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Ottawa urges immigrant communities to report suspicious behaviour

The Harper government is appealing to Canadians - and immigrants in particular - to monitor and report suspicious or extremist activity as Ottawa grapples with what it calls the rising threat of "homegrown terrorism."

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews's pitch Thursday comes shortly after Mounties charged three Canadian citizens of South Asian heritage in connection with an alleged domestic terror plot.

He urged "all freedom-loving Canadians" to "be vigilant" against terrorist threats.

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But the minister later singled out assistance from ethnic communities as key.

Asked to define what he meant by vigilant, Mr. Toews cited the example of Canadian Somalis, disclosing that this community - which is overwhelmingly Muslim - had recently brought suspicions regarding extremists to authorities.

"I think it's that kind of vigilance that is absolutely necessary in order to deal with these kinds of problems," Mr. Toews said.

He said security agencies alone cannot root out terrorist threats. "We need co-operation from various community groups," the minister said.

The Somali community, Mr. Toews said, approached Canadian authorities "about concerns that they had about the radicalization that was taking place" inside their community.

"They had fears that some individuals from their community, young men in particular, had gone to Somalia to fight jihad," the minister said, referring to Islamic extremists in the African country.

Martin Rudner, a Carleton University professor emeritus with an expertise in intelligence and security, said "walk-ins" - or people close to terror cells who inform authorities - are one of the few ways that security agencies are alerted to threats.

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Mr. Toews's comments were carefully worded. He initially refrained from zeroing in on immigrant groups - calling on all Canadians to be vigilant. But then he cited reports from ethnic communities when asked to elaborate. As Prof. Rudner points out, the minister avoided demonizing these groups by providing an example of a predominantly Muslim community that is already helping.

"Part of the minister's message is we can count on the Muslims to work with us," Prof. Rudner said.

"He's telling [immigrant communities] 'You're part of us.'"

The liberal-minded Muslim Canadian Congress said Mr. Toews is justified in calling for the monitoring and reporting of suspicious behaviour in different communities.

"These are times where we can't be politically correct," Muslim Canadian Congress president Sohail Raza said. "We have to do whatever is necessary to safeguard Canadians from a foolish action ever taking place."

Mr. Toews also warned Thursday of growing concerns about radicalization in Canadian immigrant communities where young people build ties with extremist groups over the Internet - a trend he said is afflicting Western democracies.

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"I want to emphasize, without getting into the details of this case … that the radicalization … does not necessarily occur in one particular geographical location, whether it's Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg or elsewhere. Individuals can become radicalized by the Internet or other mechanisms even in some of the most isolated areas of Canada."

Prof. Rudner said radicalization in the West tends to occur among second-generation immigrant youths who are rebelling against the accommodations their middle-class parents made with Western culture.

They tend to be highly educated. One study Prof. Rudner cites found the three most common professions of radicals are medicine, engineering and computer science.

"These are all technical professions. In a way, these people become highly competent on the technical side but begin to question Western society on the values side," he said." They go on the Internet and this impulse becomes fuelled, if you will, by religious preaching, doctrine and philosophy."

He cited figures such as Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who use the Internet to build relationships with, and then recruit, disaffected Muslims.

"You go online to get more information … and you encounter Anwar al-Awlaki. He speaks perfect English. He is a charismatic personality," Prof. Rudner said.

"What begins as an impulse is crystallized through the Internet into real radical action."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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