Federal officials have spent months probing "chatter" involving suspected members of the outlawed Hezbollah organization possibly discussing attacks on targets in Canada, but have fallen short of proving a plot exists.
Yesterday, ABC News leaked details of an ongoing international intelligence investigation including allegations that up to 20 "sleeper cell" suspects from the Lebanon-based group were activated, including a "weapons expert" spotted "at a firing range south of Toronto."
It was also reported that spy agencies overheard remarks about possible plots against Israeli embassies and consulates.
The report prompted the federal government to decline comment as police agencies on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border took pains to say they knew of no specific threat. Shia and Jewish sources in Toronto reacted with more skepticism than alarm, both pointing out that Hezbollah tends to confine its attacks to the Middle East.
"Chatter happens all the time," said Bernie Farber, the Toronto-based chief executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress. He said conversations he had with several police agencies yesterday left him with the impression the threat was thoroughly investigated and dismissed.
But several sources say that much time, money and effort is being spent probing the activities of Hezbollah in Canada. The organization was legally blacklisted as a terrorist entity by Ottawa in 2002.
Concerns about possible Canadian attacks coincided with heightened fears Jewish communities worldwide have felt in the past six months. Last February, a fugitive Hezbollah terrorist was mysteriously assassinated in Syria, prompting fears of reprisals for Israel's presumed involvement. There also emerged fears of attacks ahead of last month's 60th anniversary celebrations of the state of Israel.
Police work toward standards of proving, beyond reasonable doubt, criminal activities, but intelligence agencies work on the lower threshold of reasonable suspicion. It's possible that different sensibilities could have led to differing conclusions about the nature of any threat.
Since the 1980s, the Shia extremists have been involved in bombing campaigns against Israel, often after incursions into their stronghold in South Lebanon. Hezbollah draws much support from local Shia, but also gets resources from the oil-rich Iranian theocracy and Lebanese refugees living abroad - including some in Canada.
But since then, Hezbollah has largely confined its militant activities to the Middle East and in February, terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyeh was blown up by a car bomb in Syria.
The slaying - for which Israel denied involvement - prompted inevitable talk of reprisal. Unnamed officials told ABC yesterday those fears took a more concrete form as "suspected Hezbollah operatives have conducted recent surveillance on the Israeli embassy in Ottawa, Canada, and on several synagogues in Toronto."
The truth of this is hard to discern. The Israeli embassy in Ottawa maintains an active security presence with RCMP help, but did not return phone calls yesterday inquiring whether there had been any stepped-up measures. Federal officials won't publicly comment on any Canadian investigation.
"Hezbollah is a listed entity. It is a crime to knowingly participate in certain activities of this organization," said Mélisa Leclerc, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day. "As you can appreciate, the minister cannot comment on operations that Canada's security agencies may or may not be undertaking."
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a statement saying it has "no specific intelligence about any group or so-called sleeper cells planning an attack," spokesman Richard Kolko wrote in an e-mail.
The news report released yesterday said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had been working with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency to investigate the chatter.
CSIS does not publicly comment on its investigations, but has been actively tracking Hezbollah since the early 1990s. Years ago, CSIS agents testified in a U.S. court about smuggling schemes North American operatives used to raise money for Hezbollah.