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No, Canadians are not invading America, but there are real security issues up north
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No, Canadians are not invading America, but there are real security issues up north

TORONTO — Canadians are reeling after attacks last week that left two soldiers dead: one run down by a car near Montreal, one shot while standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

Police say they don’t believe the crimes were connected, but the alleged attackers in each case were young Canadian men who embraced radical Islamism and were outraged as their country joined the fight against the Islamic State (IS).

It didn’t take long for questions to arise about if and how such attacks could be prevented. Changes to increase the powers of Canada’s spy agency were already in the works, and the Conservative government says it will introduce more measures to toughen the country’s terrorism laws.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Ottawa Tuesday for talks on subjects including IS.

Here's what you need to know about national security in Canada.

Why would terrorists (or anybody) want to attack Canada?

Short answer: because Canada’s in Barack Obama’s IS-fighting coalition.

Earlier this month, Canada’s Conservative government voted to join the battle against IS by sending fighter jets to Iraq for at least six months. It has also sent almost 70 special forces soldiers to assist Iraqi security forces. In late September, Canada was one of the countries singled out for retaliation in an IS video message to supporters of the extremist militants: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war … then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner.”

What laws does Canada have to stop terrorism?

Short answer: The Anti-Terror Act.

Canada passed its Anti-Terror Act shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. It added new offenses to the Criminal Code, including participating in or financing terrorist activities, committing an offense to benefit a terrorist group, and instructing someone to carry out terrorist acts. Some of its strongest provisions expired in 2007 but were reinstated in the Combating Terrorism Act that came into effect last year. In particular, a person suspected of being involved with terrorism can be detained for up to three days without charge, and someone suspected to have knowledge of terrorist activities can be forced to testify at a secret hearing or else be jailed for up to a year. The new act also made it illegal to travel abroad, or attempt to leave the country, for the purpose of committing a terrorist act.

Have the laws ever worked?

Short answer: In some cases, yes.

That’s what Wesley Wark, a Canadian national security expert, says. He points to a few cases: that of Momin Khawaja, the first Canadian charged under the anti-terrorism act, who was found guilty of taking part in a 2004 plot to set off fertilizer bombs in the UK; and the so-called Toronto 18, a group of 14 adults and four teens arrested in 2006 after allegedly plotting to set off bombs in Toronto and Ottawa, storm Parliament Hill and behead the prime minister. Last year, two men were arrested in April after the FBI and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) uncovered an alleged plan to derail a passenger train. The accused allegedly had guidance from Al Qaeda figures. They are expected to go on trial next year.

Then why didn’t the laws work last week?

Short answer: Lone wolves.

Both accused Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and alleged Quebec attacker Martin Couture-Rouleau appear to be lone actors, although the RCMP is investigating Zehaf-Bibeau’s “interactions with numerous individuals in the days leading up to this attack.” While the Toronto 18 and Khawaja plots involved groups of conspirators, a lone-wolf attacker “might give off very few investigative signs or leave very little investigative trail that could be helpful to the authorities in stopping him,” Wark said.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told the senate national security committee on Monday that more elaborate plots stand a better chance of being interrupted, but there seemed to be “little to no preparation” leading up to last week’s attacks.

“The events of last week are clear examples of just how suddenly these attacks can occur and how unpredictable radicalized individuals can be,” he said.

The RCMP is also making do with fewer resources for tracking terrorist threats. Paulson told the committee he has reassigned almost 300 officers from other beats to investigate potential terrorist cases. It’s become a growing problem in the past two or three years amid federal budget cuts, Wark said. “That’s kind of flatlined the resources provided to both CSIS [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s spy agency] and the RCMP,” he said. “So I have no doubt the government will look at that again and see if they believe that the RCMP and CSIS need more resources.”

How could the laws change?

Short answer: More surveillance, investigations without borders, hiding sources — but prosecuting could still get harder, not easier.

The government had already been planning to give CSIS more powers. In fact, a bill on the matter was supposed to be introduced last Wednesday — the day of the Ottawa shooting. Instead, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney tabled the bill Monday afternoon. It would expand the spy agency’s surveillance powers, explicitly allow it to conduct investigations both inside and outside of Canada, and give more protection to confidential sources, meaning they would no longer have to be identified in court proceedings.

It’s the latter measure that concerns Kent Roach, a University of Toronto law professor. “It may have the unintended effect of making terrorism prosecutions more difficult,” he said. Other experts warn that anonymous sources could also make it harder for an accused person to challenge the case against them in court.

At the same time, the bill “does not address review or oversight for CSIS,” Roach said. “Both are necessary to ensure that CSIS uses this power properly and effectively.”

Blaney has also said the government will introduce further anti-terrorism legislation, which could lower the evidence thresholds required for preventive arrests of people suspected of planning terrorist actions.

Couture-Rouleau was one of about 90 “high-risk travelers” on the authorities’ watch list for wanting to join terrorist activities overseas, and his passport had been confiscated, but there wasn’t sufficient evidence to detain him.

Currently, Canadian police face onerous thresholds both from the courts and from public opinion, said Christian Leuprecht, a political studies professor at Queen’s University and the Royal Military College of Canada.

“When forced with a choice in Canada between privacy, individual freedoms, civil liberties on the one hand and public safety on the other, courts here tend to err on the side of freedoms, civil liberties and privacy,” he said. “Whereas in most of our allied counterparts, the courts tend to err on the side of public safety.

“I think this ultimately comes down to a level of maturity, that they’ve lived with terrorism for decades and we have not in Canada.”

Government officials have also indicated that new laws could clamp down on calls for attacks on Canadians. Generally, CSIS and the RCMP have been required to show evidence that a person is putting a terrorist plan in place, not just communicating the desire for an attack, Leuprecht said, adding: “They’re doing reconnaissance, they’re acquiring money, they’re acquiring weapons, they’re hooking up with other people.” The suggestion, he said, is that new laws would “criminalize simply evidence of sympathizing with violent causes that encourage harm to Canada or Canadians, or being a part of those causes, or spreading such propaganda yourself.”

Is Canada becoming more 'radicalized'?

Short answer: Who really knows?

There is no real way of knowing, Wark says. But he is skeptical. “We don’t have statistics about trends,” he said. “I think that it’s unlikely to be a growing problem over any significant period of time. I think there would be a domestic backlash in Canada as a result of the attacks this week and that will diminish the attractiveness of the ISIL message and propaganda,” he added, using a common alternate acronym for IS militants.

Nor is it clear that radicalization alone can account for violent acts, David Welch, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation think-tank, told the Toronto Star.

“In many cases the kind of person who becomes radicalized and tries to pull off a lone wolf terror attack would, in the absence of becoming radicalized, commit some other violent crime,” Welch said. “The problem is not Muslim radicalization so much as maladjusted males.”

Is the United States at risk from Canadian terrorists?

Short answer: Despite what Geraldo Rivera might say, probably not.

For one thing, Wark says, it doesn’t make sense for a terrorist to draw the attention of two countries’ security establishments by crossing the border. And another thing: Both countries have tightened their border security procedures significantly since 9/11. “The Canadian difficulty is that it is sometimes hard to convince elements of the American political establishment … that Canada takes border security seriously,” Wark said. “The fact of the matter is, it does.”

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

More by Stephanie MacLellan

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