Are We Safe Yet?

Canada has made strides toward protecting its citizens from terrorism since 9/11, but we’re still far from secure

Illustration by Leif Parsons

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: Terrorists on a small ship approach the Atlantic coast of North America. They’ve got one medium-range missile to carry one small nuclear weapon. As it detonates at high altitude, the bomb triggers a surge of electromagnetic radiation. Voltage spikes fry electrical and electronic equipment. Lights, phones, TV, radio—nothing works. The food in the fridge is rotting. Water stops flowing from taps, because the electrical systems that govern the local reservoir are dead. Dead, too, is the ignition in your car. In the worst-case scenario, we are effectively thrown back to pre-modern times. We have to relearn the survival skills of our ancestors. The hardiest make it, but many don’t.

An electromagnetic pulse attack is the sort of thing that keeps counterterrorism experts up at night. Depending on the blast’s size and location, such an attack could leave all of North America in primitive conditions. The emp threat typifies the terrorist threat. The chances of it happening are low at any given time. But it could happen, because there are international terrorists with the motivation, brains, and patience to pull it off. Osama bin Laden has said it is his “religious duty” to acquire nuclear weapons to attack the West. And al Qaeda has repeatedly cited Canada as one of its targets.

In another nuclear nightmare, terrorists detonate a weapon on the ground. On October 11, 2001, a cia agent code named Dragonfire reported that al Qaeda had stolen a ten-kiloton bomb in Russia and successfully smuggled it into New York City. Exploded at noon in midtown Manhattan, the bomb would have killed 500,000 people immediately, and hundreds of thousands more from collapsing buildings, fire, and fallout.

Dragonfire turned out to be wrong, and the intervening years have seen no major attacks on North American soil. But does that mean we’re safe? Graham Allison, an expert on the threat of nuclear terrorism and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, puts the answer this way: “If the US and other governments just keep doing what they are doing today, a nuclear terrorist attack in a major city is more likely than not by 2014.”

The attacks by al Qaeda on September 11, 2001, killed 2,974 people, including twenty-four Canadians. Since then, authorities in this country have taken several steps to make life harder for terrorists. John Thompson, who heads the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto-based think tank that studies political instability and organized violence, has a three-part answer to the question of whether or not these measures have made us safer: “Yes, no, and maybe.”

On the face of it, we should be safer. After 9/11, the federal government rushed the Anti-terrorism Act into law, giving police and intelligence agencies broad new powers, including enhanced use of electronic surveillance and the right to arrest people suspected of planning to commit a terrorist act. As well, Ottawa reorganized its security apparatus: It created the new Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, to improve coordination and information sharing among agencies responsible for national security. It gave the Communications Security Establishment new powers to eavesdrop on private communications. It created the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre. And it launched integrated national security enforcement teams in various parts of Canada, with the aim of disrupting and preventing terrorist activities. There have also been other, more modest improvements. Checked baggage is now screened at Canadian airports, reducing the danger of another Air India disaster. Closed-circuit TV and an increased police presence are helping to protect Canadian transit systems.

All told, we’re now spending $25 billion a year on national security—a figure that encompasses defence, the rcmp, intelligence services, and air, border, and coastal security. Not included in that estimate is the value of the time spent by air travellers lining up to empty their pockets and take off their shoes at security checkpoints. Slowdowns because of increased security at the US land border are costing individuals and businesses millions more. Then there is the curtailed privacy that comes with counterterrorism. It’s too late to do anything once the suicide bomber has walked through the turnstile of the subway station; you have to find out about his plans before he puts them into action, which means security operatives must snoop and watch and eavesdrop. Citizens of totalitarian countries take such things for granted. Most Canadians don’t, at least not yet.

Martin Rudner, founding director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University, believes the costs of security are worth it. “There is no question in my mind,” he says, “that the reason Canada has been spared a deadly attack since 9/11 is not because the terrorists haven’t tried, but because counterterrorism has succeeded.” To take one example, the strategy of pre-emptive enforcement saw its first visible results last fall, when Canadian prosecutors won their first convictions under the Anti-terrorism Act.

Neither of the convicted individuals had actually committed an act of terrorism, but both, the courts decided, were helping to prepare for such acts. One of them was only seventeen in 2006, when he was arrested for attending two training camps held by the so-called “Toronto 18” cell. He also stole things for the group, which was allegedly scheming to bomb targets in Ontario and behead Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In another case, an Ottawa software developer was found guilty of conspiring to set off fertilizer bombs in England in 2004.

In both instances, the threats were from Islamist terrorism, which has become nearly synonymous with terrorism itself. “Islamist,” in this context, means a radical fundamentalist who rejects the concept of a secular, democratic state, and is prepared to use violence to impose a rigid theocratic rule on society. Of course, not all terrorists are Islamic fundamentalists, but non-Islamist terror groups, such as the Tamil Tigers, are obsessed with local struggles. Most pose little threat to Canada, with the major exception thus far being the Sikh separatists who planted bombs on two airplanes departing from Canada on June 22, 1985, killing a total of 331 people.

Al Qaeda has named Western democracies in general, and Canada in particular, as its enemies. In November 2002, Osama bin Laden warned in a statement broadcast on the Arabic television station Al Jazeera that Canada would be attacked because of its participation in the war in Afghanistan. “What do your governments want from their alliance with America in attacking us in Afghanistan? ” he asked. “I mention in particular Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, and Australia. Why should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning, and widowing continue to be our lot, while security, stability, and happiness be your lot? This is unfair. It is time that we get even. You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb.”

In 2004, an al Qaeda manual named Canada as the terrorists’ fifth most important “Christian” target. The people making these threats, says Rudner, are “well-educated intellectuals. Many of the mujahedeen of al Qaeda are engineers and doctors and other professionals. They mean what they say.”

One hundred and fifty jihadist plots have been identified in Europe, North America, and Australia since 9/11. Because of counterterrorism, few have been successful, with the notable exceptions of the attacks on the Madrid commuter trains in 2004, and the London transit system in 2005. Some of the failed plots would have had devastating results. In December 2001, a British convert to Islam tried to blow up a transatlantic flight carrying 198 people by igniting explosives in his shoe. In June 2007, terrorists left two car bombs in central London. One of the cars contained sixty litres of gasoline, gas cylinders, and nails. It was parked outside a nightclub, and if detonated would have killed hundreds of people. In February in London, a trial began of eight men charged with conspiring to kill thousands of people in 2006, by blowing up seven transatlantic planes using liquid bombs made from soft drink bottles and batteries. Two of the targets were Air Canada flights destined for Toronto and Montreal.

The scale of the threat is yet another reason to take it seriously. In 1993, al Qaeda started trying to buy highly enriched uranium in Sudan. And al Qaeda documents seized in Afghanistan gave details of the terror network’s attempts to obtain nuclear materials over several years, until they were expelled from the country after 9/11. “Nothing we know about al Qaeda’s ideology suggests they would have any inhibitions about using such weapons if they could acquire them,” says Wesley Wark, a terrorism expert at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. “A group with that capacity may simply be undeterrable, both in terms of measures the state would take and any phenomenon of self-deterrence—so, an intent to acquire them and use them, and no restraints. That is why the nightmare is a nightmare.”

According to Matthew Bunn, co-principal investigator of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard’s Belfer Center, the ingredients for nuclear weapons exist in hundreds of buildings in forty countries. Some sites are secure, he says, but others “have little more than a night watchman and a chain-link fence.” Once terrorists obtained nuclear material, it would be easy for them to import it into Canada; only 4 percent of containers arriving at our ports are inspected to determine their contents.

Another weapon of mass destruction is biological. To grasp the potential of such an attack, consider a war game called Dark Winter that was conducted by the United States just prior to 9/11 to simulate the effects of a smallpox strike. In the exercise, six days after the first identified case, in Oklahoma City, 2,000 people had the disease and 300 were dead. The worst case predicted by the simulation saw three million Americans infected and one million killed. Should this actually happen, hundreds of thousands of Canadians could die, too.

How capable are Islamist organizations, though, of actually bringing off an attack? “Al Qaeda remains a threat, but it is not quite the threat that people feared it might be after 9/11,” suggests Wark. Since 9/11, al Qaeda has lost its base in Afghanistan, and many of its top leaders have been killed. The American military surge in Iraq succeeded in eliminating the base al Qaeda had built up there after the US invasion.

In 2007, one of the most influential figures in the Islamist movement, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, also known as Dr. Fadl, renounced violence, to the dismay of the terror network’s leadership. This was especially significant because Fadl wrote two of the books al Qaeda uses to justify its terrorist ideology. In an interview last year with Al Hayat, a major Arabic language newspaper, he said he had been wrong and called 9/11 “a catastrophe for Muslims.” Islam, he argued, forbids killing civilians, including non-Muslims. Fadl’s change of heart might make it more difficult for al Qaeda to replenish its ranks.

Most of the world’s one-billion-plus Muslims already dislike the Islamists. Polls by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2006 found strong opposition to terrorism among Muslim populations in seven out of ten countries. As for Osama bin Laden, majorities in eight out of ten countries had no confidence in him. A poll in Pakistan, taken before the 2008 elections, found that if al Qaeda were on the ballot as a political party, only 1 percent of Pakistanis would vote for it. Only 3 percent would have cast a ballot for the Taliban. A Gallup poll in ten countries in 2005 found that a vast majority of Muslims supports such so-called “Western” values as freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, as well as women’s right to vote and work outside the home. Even in Afghanistan, one of the most socially conservative Muslim countries, a large majority supports women’s rights.

“Islamic terrorism is on the decline worldwide, because the terrorists have nothing to offer,” says Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project, based at Simon Fraser University. “Most of the civilians killed by Islamic terrorists haven’t been Westerners but rather fellow Muslims, and I think that has totally pissed off a majority of Muslims.” In Mack’s view, a decline in support for al Qaeda makes Canada safer, because once it dawns on terrorists that they are not achieving their political goals they stop being terrorists. He draws a parallel to Marxist radicals in Europe during the 1960s, who thought their acts of terrorism would radicalize the masses by triggering state repression, thereby sparking a revolution. “It was an idea that was in fact completely stupid,” he says. Terrorist acts created hostility to terrorists, not to the governments they wished to overthrow, so the radicals eventually adopted more peaceful means of working for political change.

The Human Security Report Project, which is supported by the governments of the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, published a brief in 2007 that documented a 40 percent decline in fatalities from terrorism. And as Mack points out, international terrorism kills fewer than 1,000 people a year, on average. (The project does not count deaths in the civil wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as terrorism.) “Allot resources to it, but don’t call it a world war,” he says. “There is no way any of these guys are actually going to overthrow a state.”

Homegrown terrorists aren’t going to overthrow a state either, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do plenty of damage. Unlike, for example, the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks last November, homegrown terrorists are amateurs. They don’t have the skills bred by terrorist organizations with access to money, training camps, and operational experience. Some are “lone wolf terrorists” who aren’t in communication with larger entities. A 2007 report by Canada’s Integrated Threat Assessment Centre pointed out that “Islamist terrorist strategists are now advocating that Muslims take action at a grassroots level, without waiting for instructions.”

Because they are amateurs, homegrown terrorists prefer soft, undefended targets—a restaurant rather than a military installation, a bus rather than a hydro dam. And because they are part of the community, they are hard to detect. “We have cases of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants converting to the most radical forms of Islam,” Jack Hooper, then deputy director of operations for csis, told the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence in 2006. “These are people who blend in with us and our neighbours.”

Liberal senator Colin Kenny, long-time chair of the committee, says Canadian security agencies are doing the best they can, given resources that are so limited as to call into question the government’s commitment to protecting its citizens. Every agency charged with protecting Canada is understaffed, including the Canadian Forces, the rcmp, csis, and the Canadian Border Services Agency. “csis has fewer people than it did in 1990,” he points out. “It seems to me to be a much more dangerous world than it was in 1990, and yet we have fewer people collecting intelligence to tell us about it.” Kenny’s Senate committee estimates that the rcmp is short 5,000 to 7,000 staff. “We have fourteen members to secure the border on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. That’s compared to the US, which has 2,200.”

Only twenty-nine rcmp officers guard Canada’s nineteen most important ports, and just 100 are assigned to the major airports. As for the border agency, 22 percent of its front-line staff are part-timers, mostly student age, who have received just two weeks of training. “They’re the ones determining who gets into the country and who doesn’t,” says Kenny. “This is just goofy.” (Peter Van Loan, minister of public safety in the Conservative government, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Short staffing is all the more problematic because counterterrorism is a labour-intensive job. The 2006 arrests of the so-called Toronto 18 (later renamed the Toronto 11, after seven suspects were released) required the work of 400 police officers. It takes about twenty-five people to follow a suspect for five days. To install one listening device during the Toronto 18 investigation took sixteen people, including someone to break into a building, lookouts, electricians to install the device and test it, and carpenters to repair the damage.

Visible deterrents, such as closed-circuit TV cameras and uniformed police patrols at airports and train stations, provide some degree of security protection. “But the essence of the effort to combat homegrown terrorism is good intelligence,” says Wark. “It’s not just the work of law enforcement and intelligence agencies trying to understand threats and penetrate groups. A lot depends on the willingness of groups in society to be watchful about activity within their own ethnic or religious or political communities, and their willingness to communicate those concerns to the authorities.” The Toronto 18 case illustrates his point: the plot probably would not have been exposed without the assistance of an informer in Toronto’s Muslim community.

Sometimes, intelligence and law enforcement agencies simply disrupt attacks by letting the would-be terrorists and their families and associates know they are being watched, or by arresting them on lesser charges. Last fall, for example, a counterterrorism team disrupted ceremonies in Toronto celebrating the Tamil Tigers by discouraging owners of halls from renting to pro-Tiger groups, and by making themselves obvious in parking lots. The latter measure gave Tamil families who had been pressured to come an excuse to stay away.

While passenger inspection, which is visible to the public, has been tightened to include new photo identification requirements, restrictions on liquids, and increased police presence on flights and at airports, security behind the scenes at Canada’s airports remains flimsy. Airport employees are rarely searched. So while a passenger has to surrender her oversized container of yogurt, it would be easy for a cleaner to plant a weapon on a plane for a terrorist associate to use during the flight. And while passengers’ bags are screened, cargo isn’t. Nor are trucks driving in and out of the airport inspected. Unacceptable, Kenny says. It signifies that Transport Canada puts a greater priority on moving goods and people than it does on security. “Some day, something is going to blow up at one of these airports.”

Back in 1998, Ward Elcock, then director of csis, said that fifty international terrorist groups were active in Canada, more than in any other country, with the possible exception of the US. That’s no surprise to David Harris, a lawyer and a former chief of strategic planning for csis. “We offer everything a discriminating terrorist would want,” he says. “Good communications, ease of travel, a generous welfare system, a good health care system, an excellent banking system, and a wonderfully out-of-control immigration system.”

Anyone who can get to a Canadian airport can enter the country simply by claiming to be a refugee. That’s what the notorious “millennium bomber,” Ahmed Ressam, did. After landing in Montreal in 1994, he made a refugee claim, and immigration officials released him. He didn’t show up for his refugee hearing, instead obtaining a passport under a false name. Five years later, following a training trip to Afghanistan and a period spent plotting to bomb a Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal, he was arrested at the US border carrying a trunk full of explosives that he planned to detonate at the Los Angeles airport on the eve of the new century.

Since then, it has become harder to obtain a Canadian passport fraudulently. Moreover, refugee claimants are now photographed and fingerprinted. Other than that, says James Bissett, a former director of Canada’s immigration service, nothing has changed. “We haven’t reformed the asylum system in any way,” he argues. “Two thousand people a month are still coming into the country, of whom we know nothing. They usually come without documents, so we don’t know where they come from. Or they have false documents. We release them and tell them to show up in two or three years for their refugee hearings. We don’t track them down; we don’t know where the hell they are.”

Bissett is correct: Canada has warrants out for the arrest of about 40,000 refugee claimants who either didn’t appear at their hearings, or didn’t turn up to be deported after their claims were rejected. Few of these people are likely to be terrorists; most are economic migrants intent on bypassing the regular immigration program. Still, as the Ressam episode showed, allowing a steady stream of unidentified persons to enter Canada and disappear into the general population is a questionable practice.

Immigrants who come through regular channels are subject to security screening by csis. But Canada has one of the largest immigration programs in the world relative to its population, and the agency lacks the resources to check 250,000 people every year. In 2006, Jack Hooper of csis told the Senate national security committee that since 2001, some 20,000 people had arrived from Pakistan and Afghanistan, hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism, and 90 percent of them had not undergone security checks. “The numbers are so imposing that there is no realistic way of filtering for people who would constitute subversive or other threats to the country,” says Harris. “We are not protecting our security and stability.”

Danny Eisen is more conscious of terrorism than most because his cousin, Danny Lewin, was on the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. As co-founder of the Canadian Coalition Against Terror, Eisen tries to ensure that Canadians continue to take the threat seriously. “We haven’t fully looked this thing in the eye, even when it is staring right back at us at close range,” he says.

It is human nature to overvalue the recent past as a predictor of the near future. If house prices have risen for several years in a row, we assume they will continue to rise, and are taken aback when they suddenly fall. And since there have been no terrorist attacks originating on Canadian soil since the Air India bombing twenty-four years ago, we assume that will remain the case. The assumption is absurd. Canada is the closest ally of the US, inextricably linked to it both economically and militarily. It’s foolish to suppose we won’t be targeted because we’re nice guys. Al Qaeda has said we are a target, and we have no reason to think they’re kidding.

It is also human nature not to worry overmuch about improbable events. Yes, airport security is full of holes, but it’s still safer to fly from Winnipeg to Calgary than it is to drive. Colin Kenny is deeply concerned about the terrorist threat, yet he concedes that “you’re more likely to die from smoking than from being caught in the middle of a terrorist attack.” He worries nevertheless, because while it’s true that the odds of an attack happening on any given day are very low, the odds of one happening sometime are high. And if terrorists graduate to nuclear or biological weapons, the consequences of one successful attack will be horrific.

The average person feels helpless in the face of such unthinkable perils. One way to cope is to deny they exist. “When something threatens to overwhelm you and you can’t see an option to deal with it, you rationalize it or you deny it,” explains Robert Groves, a clinical psychologist in Ottawa.

That terrorism is associated with minority groups is also a problem for many Canadians. “Most Canadians are reluctant to speak ill of other people publicly,” says Groves. “So two things are happening: individual denial, and reluctance to be identified with intolerance.” He knows scientists who have moved to the countryside from Ottawa. Pressed as to why, they told him Ottawa is a likely terrorist target, and they don’t want to be there if an attack occurs.

The phenomenon of mass denial may be why Kenny’s warnings that our security apparatus is understaffed go unheeded, as do those of experts such as James Bissett about an asylum system that lets a stream of unidentified persons into the country.

Are we safer than we were on 9/11? John Thompson’s answer—yes, no, and maybe—is probably the only correct one. Yes, the Anti-terrorism Act works, and yes, police and security agencies are co-operating and communicating better than before. Al Qaeda is weaker than it once was, and is riven by internal dissension. But the organization is still in business. Moreover, the threat it poses changes with time; we may be fighting the previous battle rather than preparing for the next—worrying more about airport security than attacks from weapons of mass destruction, such as emps, nukes, or biological materials. We may also be failing to appreciate the benefits of prevention. Emergency measures to deal with wmd attacks, for example, pay for themselves when a chemical spill occurs. But most politicians would rather spend hundreds of millions of dollars after a disaster, when they can appear to be providing decisive leadership, than spend a few million before.

Canada, true to its character, needs to be reasonable in its approach to preventing terrorism. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms says we are entitled to freedom of thought and expression. It also guarantees “the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” That tells us not to choose between liberty and security, but rather to insist on both.

To deny the terrorist threat, however, is the worst possible strategy for dealing with it. A healthier approach is to recognize that the risk exists and isn’t going away. We need to remember that terrorists are determined and patient. As the Irish Republican Army said in a statement after failing in a 1984 attempt to assassinate the British prime minister, “You have to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once.”

Daniel Stoffman
Leif Parsons
Leif Parsons has contributed to the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Atlantic.