likely the radicals devoted much time to extremist literature and media, which may have prompted them to explore Jihadist videos. Perhaps they may be counted in that tiny number of Muslim Canadian youth that seeks to display its true allegiances by attending Mosque services decked out in military fatigues.
The real question that the arrests point to is this: the 17 may be just the tip of a much larger iceberg, and so just how extensive are Canada’s terror networks, and just what is the nature of their ties and contacts around the globe? Both the federal police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP, and Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, decline to be specific, but say that investigations are ongoing and future arrests cannot be ruled out. Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, Chair of the Senate Committee on National Security, has himself responded to developments by saying, “It’s not over…It’s very much stay tuned.”
On 11 June 2006 media report that just a day earlier Prime Minister Harper met with Muslim community leaders behind closed doors, where exchanges were frank, and that Harper evidently took extensive notes. Some in attendance suggested American Mosques were responsible, responsible for shipping extremist literature and ideas north across the border, and thus radicalizing Canadian youth. In its 11 June 2006 coverage of the meeting The Calgary Sun
quoted Farzana Hassan-Shahid, a member of the Canadian Muslim Congress, who dealt openly with just what she thought it was that made young Muslims want to destroy Canada, their own country. It was not good enough to just denounce acts of violence, said Hassan-Shahid. “It's about time Muslims owned up to the fact it's a Muslim problem…We need to be more proactive, rather than issue statements of condemnation,” said Hassan-Shahid.
Fifteen of the 17 terror suspects, shackled, made their first court appearances on 3 June 2006. This story is just beginning.
Posted by Stan Markotich
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Out for Summer
Parliament will recess for summer. Despite performances by Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor, PM Stephen Harper is in charge. In fact, Harper’s political career is unscathed. And I suspect this observation is valid when his records on both domestic and foreign policy are considered. But it is an especially valid claim for his foreign policy work.
Perhaps Harper’s high ratings have something to do with the fact that his first months in office have been given over to putting in place obligations and policy commitments made by the ousted Liberal government. Predecessor Paul Martin wanted troops in Afghanistan; Harper is behind the mission. Martin sought a deal on the softwood trade with the US; Harper, very possibly, perhaps, has one. And then there’s the opposition. So far, Harper has no better allies than the parties across the floor. Their divisions are his strengths. The New Democrats, in being vaguely against the Afghan mission but staunchly behind the troops, send out messages that, very likely, resonate with few voters. Then the Bloc, when it does comment on Afghanistan, opposes, though oddly seems to find itself in a position where articulating a proactive foreign policy agenda, be that Quebec-centric or national in scope, is turning out a much more difficult prospect than perhaps even they suspected. And the Liberals? They remain at war internally. Most oppose Afghanistan, even though their former government sent troops, while those poised to take over the party leadership at the upcoming convention back Canada’s role. And inter-party alliances? Any threat to Harper? Not likely. With the Liberals coming apart, the New Democrats seem to sense a chance of winning over disaffected Liberals and possibly even forming opposition after the next election. But to do that, the NDP will focus on social issues, and Harper will direct the foreign policy agenda.
Public opposition to Harper? So far there doesn’t seem to be any serious mass opposition to a thing he’s done. There have been a few anti-war protests that have attracted thousands [see, for example http://www.stopwar.ca/
], but concern over Canada’s policy in Afghanistan isn’t occupying our national psyche, and certainly doesn’t find expression on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis. According to most surveys, the majority of the Canadian public has not supported the war, but this has not translated into a backlash against Harper. And in fact, there is some recent evidence, in the form of polling data, that suggests Canadians’ support for the Afghan mission is growing in recent weeks, from some 40% to now 48% claiming to approve of Canada’s role [See for example, http://www.angus-reid.com/polls/index.cfm/fuseaction/viewItem/itemID/12227
Parliamentarians may be off to their summer barbecues, but the world won’t stand still. Daily headlines say Iraq, even after the passing of key Al Qaeda leaders such as Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, is a much more violent place than before. Afghanistan, too, is heating up. The latest issue of Newsweek
explains Mullah Dadullah Akhund, the new Taliban leader, is ramping up the violence and brutality in his country. Taliban recruiting videos, say Newsweek
writers Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai in their piece “In the Footsteps of Zarqawi” for the 3-10 July 2006 issue, show a fighter who may be more vicious than any Iraq counterpart, and “the most revolting footage shows a gang of Dadullah's thugs slitting the throats, one by one, of six Afghans they accuse of spying for the Americans. As each head is severed, it is grabbed and placed facing the camera, atop the torso of the victim's sprawled corpse” [Story posted at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13531827/site/newsweek/
]. Developments in Afghanistan are taking an increasing toll on Canadians there, and perhaps most recently “clashes with the Taliban forced Canadian troops to cancel plans to hold medical clinics Saturday in villages west of Kandahar City” [CP, 24 June 2006].
And then there are those trade issues. According to one source, Harper is facing “more grief over [the] stalled softwood deal” [See piece “Harper Gets More Grief over Stalled Softwood Deal,” by Peter O’Neil and Gordon Hamilton of CanWest News Service, published in The Vancouver Sun
, 23 June 2006. Story posted at http://www.canada.com/topics/news/national/story.html?id=66d0a679-fecc-42e7-ad6e-9fa1469c3d1e&k=81991
]. One of the latest tensions is triggered by recent evidence that suggests, “the U.S. government would use the proposed lumber accord as a tool to interfere with provincial forest management policies, especially B.C.'s new market-based timber pricing policy” [cited in http://www.canada.com/topics/news/national/story.html?id=66d0a679-fecc-42e7-ad6e-9fa1469c3d1e&k=81991].
Will Harper be able to get safely past summer on only barbecue chicken and burgers?
Posted by Stan Markotich
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