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CSIS spy networks in mosques not meant to target Islam, experts say
Michelle Mcquigge
Canadian Press

TORONTO (CP) - The Canadian Security Intelligence Service practice of paying informants to gather intelligence from specific religious communities in Canada is a perfectly acceptable tactic that has been misunderstood and misrepresented, security experts say.

Places of worship are only investigated if suspicious individuals are known to frequent them, former employees of the spy agency and the RCMP said Monday in response to media reports that said CSIS has infiltrated virtually every mosque in Toronto.

"It's absolutely, absolutely untrue that there's a spy in every mosque," said Chris Mathers, a crime and risk consultant and former RCMP officer.

"The RCMP and CSIS do not . . .target religious groups, they target individuals, because it's against the law."

CSIS will only infiltrate particular locations if they seem to be likely breeding grounds for extremist activity, Mathers said.

If a person was under suspicion and attended a specific place of worship, measures would be taken to investigate the goings-on within that building as well as any other places the suspect spent considerable time, he added.

A religious building is subject to the same laws governing any other Canadian institution, said David Harris, a former chief of strategic planning for the agency.

"It's important for us to note that there is no immunity that any community or facility enjoys from CSIS's obligation to us all to assess possible threats to the security of Canada," Harris said.

Other religious groups have been the focus of past investigations and denied alligations that Muslims are being unfairly persecuted through current practices, he added.

Harris cited the investigation of fundamentalist Christian groups in the early 1990s, where intelligence agents all over North America infiltrated churches that were suspected of being hotbeds for terrorist recruitment.

Recent reports of Muslim spy networks have distorted the way Canadians perceive CSIS and its activities, Mathers said.

"It's very important that the people of Canada understand this - not only the Muslim community, but everybody else," Mathers said.

"This is not a Muslim issue. This is an extremist issue. Muslim does not equal extremist."

Few in the Muslim community seemed surprised by reports that CSIS moles could be in their midst at various mosques in and around Toronto.

Tarek Fatah, spokesman for the Muslim Canadian Congress, said he would have been shocked if CSIS had not devised a method of monitoring activities inside certain mosques.

Fatah said he supports initiatives to maintain law and order, although he remains concerned the current strategy will cause more problems than it solves.

"My fear is that CSIS informers are espousing extremist rhetoric to draw out people with extremist views, but in doing so are contaminating the minds of many people in the congregation or who associate with them," he said.

"In some ways, we're playing with fire."

Fatah said he is fundamentally opposed to combining religion and politics and suggested CSIS should hire full-time agents dedicated solely to keeping track of activities in the Muslim community.

Harris said such a plan would not be realistic, particularly in time-sensitive investigations.

"Frequently, you want people who are ensconced in whatever the organization or community of interest might be," he said. "It can be unrealistic to expect ... that one can have the time and resources gradually to allow an intelligence officer into a closed shop."

Other religious groups expressed strong support for the spy agency's activities.

Manuel Prutschi, national executive vice-president for the Canadian Jewish Congress, said the methods of CSIS are all in a day's work when it comes to protecting religious groups across Canada.

"We see CSIS as being a very valuable instrument in terms of protecting all Canadians from terrorist threats," Prutschi said.

"We would expect and understand that CSIS tries to keep tabs as best it can on such possible threats."

© The Canadian Press 2006

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