The Views of Canadian Scholars on the Impact of the Anti-Terrorism Act

2. DAVID CHARTERS Centre for Conflict Studies, University of New Brunswick

2.1 What has been the impact of the Anti-Terrorism Act on Canada?

I'm not sure I can answer this with any certainty owing to a lack of legal expertise and lack of inside knowledge on security operations. My sense, which could be incorrect, is that the powers under the Act have been used sparingly. While there have been a number of investigations and detentions, it is my understanding that most of these have been carried out using powers that existed before the Anti-Terrorism Act, i.e., immigration laws, and security certificates. Clearly the extended detention powers have been used, but with what effect or result are unclear. It may be that the expanded investigative powers provided for under the Act have allowed CSIS and the police to identify and investigate suspected terrorists more thoroughly and precisely than had been possible before, possibly preventing terrorist acts. But the Maher Arar case suggests that those powers allowed security forces to cast their net too wide, leading to investigations and detentions of persons who were, in fact, innocent. If so, there are implications for civil liberties and privacy. But I do not have hard empirical evidence to prove any of those points, as information in the public domain is incomplete.

2.2 What emerging trends in terrorism do you foresee and what threats do they pose to Canada? In discussing these trends and threats, please describe what you consider terrorism to be.

2.2.1 Emerging Trends

9/11 and its perpetrators - the al-Qaeda Jihadist movement - may represent a Revolution Terrorism Affairs (RTA). Together they appear to represent something new in terrorist organization and capacity. What is less clear is whether they have created a new model and strategy that other groups will wish to or be able to emulate.

The Al-Qaeda model clearly is different from the more conventional terrorist groups that were active in the second half of the 20th century. It appears to combine some of the features of an apocalyptic cult with those of a multinational corporation. The result is a decentralized, trans-national, post-modern organization, whose very nature has made it difficult to find and to defeat.

The Al-Qaeda models cult-like features include:

  1. charismatic leadership, who inspire loyalty unto death' among their followers;
  2. a manichean ideology that gives its members a reductionist ('we vs. they') world view that is not a mindset of compromise;
  3. a messianic vision of ultimate victory to motivate followers;
  4. use of religious leaders and organizations to recruit and indoctrinate members; and
  5. rigorous para-military training by experienced terrorists from all over the world.

This produces skilled and fanatically motivated Soldiers of God who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. In this, they more closely resemble the Waffen SS or Japanese Kamikaze of World War II. Most other terrorist organizations (except for the Tamil Tigers, which also use human bombs) tend to be pragmatic, seeking achievable goals in which their members ultimately have a stake, and thus prefer to save their members to fight another day.

The corporate features of the al-Qaeda model include:


the flat, de-centralized, Information Technology (IT)-driven, hub-and-wheel model. It is not so much a single organization as a network of networks, connected by intertwined fibres of ideology and technology.

Management style

Until it lost its Afghan base, al-Qaeda used directive control and management by objective to guide terrorist franchises in many countries. They shared a common mission statement, but the individual franchisees were encouraged to use their initiative to develop a product (attacks) best suited to the local market (targets). They would submit their plans to head office; if it approved, then it subsidized the operation. Since the fall of the Taliban, it appears that the franchises have had to operate with even less central direction. The relevant newer model here may be a Leaderless Resistance.

Modus operandi: Al-Qaeda

is a cutting edge product of the borderless, post-modern world. It uses all of Globalisation's tools - air travel, computers, the Internet, ATMs, and cell phones - to conduct its business. It probably could not work without them (especially communicating and moving money secretly). Al-Qaeda embodies the convergence, symbiosis and synergy of two trans-national forces: Jihadism and IT, the former challenging modernity, the latter embodying it, an apocalyptic vision wedded to a capability that allows it to Think Globally, and Act Locally.

Financial resources

By funding the group himself, through charities, individual donations, and investments, Osama bin Laden has privatized warfare. The al-Qaeda model is


The 9/11 attacks could be seen as a Breakthrough Event: Terrorism as Strategy not Tactics. They showed just how far al-Qaedas operatives were thinking outside the box. Thirty years ago the conventional wisdom was that terrorists want a lot of people watching … not a lot of people dead. In short: publicity. The primary motive of Jihadists now seems to be to strike overwhelming physical and psychological blows to punish their enemies. 9/11 took the lethality of mass casualty incidents to a whole new level. So, now we have a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead. Apocalyptic terrorism poses an existential threat to states.

Communications strategy

The al-Qaeda/911model brings the traditional terrorist strategy of Propaganda of the Deed into the age of McLuhan; the medium (the attack) is the message. It has changed the nature of strategic competition; the contested ground is no longer space, but values. On 9/11 al-Qaeda shifted the message of political discourse from state-based, management values to the apocalyptic.

Was 9/11 a trendsetter? The factors driving this change - Globalization, IT, terrorism, and Jihadism - had emerged earlier in an evolutionary, synergistic, and non-linear fashion. But they converged on 9/11 in an apparently revolutionary way. A major concern is that it has raised the bar, setting a new standard by which all subsequent terrorist attacks will be measured. For if a terrorist group can now kill and injure nearly 10,000 people in one coordinated attack, then a much bigger attack - possibly using Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) to decapitate or paralyse a state - is conceivable. It may no longer be a question of if, but of when.

That said, it may be premature to proclaim 9/11 as heralding the RTA. It could prove to be an anomalous event that is never replicated. The War on Terrorism probably has dispersed and weakened the movement. Furthermore, the Muslim world has not rallied to bin Laden's cause. Enhanced security and the movement's weakness probably have ensured that subsequent attacks have been a pale shadow of 9/11, and that it has been unable so far to strike again at the American homeland. But, al-Qaeda may not be permanently crippled. Its top leaders remain at large, and its structure provides redundancy and survivability. No one can say by how much al-Qaeda has been weakened, because it is not clear how big it was to start with. Moreover, the US occupation of Iraq tends to validate the Jihadists world-view and is being used as propaganda to draw more recruits to the movement. Given time and a new sanctuary it could regroup. While al-Qaeda is not the only terrorist group that threatens the Western democracies, it is not inevitable that the others - domestic or foreign - would try or be able to emulate it. Few of them share al-Qaedas grandiose apocalyptic vision or its nihilistic will to fulfil it by self-destruction.

So, further catastrophic attacks are possible, but unless they become the norm rather than the exception, then terrorism will remain simply a costly, dangerous, and intractable problem of crisis and conflict management. In that case, rather than an RTA, al-Qaeda may represent only a mutation or paradigm shift. The only certainty at this stage is a future of great uncertainty.

2.2.2 Threat to Canada

In the wake of 9/11, it has been easy to imagine plausible scenarios for terrorist attacks on or involving Canada.

  1. Direct attacks against Canadian targets: government or military facilities and personnel or soft civilian targets, at home or abroad. One such attack has occurred in Afghanistan.
  2. Attacks on enemy targets in Canada, including attacks on the businesses, diplomatic premises and representatives of countries such as the US, the UK, or Israel, or targets identified as Jewish. Canada's advanced, post-industrial, globalized economy, closely tied to the US, offers many potential targets, such as corporate offices, factories, and sales outlets. Of potentially greater consequence would be an attack on Critical Infrastructures (CI) shared by Canada and the US: pipelines, railroads, telecommunication and electricity grids, bridges, and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Depending on the target(s), the type of attack and the results, an attack on any of those CI could be both deadly and costly in human and economic terms.
  3. An attack on the United States launched from Canada. This is most plausible, first, because the US is the prime target of al-Qaeda, and second, because such an operation has already been attempted. In December 1999 Ahmed Ressam was arrested trying to smuggle bomb-making materials into the US, en route to carrying out an attack on Los Angeles airport.
  4. WMD attack on a border city, such as Detroit or Windsor, the lethal effects of which would impact both countries. This would put many lives immediately at risk, and might involve mass evacuations, quarantining, and decontamination of people and property. This would require the mobilization of public health and other emergency services, including military assistance on both sides of the border.

But there is no evidence to suggest that any of the foregoing scenarios are either imminent or inevitable. In spite of repeated warnings of imminent terrorist threats, or perhaps because of them, there have been no further attacks in the United States. Veiled threats to Canada attributed to al-Qaeda have not yet materialized as attacks. This forces one to ask whether a significant threat to Canada exists. The evidence in the public domain, however, leaves that question unanswered.

The problem is that an attack cannot be either predicted or ruled out with any certainty. Well before 9/11, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) warned that many international terrorist groups, including Jihadist organizations, were represented and active in Canada, recruiting, fund-raising, and planning operations. Anecdotal evidence in the public domain both before and since 9/11 supports this claim, although the numbers are not large. For e.g., in late 2001, acting on information from Syria, US and Canadian agencies unravelled an al-Qaeda plot to attack major government institutions in both countries. Several individuals with Canadian backgrounds and alleged connections to al-Qaeda have been captured, arrested, or detained here and overseas. Some remain at large. Some of those detained have since been released owing to lack of evidence. None of this makes Canada either a haven for terrorists or a primary target for attack. But it introduces an element of doubt about its immunity from terrorism. Because of that, the security and policing agencies are wisely operating on the assumption that some degree of threat remains.

2.2.3 Defining Terrorism

The definition issue has proved to be the black hole of terrorism studies. Terrorism is a political issue, and many definitions (there are hundreds) have taken on a political or normative, values-laden character. As a result, experts have conceded that there is no single definition of terrorism, and have fallen back on a description of common features. Regardless of identity of the perpetrators, the reason for their actions, or the merits of their cause, there is general agreement that their actions could be classified as sub-state terrorism if they meet the following criteria:

  1. The actions are undertaken as a form of warfare or violent politics;
  2. The objectives are political, not for personal gain, and the impact is societal;
  3. The actions include violent criminal techniques, such as murder, arson, bombing and extortion, for instrumental or punitive purposes, and/or to create a climate of extreme fear (i.e., terror) to induce compliance with the terrorists' objectives;
  4. The attacks usually are selective in intent and objective, but appear to be indiscriminate in effect to enhance the surprise and shock factor that creates the climate of fear;
  5. The attacks are conducted in a manner to send messages to a number of targets and audiences regarding the intentions and goals of the terrorists - a violent form of political communication;
  6. The attacks project an image of power and omnipotence for states, groups, or persons whose real power is actually very limited; and
  7. The perpetrators are organized and operate secretly, both to ensure their security and to enhance the surprise/shock - and terror - effects of their actions.

Terrorism becomes international when the target of attack or influence is a foreign government, representative, business, or citizen, or when the incident involves crossing international boundaries. Therefore, an attack by local terrorists on an embassy inside their own country, or an airline hijacking that moves from one country to another, would both be examples of international terrorism. Likewise, an attack planned and organized in one country and carried out in another would also be international. A terrorist group could be described as trans-national when it meets the international criteria, but also has an agenda or objective that is intended to effect more than one country. For example, al-Qaeda is trans-national because it sees its mission as being to transform the entire Muslim world, not just Saudi Arabia.

2.3 How should our country respond to these trends and threats? Please feel free to include measures at any level, such as social, economic, political, or legal or a combination of these levels.

It is not in Canada's interest that Afghanistan should return to anarchy or rule by an extremist regime; either could allow al-Qaeda to restore its operational base. Therefore, to the extent that resources permit, Canada should continue to commit military forces to support operations against al-Qaeda and to promote stability in Afghanistan. It should also commit other resources (people, money, material aid, and experience) that will assist Afghanistan in political and physical reconstruction, thereby helping to prevent a return to chaos or authoritarianism. The Canadian Forces will require a considerable investment in order to fulfil this mission.

On the domestic front, the government should sustain existing programs intended to ensure internal security, at a level commensurate with estimated threats (whether that estimate be low or high). This is essential to preserve the safety of Canadians, which is a fundamental duty of government. Canada also has an international moral and legal obligation not to allow its territory to be used as a sanctuary for terrorists. But it is also in our own self-interest. Not only could unchecked terrorist activity pose a threat to Canadians, but to other countries, in particular the United States. A successful attack on the US shown to have originated in Canada would have devastating consequences for the Canadian economy, but also for Canadian sovereignty. The border could be closed to trade and travel and the US could impose its own security measures on the continent as a whole. Groups bent on violence elsewhere should not feel that in Canada they have a safe haven where they can freely recruit people to conduct violent acts, raise funds to do so, purchase the means to do so, or to plan operations. Those who do so should be prosecuted, extradited, or deported. They should not be allowed to use refugee status as a cover for terrorism. The message the government sends to Canadian-bound would-be terrorists must be unequivocal: park your war at the door.

Intelligence is the first line of defence against terrorism. If the threat level increases, the government should be willing and prepared to deploy additional resources (people, funding, technology, analytical capabilities) in counter-terrorism intelligence.

Critical Infrastructure protection, crisis management, and disaster response mechanisms need to be tested and should be given priority, funding, legal authority, and more resources if tests show them to be inadequate. These are essential to maintain vital services, a functioning economy, public order, and continuity of government in the face of a major attack. Failure or inability to do so in a crisis would amount to abdication of the responsibilities of governance.