By Alex Wilner
Published Feb 10, 2012 12:11 AM
Public Safety Canada Photo
A close-up of Building Resilience Against Terrorism: Canada’s Counter-terrorism Strategy, released Feb. 9.It has been over 25 years since the Air India Bombing, almost 11 years since Al Qaeda's attack on the United States, and nearly six years since the Toronto 18 were thwarted.
The naive should by now be disabused: the threat of terrorism is a fixture of Canada's security environment. And yet Canada had no official counter-terrorism strategy and had never published a comprehensive plan for combatting terrorism, violent extremism, and radicalization.
This week that all changed, with the public release of just such a plan by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other allies, Canada's counter-terrorism strategy had previously been available only piecemeal. Just over a year ago, when I testified before the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism in Ottawa, anybody interested in reading Canada's strategy had to cobble it together for themselves.
The policy existed; it was just that Ottawa was hesitant about making it public. The worry, in some quarters, was that terrorists would thereby be forewarned about our counter-terrorism tactics and methods. And using our strategy against us, they could then more easily circumvent our defences.
But the benefits of publishing the strategy far outweigh the costs. It is not only a question of government accountability or of pushing counter-terrorism up the priority list. It is not even chiefly about promoting an open and frank discussion with Canadians about security threats and needs.
The real value is that, in clearly articulating the steps it has taken to impede, deny, and punish terrorists, Canada actually deters future acts of terrorism. Here's why.
First, would-be terrorists now know the depth of Canada's commitment to combating terrorism. The policy document clearly signals to others that, like our allies, Canadians take terrorism deadly seriously. We always did, of course, but now it is official and clearly expressed.
The message is that Canada is not complacent about terrorism. Instead, Canadians have developed the means to fight it here and abroad and are willing to use the full capacity of the state to protect themselves.
For example, the strategy highlights how Canada's security services are as prepared, and are even perhaps better prepared, to deal with terrorism than those in allied countries.
Canada's intelligence community clearly has the means and the tools to uncover plots expeditiously. Canadian police have a near perfect record of thwarting attacks. And Canada's judiciary is able and willing to hand down stiff penalties.
The document is rather specific in each case. It explains how Canada's security agencies collect, share, analyze, and use intelligence on potential terrorist threats. There is little doubt after reading the strategy that Canada has developed a robust and overlapping network of agencies dedicated to combating terrorism together.
The overwhelming perception is that terrorists are unlikely to evade Canada's watchful eye, assuming the policy announced is rigorously and effectively pursued.
Second, the strategy reiterates that terrorism in Canada will not be easy to finance, plan, or coordinate. The strategy's four pillars—prevent, detect, deny, and respond—clearly articulate the many hurdles terrorists face in contemplating attacks on Canadians.
For instance, attracting, indoctrinating, and training terrorist recruits will be made more difficult. Financing plots will be more complicated. Acquiring explosive materials and weapons will be more challenging. Traveling over Canada's borders will remain risky.
And potential targets, like Canada's political leaders and institutions, critical infrastructure, and transportation system, while still more vulnerable than the government likes to admit, will become increasingly difficult to attack successfully.
In denying terrorists easy access to the means and opportunities of attack, we are communicating to them the likelihood of their failures. While all of this was true last week, the difference is that today everybody knows it.
A terrorist contemplating an attack in Canada better appreciates just how unlikely he is to successfully carry out his plans. And a terrorist who believes that he is likely to fail may be less willing to contemplate an attack altogether.
Finally, the document is clear: terrorism in Canada will not be allowed to pay. The buzzword here is resilience—no policy can guarantee 100 per cent freedom from terrorist attack. But the new strategy highlights why even tactically-successful acts of terrorism will nonetheless ultimately fail.
Why? Because Canadians are tougher than many people think. We can and we will mitigate the effects of extremist violence. And if we can manage the threat, then terrorists will be hard pressed to achieve their objectives.
Combating terrorism is as much about degrading terrorist capabilities as it is about influencing terrorist motivations. Canada has been surprisingly effective at the former for years. And now that it has publicized that success, it will reap a security dividend by dissuading further acts of violence.
Alex Wilner is a senior researcher at ETH Zurich and a fellow specializing in counter-terrorism and national security issues with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa.