The RCMP and CSIS have redeployed investigators to track nearly 100 foreign fighters and would-be terrorists as part of the government's attempts to crack down on supporters of such groups as Islamic State in Canada and abroad, federal officials said.
Testifying at a parliamentary committee, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said the investigations are moving along briskly, despite the complexity of the cases.
The matter is increasingly urgent now that the Canadian Forces are getting ready to conduct combat missions against Islamic State extremists in Iraq, and that some members of the group have vowed to strike back in Canada.
"We have 63 active national security investigations on 90 individuals who are related to the travelling group, people who intend to go [to countries like Iraq and Syria] or people who have returned," Commissioner Paulson said at the committee of the House on public safety and national security.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney added that new legislation and measures are being prepared to deal with the evolving terrorism threat, including tracking Canadians who travel to and from war zones.
Speaking to reporters after his committee appearance, Mr. Blaney said the upcoming legislation will ensure that law-enforcement authorities have greater powers to control and share information on the travel habits of Canadians.
"We need to track Canadians who leave the country with the objective of committing terrorist acts and then to come back," he said. "We need to exchange information on their travels."
Commissioner Paulson said he did not feel Canadians need to be particularly alarmed about the situation, saying the RCMP has the resources to manage it. The Mounties are working in collaboration with officials at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, whose director said that 130 to 145 Canadians are currently involved with terrorist groups abroad, and that about 80 such foreign fighters have returned to Canada.
CSIS director Michel Coulombe said the foreign fighters who have returned to Canada are not all would-be terrorists or "hard fighters," but he quoted Islamic State officials who have urged their Canadian supporters to engage in destruction at home.
"All of them could potentially be a threat, definitely," he said. "We have no information of an imminent attack, but we have to remain vigilant, the threat is real."
By the standards of some other Western countries, Canada's foreign fighter problem is relatively small. Britain, Germany and France are each thought to have seen several hundreds of their citizens migrate to Syria in hopes of becoming jihadi fighters. Six months ago, Britain's Immigration Minister said authorities there were already "closely monitoring" 250 British-based "returnees" from Syria and Iraq.
The Canadian government is seeking new powers to work with the United States and European countries on measures to share information on travellers leaving the country, including passport details and travel data. Mr. Blaney said the information is seemingly banal, but potentially strategic, as it could help law-enforcement authorities obtain a broader picture of movements, including people who travel to Turkey before going to Syria, for example.
Mr. Coulombe added that other Islamic State supporters with American or Australian citizenship, for example, could easily enter Canada, and need to be tracked. He said combatting terrorism today is challenging, as the threat is increasingly diffuse and it can be hard to shut down the communications tools used by various groups. For CSIS, he said, it is sometimes akin to playing "whack-a-mole."
"You can close a website, it can appear the next morning, the servers are quite often not in this country," he said.
While the RCMP investigations into foreign fighters are ongoing, Mr. Blaney said these people must be punished.
"These individuals posing a threat to our security at home have violated Canadian law," he said. "The RCMP is investigating these individuals and will seek to put them behind bars, where they belong."
The numbers of foreign fighters mentioned at committee apply to conflicts in several Middle East war zones, but the main concern is Canadians who have been to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State and other factions. One of the problem for law-enforcement authorities is that it can be hard to predict who among them might deradicalize upon leaving the crucible of the conflict, and who could graduate to become a full-blown international terrorist threat.