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


4.1 The Abandonment of Restraint in Terrorist Attacks

More than half the participants pointed out that the 9/11 attacks heralded a new era in which previous limits and restraints have been abandoned. Mass casualties are sought and the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction are a possibility that must be considered by planners. Brynen notes that the 9/11 attacks and follow-up attacks from Bali to Istanbul have erased previous limits and will be modeled by others. “There will be a long-term increase in the willingness of groups to use mass-casualty attacks on soft targets to make their point…The scope of 9/11 may create a phenomenon or terrorist 'kill-inflation', with pressure within terrorist groups for larger and larger attacks.”

Charters adds: “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 paralyze a state-is conceivable. It may no longer be a question of 'if' but of 'when'.”

Wark believes that terrorism will continue to proliferate globally and that no prediction is safe about the weapons and scale of violence to be employed by terrorist groups. Both military and civilian entities, as well as symbolic targets, will be vulnerable.

4.2 The Transformation of Terrorist Groups

Martyn notes that there has been a decline in left-wing terrorism with the decline of Marxism as a viable political theory. Right-wing causes, single-issue groups (e.g., animal rights activists), and anarchists provide an impetus for terrorism. However, the most visible trend is religious fanaticism, with an increased number of incidents attributed to extremists from all the major religions. He and other participants observe that there has been a decline in the state sponsorship of terrorism. Funds are as likely to come from traditional criminal activities (e.g., drug trafficking, fraud) or from fundraising in uninvolved countries.

All participants discussing the main sources of terrorism mentioned militant Islamic groups, in particular Al-Qaeda, as posing the primary threat. The Arab-Israeli conflict is regarded as a source of grievances in the Middle East; however, Islamic extremist groups are also seen as opposing western-style democracy, secularism, and liberal values. The major targets of these groups are Israel, the United States, and Arab states that are viewed as corrupt.

Several participants mentioned that the military operations against Al-Qaeda and the loss of their sanctuary in Afghanistan have produced a more de-centralized and diffuse network that will be more difficult to counteract. Also, globalization and, in particular, new communications technologies, facilitate terrorism in a variety of ways (e.g., in recruitment and inciting further attacks).

Farson points out that terrorism used to be a form of political communication in which the perpetrators of acts of serious violence claimed responsibility for the act and used the media to promote their agenda. However, Al-Qaeda seldom claims responsibility for their actions and uses suicide bombers to attack targets. They do use modern communications technologies (e.g., videos) to encourage their supporters to undertake further acts of violence. Al-Qaeda also differs from past forms of terrorism in its global scope and decentralized network of fairly autonomous cells.

According to Charters, the Al-Qaeda model is different from conventional terrorist groups, combining “some of the features of an apocalyptic cult with those of a multinational corporation. The result is a decentralized, post-modern organization, whose very nature has made it difficult to find and to defeat.”

Charters notes that the model's 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;
  5. rigorous para-military training by experienced terrorists from all over the world."

According to Charters, Al-Qaeda's corporate features include increasing de-centralization, the use of modern technologies to communicate, transfer funds, and transport personnel, varied funding sources, novel tactics, and the development of a communications strategy. Charters observes that “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'”.

Charters believes that it may be premature to consider the 9/11 attacks as heralding a revolution in terrorist attacks as it may be an anomalous event. The Muslim world has not rallied to bin Laden's cause, security has been enhanced, and thus far there have been no additional strikes on American soil. No one can say with certainty the extent to which Al-Qaeda has been weakened or whether it represents a mutation or paradigm shift.

Brynen observes that globalization-more travel, migration, new information and communication technologies-creates new ways of sustaining terrorist activity. Media globalization amplifies the global impact of local mass-casualty incidents. In this context, the threat of quasi-WMD usage increases as even a less successful attack than that on 9/11 would generate extensive media coverage and fear.

4.3 Level of Threat to Canada

Participants were divided on the issue of whether the risk of a terrorist attack in Canada is increasing. On one hand, there is no hard evidence in the public domain indicating a higher level of risk since 9/11. On the other hand, Canada's involvement in Afghanistan was viewed as increasing the threat to Canadian troops. Also, while several participants stated that Canada is not a primary target, more attacks have been unleashed recently against “soft” targets. Whitaker notes that the recent targeting by Al-Qaeda and associated groups of softer targets such as Bali, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey ought to be a warning for Canada. Also opportunistic attacks on soft targets could threaten Canada. Furthermore, Brynen notes that neutrality may be less of a protection than in the past as UN and humanitarian personnel have been attacked in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Charters notes that several individuals with Canadian backgrounds and possible connections to Al-Qaeda have been captured, arrested, or detained here or overseas and some remain at large. Some of those detained have eventually been released owing to lack of evidence. He adds: “None of this makes Canada a 'haven for terrorists' or a primary target for attack. But it introduces an element of doubt about its immunity from terrorism.”

Martyn adds that greater access to information increases the potential for the use of more destructive weapons, such as chemical and biological weapons. The scarcity of these weapons, however, makes it less likely they will be used against Canadian targets.

Wark asserts that public statements by CSIS indicate a “significant terrorist presence” in Canada. That presence can include fund-raising and other activities that might not be related to attacks on Canada. It would be imprudent to assume that we are immune from attacks. Canada may not be a first tier target but the risks increase as transnational groups seek new bases and targets. Stribopoulos believes that Canadian interests overseas are at greatest risk. Attacks in North America are likely to be launched against the US.

4.4 Factors Contributing to Canada's Vulnerability

Roach notes that Canada has faced acts of terrorism before, during the October crisis in 1970 and in the bombing of an Air India aircraft in 1985. Several participants argue that Canada's diversity makes it vulnerable to the possibility that international conflicts will get played out, in part, on Canadian soil. Our multicultural society is a potential recruiting ground for various extremist organizations. Support can take a variety of forms-fundraising, recruitment, and providing cover or identity documents.

Several participants assert that Canada's participation in the war in Afghanistan may make Canada a target. Martyn adds that our “porous” border with the United States makes us a potential transit route and thereby a terrorism risk.

Rudner notes that the sources of Canada's vulnerability include its openness, proximity to the US, and close economic integration with its southern neighbour. He states that “The Canadian presence gives them local facilities for incitement and propaganda for their cause, and resident cells for recruiting operatives and fighters, raising and transferring funds, fabricating false identities and document forgery, procuring weaponry and material, establishing safe houses and sleeper cells for future operations, and supporting infiltration across the border to the United States or operations overseas.”

4.5 The Nature of Threats and Specific Targets in Canada

Charters notes that threats to Canada take various forms: (1) Direct attacks on Canadian targets at home or abroad (e.g., Afghanistan); (2) Attacks on American, British, Israeli, or Jewish targets or interests in Canada, including critical infrastructures shared by Canada and the US; (3) An attack on the United States that is launched from Canada (as in the attempted attack on the Los Angeles airport by Ahmed Ressam and his associates); (4) An attack using WMDs on a border city, such as Detroit or Windsor, requiring evacuations, quarantining, and decontamination of people and property.

Martyn notes that attacks in Canada would likely be launched against US interests or for an American audience (e.g., Ontario/Quebec power grid). Such an attack would disrupt the US economy in the northeast and would reach the attention of an American audience, but would not have the same impact as one on American soil.

Whitaker notes that the use of WMDs by terrorists, while difficult, must be taken very seriously due to the potential consequences. Of these weapons, “dirty” radiological bombs are the easiest to assemble and deliver. Critical infrastructures must be protected due to the dual threat to public health and the economy (e.g., attacks on nuclear power plants). Terrorism should be viewed along a spectrum of public safety concerns, alongside recent non-terrorist threats to health and public safety such BSE, SARS, BC forest fires and the recent power blackout.

Rudner observes that Canada may be vulnerable to WMDs both as a locale for terrorist access to the technologies used in making these weapons and as a possible target for a WMD attack. He reminds us of a Canadian charitable front for Al-Qaeda that was suspected of having links to efforts to procure nuclear and chemical materials. He notes that terrorists may dispatch students and researchers to Canadian universities to gain access to technologies required in the production of WMDs.