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Bombing attempt was a test run, Ottawa fears

The federal government fears that al-Qaeda's "underwear bomber" attack on a trans-Atlantic flight was simply a test run.

Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan suggested that Canada will be on a heightened state of aviation alert for the foreseeable future.

"That may very well have been, if you will, a kind of pilot project by the organization to see how viable [the bombing technology]was," he told reporters yesterday. "And we have reason to believe that we have to be concerned, all of the countries of the West."

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After cabinet discussions earlier this week, Conservative ministers yesterday attempted to allay public fears about boarding aircraft. But without elaborating, they also said they have obtained "two or three" new intelligence tips concerning serious threats since the failed Christmas Day attack.

None were described as an imminent threat to Canada, and none have apparently led the government to take measures any tougher than the airport-scrutiny regimen imposed on Dec. 26.

Transport Minister John Baird sent a directive to airports last weekend urging "continued increased vigilance." He told reporters only that "specific" intelligence tips led to this memo.

He added that the overall threat is "at a medium level. This is not anything like 9/11."

Canada's airports, like most in the West, are barraged with threats, many not credible, coming from agencies inside and outside the country. Officials must pick out the real ones.

Most threats and countermeasures are never made public for fear of sparking panic or tipping off terrorists. Yet expert observers suggest that federal failings cause institutional disarray and public confusion when aviation jitters mount.

One recurring fear is that security agencies don't talk to one another enough. Another is that Ottawa has never resolved how aviation threats should be managed inside of government. The question also remains of when threats should be made public.

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"The Canadian government never made up its mind about whether we needed a public-alert system," said Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto professor who specializes in security matters. Aviation threats, he said, are "part of this process where the government talks to itself about security measures, and the public is told nothing."

Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, who has spent years leading a parliamentary committee probing national security, questioned whether Transport Canada is the right agency to vet intelligence concerning threats to commercial aircraft.

"They tend to be very territorial," he said. "It's almost as if they are afraid other people will notice what they're doing and discover how incompetent they are."

Two years ago, the Senate committee argued that airport security should be moved from Transport Canada to Public Safety Canada. That ministry, an amalgamation of security agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is home to the Mounties, Canada's spy service, its border guards and others.

Public Safety, however, has organizational problems of its own. And one criticism is that Canada has no national-security czar, no central official who can broker competing interests and pieces of intelligence.

It's feared this could keep officials from connecting the dots that would prevent a terrorist strike.

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On Dec. 25, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab - a 23-year-old Nigerian who had trained as a terrorist in Yemen - forced a major reassessment of the West's intelligence practices.

He boarded a Northwest Airlines flight to the United States from Europe even though he had been flagged as a potential terrorist. On the plane, he attempted to detonate explosive chemicals concealed in his underwear. The active ingredient was plastic explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate, or PETN, which doesn't trip metal detectors.

The incident has put the multibillion-dollar U.S. intelligence community under a cloud. Mr. Abdulmutallab has reportedly told intelligence officials that 20 other terrorists trained in the same techniques in Yemen.

Global intelligence agencies are conducting a review to see if they missed any other threats.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff yesterday called upon the Conservative government to give out as much specific information as it can. "I don't think things should dribble out," he said.

However, Mr. Van Loan told reporters that's unlikely to happen.

With reports from Les Perreaux, Campbell Clark, Anna Mehler-Paperny and James Bradshaw

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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