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Spy agencies see sharp rise in number of Canadians involved in terrorist activities abroad

CSIS director Michel Coulombe and RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson appear before the public safety committee in Ottawa, Feb. 23, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/CP

Canada's spy agencies have tracked 180 Canadians who are engaged with terrorist organizations abroad, while another 60 have returned home.

The latest figures mark a significant increase from the findings of the 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, which identified about 130 people involved in terror-related activities overseas, including 30 taking an active role with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and the Nusra Front in Syria.

"The total number of people overseas involved in threat-related activities – and I'm not just talking about Iraq and Syria – is probably around 180," Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Michel Coulombe told The Globe and Mail after testifying before the House of Commons public safety committee. "In Iraq and Syria, we are probably talking close to 100."

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These people are involved in various activities, including direct combat, training, fundraising to support attacks, promoting radical views and planning terrorist violence.

Mr. Coulombe said about 60 suspected foreign fighters have returned to Canada, although he stressed the numbers keep changing almost daily.

The CSIS director said the greatest danger to this country remains terror suspects who have not managed to leave Canada.

"By talking about the number of people who are overseas, we are not thinking about people who are either prevented from travelling or have no intention of travelling but are here in Canada and are actually involved in threat-related activities," he said.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said Canadian security agencies are keeping careful tabs on the 60 people who have returned home, even if they do not have enough evidence to charge them with terrorist activities.

"So we have people coming back to Canada. We will make sure they are interviewed and assessed objectively," Mr. Paulson said. "We will look at those people in the ops centre and say, 'Okay, what have we got? What do we know,' and in some cases, we have to be on them 24/7."

Mr. Coulombe told MPs on the committee that CSIS has already used its new disruptive-activities authority under Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism law enacted by the former Conservative government. This power allows CSIS to disable a mobile device, halt financial transactions or talk to someone who might be susceptible to engaging in terrorist acts.

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Another part of Bill C-51, which the Liberal government is promising to review, gives the spy agency the ability to ask a judge for permission to contravene the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but Mr. Coulombe said the agency has not had to use that power.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is moving rapidly to set up a new national Office of Counter-Radicalization within his department to work with communities and security agencies to turn young people away from extremism.

Mr. Goodale said the new office will use intelligence from its Five Eyes spying partners – the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – and the latest research on radicalization, including what municipalities across the country have accomplished in working with local communities and families to intervene before anyone is lured into joining extremist organizations.

"Some of the programs that have been developed by the city police force in Calgary and by the city of Montreal are very promising projects at how you identify the causes of radicalization, how you identify the people who will be the most vulnerable, how you can intervene in the right way at the right time to head off tragedy before it happens," Mr. Goodale said on Sunday.

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About the Author
Ottawa Bureau Chief

Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

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