Canada’s Syria Problem

August 26, 2013

The New York Times published a fascinating long-form article by C.J. Chivers on Friday that told the story of an American freelance photographer held prisoner for seven months by jihadists fighting in Syria.  Matthew Schrier escaped in July, and the tale of his detention offers a number of insights into the opaque jihadist network fighting against the Assad regime.  Among the most interesting is his belief that three of the men who participated in his frequent interrogations were likely Canadians.

Rather quietly, Canadians have become among the most numerous foreign fighters in Syria’s civil war.  An estimated 100 of them are believed to have left Canada to join the fight.  And although it is impossible to know precisely how many have fought in Syria, and specifically with jihadists, Schrier’s experience offers empirical evidence that at least some have attached themselves to extremist organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra.

Canada is not the only Western country that has seen some of its citizens join the anti-Assad fight, but the sheer size of this Canadian contingent makes it the most surprising.   Between 70 and 100 Britons are believed to have left the U.K. to fight alongside jihadists in Syria.  At least 50 French citizens and 40 Germans are suspected to have travelled to take part in the war.  Estimates of Americans’ involvement in the fighting vary, but are significantly lower, ranging from “a handful” to up to 20.  But in the context of population and demographic figures, the number of Canadians in Syria is even more significant: Canada’s population is half that of the U.K., and its Muslim population is only about a third as large.

And so the Canadian government is naturally concerned by the potential threat posed by the return of individuals who have fought with jihadists in Syria.  “The spectre of these young people returning to Canada — with combat experience and thoroughly radicalized views — is a serious national security concern,” the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told a parliamentary committee in November.  For Canada, this danger is amplified by two factors.

First, it isn’t clear that Canadians who have travelled to fight in Syria have broken Canadian laws.  The government did pass a bill in April that makes it illegal to leave or attempt to leave the country in order to commit a terrorism offense abroad.  But it is not legally certain that an individual can be charged with committing a “terrorism offense” unless he or she has actively participated in a terrorist organization.  And Canada has not designated Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist group, unlike the U.S., the U.K., and the United Nations.  The tools available for the government to meet any threat posed by returnees are thus limited.

Second, nobody really knows the exact number or identities of those who have left to support the anti-Assad militias.  The only figures available are government estimates that are most likely based on fragmented intelligence reports typical to complex operating environments like Syria’s, anecdotal information, and militant groups’ statements that are of uncertain veracity.   It is, therefore, conceivable, that a Canadian could return home after having fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra without the Canadian security services knowing anything about it.  Even if such individuals had not broken Canadian laws by their actions in Syria, security services will want to identify them in order to assess whether they are at risk of supporting jihad elsewhere.  But Canada does not have the information to do this currently.

Last year, the Canadian parliament passed a bill aimed at reforming various aspects of its immigration system.  I was invited to testify to a House of Commons committee on the bill’s measures intended to boost Canadian security.  Among these measures was the introduction of biometric data collection.  The law authorized the gathering of biometric data – fingerprints and photos – from individuals seeking to enter Canada from 29 countries and one territory (Palestine), a list selected based on a number of criteria, including “their relevance to Canada’s foreign and trade policy objectives.”  Such a program is useful in combating particular terrorist threats.  It could have, for instance, brought official attention to Ahmed Ressam, the so-called “millennium bomber” who planned to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport but was detained by an alert U.S. Customs inspector in December 1999.  Ressam originally entered Canada on a fake passport, and if this program had been in place, the suspicions aroused by his documents and his admission of Algerian nationality could have triggered the collection of his biometric data.  This data could have then been used to identify him upon his return to Canada – on a fraudulently obtained passport – after receiving training at camps in Afghanistan.

The new law does nothing to protect against the threat of Canadians returning from jihadist battlefields abroad, however.  This illustrates the fundamental challenge of balancing security imperatives with the freedom and privacy demanded by citizens of free, democratic countries.  Collecting biometric data from foreign visitors generates little controversy, but doing so from all citizens is incompatible with the basic principles in which Canadians take pride.  From a strictly security perspective, however, this issue highlights the gap over which Canadian officials are now concerned.

Canada is not the only country worried about the threat of returning jihadists.  Recent comments by FBI Director Robert Mueller reflect similar concerns regarding the Americans believed to be fighting in Syria.  “You are concerned about the associations they will make, and secondly about the expertise they will develop and whether or not they will utilize those associations, utilize that expertise, to undertake an attack upon the homeland,” Mueller said.  In February, British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed his government’s fears thus:

Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today.  This includes a number of individuals connected with the United Kingdom and other European countries. They may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive, some may return ideologically hardened and with experience of weapons and explosives.

Previous fears about jihadists returning to Western countries from other battlefields have been criticized as overblown.  Despite concerns about returnees from places like Iraq and Somalia, the actual manifestation of this danger has been rare.  One of the only acts linked to a jihadist returnee in the West was an attack on a Danish cartoonist by a man previously detained in Kenya, suspected of ties to the Somali militant group al-Shabaab.  In purely statistical terms, then, the likelihood that Canadian fighters will undertake attack planning once they’ve returned from Syria is low.  And yet, the extent to which historical rarity can truly mitigate concerns is limited.  Efforts to counter the unpredictable threat of terrorism cannot be based on historical patterns that can be shattered by a single successful attack.

And so, the facts remain.  Canadians represent a disproportionate number of Western fighters in Syria.  And given the uncertainty about both the size of this group and the identities of the people who comprise it, there are few means of appreciating the potential dangers that could arise if and when they return to Canada.  The country’s problem is not unique, as shown by a recent study that identified 28 nationalities among foreign fighters recently killed in Syria.  But its problem is arguably the most severe among Western countries.  This is Canada’s Syria problem.


John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo Credit: Michelle Lee, Flickr