TORONTO -- Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day denounced Hezbollah yesterday as "one of the most vicious murderous groups in the world today." A few days ago, he lauded police officials for scooping up Canadian suspects "who allegedly conspired to procure weapons on behalf of the Tamil Tigers."
But while Mr. Day talks the talk of an anti-terrorism crusader, Canada remains a latecomer in taking legal action against alleged domestic supporters of foreign terrorist organizations. In fact, while security agencies here have been spying on suspected local operatives of Hezbollah and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam since at least the early 1990s, they haven't been able to convert those operations into criminal prosecutions.
More frequently, investigations of Canadian operatives have tended to spawn criminal prosecutions in the United States, where supporting terrorist groups is a more clear-cut crime, and has been for years.
"The U.S. has much more stringent laws," said Ed Morgan, a University of Toronto law professor and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. "I don't think our legislation is quite as specific."
On the surface, Hezbollah and the Tamil Tigers share little in common beyond being notorious for pioneering suicide bombings in the 1980s. But when Shia fighters from south Lebanon want night-vision goggles, or when guerrillas in Sri Lanka want the latest global-positioning circuitry, security sources believe they often go shopping in the same place: Canada.
Although the shopping sprees have been picked up on by Canadian agents, the results have been more useful to U.S. prosecutors than to Canadian ones.
Tamil Tiger "co-conspirators attempted to purchase night-vision goggles from a company in British Columbia," reads one part of a new criminal complaint unsealed last week against more than a dozen suspects, many of them Canadians. The Ontario-based suspects also allegedly sought high-end GPS circuit boards, radio towers, assault rifles, missile launchers, even warship-design software from a variety of jurisdictions.
The FBI-intercepted conversations alluded to in the case, which is being prosecuted in New York, bear a striking resemblance to similar ones involving Hezbollah that Canadian spies picked up years ago. "There was a store in Alberta and one here," says one Vancouver Hezbollah suspect who was later accused of trying to buy $60,000 worth of night-vision goggles and GPS circuitry. He then stated that he "preferred that the items be purchased in Alberta, to save paying taxes."
Those conversations were overheard and chronicled at length by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. But they have never been presented in a Canadian criminal court. (The CSIS mandate largely prevents the spy agency from presenting its intelligence as evidence in Canadian criminal proceedings.)
Yet the CSIS intercepts proved crucial to American prosecutors, who persuaded the spy agency that there was no barrier to its agents giving evidence in the United States. The information has been used to secure several lengthy convictions of Hezbollah operatives, while prosecutors in several states are still seeking to convict 20 other Hezbollah sympathizers on charges of being part of a wider racketeering conspiracy. Several Canadians, including ones considered fugitives by the United States, are named in the indictment.
A crucial difference between Canada and the United States is when Hezbollah and the Tamil Tigers were officially listed as terrorist organizations. The United States outlawed Hezbollah and the Tigers in 1997. Ottawa outlawed Hezbollah in 2002 and the Tigers this year.
Some critics of Canada's record point out that refugees from war-torn Sri Lanka and Lebanon make up a proportionately greater contingent of Canada's population, giving them a greater political voice. Canada's Liberal Party long resisted calls to declare the Tamil Tigers a terrorist group, but the Conservatives quickly moved to outlaw the group after the party took power this winter.
Just days after that blacklisting, the RCMP raided offices in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver associated with an alleged Tamil Tiger front organization, the World Tamil Movement. No charges have been brought.
While the U.S. Justice Department has boasted of launching 400 "terrorism-related" cases since 2001 -- many of them, it should be pointed out, for low-level infractions such as visa fraud -- Canada has been far more discriminating about its application of its laws.
The Department of Justice even cautions on its website that terrorism "investigations are often complex, and require several years of work before criminal charges are laid." In fact, Ottawa's 2001 Antiterrorism Act, which granted the state far wider powers, has been used to lay charges in only two pending criminal cases. Both involve suspects accused of plotting al-Qaeda-inspired attacks against civilians.
Compared to plotting mass-murder, buying dozens of night-vision goggles for Hezbollah or the Tamil Tigers might seem a minor offence. But such goggles turned out to be crucial for Lebanese fighters this summer, when they resisted Israeli forces and continued to lob rockets into northern Israel. (The night-vision goggles discovered so far appear to have come from Britain, not Canada.)
Experts caution that Canada's obligation to stop terrorism doesn't begin and end with thwarting bomb plots. "We want to stop acts at a very inchoate stage," Prof. Morgan said.
He said that although Canadian laws aren't as explicit as U.S. ones banning material support, a successful test case or two could change that.
"These things do need testing in the courts," he said. "We haven't brought any charges at all, so the courts haven't had a chance to test our legislation."