As many as 60 Canadians have journeyed abroad to train as al-Qaeda terrorists, this country's spy chief revealed as he sounded a warning over the group's shift to a much harder to detect "lone-wolf" style of attack.
Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, also acknowledged Monday that al-Qaeda's switch to a sole-actor approach to inflicting damage is presenting a problem for Western anti-terrorist agencies.
"This really makes things very complicated for us," he told a Senate committee.
He said this lone-wolf approach tends to attract individuals driven by ideology as well as "serious personal problems," a combination that makes them more unpredictable.
Mr. Fadden was speaking in favour of a new Harper government bill that aims to thwart budding Canadian terrorists who wish to visit foreign training camps. The legislation, S-7, would make it a federal crime to leave, or try to leave, Canada for the purpose of committing terrorism.
"There has … been an alarming number of Canadians who have travelled, are planning, or have expressed a desire to engage in terrorist activities," the CSIS director told senators.
He said he's worried about the consequences for Canada if these would-be terrorists return home after acquiring the skills needed to cause havoc.
Mr. Fadden predicted al-Qaeda's recent embrace of smaller, leaderless acts of terror is a sign of things to come.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has as recently as last fall published an online magazine called Inspire that called for "open source jihad" and instructed readers to how to carry out their own attacks, he noted. "How to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom" was the title of article in the Summer, 2010, issue.
"My colleagues in Britain, Australia and the United States are of the same opinion: We are seeing an increase in the number of people who are acting on their own," he said.
"When there are a certain number of people involved, there is a possibility of intercepting communications; the chances of errors are far greater. But when there's one person who's not talking to anybody, [counterterrorism agencies]have to be really lucky."
The radical cleric believed to be behind Inspire magazine, U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by an unmanned U.S. drone strike in late September, 2011.
Mr. Fadden cited Mohammed Merah, a young Arab who murdered French soldiers and Jewish civilians in a calculated series of terror acts, as an example of lone-wolf attackers.
The director said CSIS is aware of at least 45 Canadians – and possibly as many as 60 – who have left this country to seek terror training abroad, travelling or attempting to travel to Somalia, the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal areas or Yemen.
"These individuals represent a threat both to the international community and to Canada, as some have returned, or may, eventually, return to Canada after having acquired terrorist training, or even having engaged directly in acts of terrorism."
Mr. Fadden told senators that terrorism – and in particular the threat from Sunni Islamist extremists – remains the greatest threat to Canada's national security.
Asked by one senator why Canada should worry about jihadists leaving Canada, Mr. Fadden said this country must keep track of them rather than be "happy to be rid of" them.
"Our close allies, the U.K., the United States and others consider that Canada has a responsibility keep an eye on its own citizens when they are going abroad doing harm."
He acknowledged it may be difficult to catch people heading to terrorist camps – and to prove they had intended to do so.
The CSIS director served notice his agency is also paying close attention to another emerging trend: the increasing potential for women in Canada to become radicalized as jihadists.
He said injunctions against female participation in violent jihad have begun to disappear from extremist websites.