OTTAWA The Canadian Security Intelligence Service had 274 individual terrorist suspects in its sights last year, according to a new government report that identifies Islamic extremism as the biggest terrorist threat facing Canada.
A total of 31 organizations came under suspicion and were targeted for investigation by the CSIS anti-terrorism branch, the report says.
The numbers are contained in a report released Thursday by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, a watchdog panel that oversees CSIS operations. This is the first time SIRC has published the numbers of targets formally authorized for investigation by senior CSIS managers.
The report covers the 2005-06 operational year, a period that saw the terrorist threat to Canada increase, SIRC says.
CSIS identified “several previously unknown domestic extremists” who posed a terrorist threat, and prevented a suspected foreign extremist from entering Canada, the report says.
Moreover, CSIS “disrupted a Canadian-based terrorist cell,” the report says, a possible reference to the arrests of 18 suspects in the Toronto area in June.
All names and other information that could identify individuals or groups have been stripped from the public version of the SIRC report.
However, “al-Qaeda-inspired or -related” Islamic extremists remain the top priority of the counterterrorism branch, the report says.
The counterintelligence branch, charged with ferreting out foreign spies operating in Canada — a major preoccupation during the Cold War — had 152 individuals and 36 organizations targeted for investigation last year. These would include foreign spies operating out of embassies and diplomatic missions in Canada.
The counterproliferation branch had 55 people and six organizations on the radar scope. This branch works to stop trafficking in materials that can be used to make chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, the report adds.
But counterterrorism remains far and away the highest CSIS priority.
SIRC, an independent watchdog panel set up by Parliament and currently chaired by former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon, said CSIS officers generally operate within the rules and guidelines set down by its political masters.
But the report briefly notes troubling issues surrounding CSIS's co-operation with foreign governments known for torturing suspects and other human-rights abuses, a concern that was also dealt with in detail by the judicial commission of inquiry that examined the Maher Arar case.
The SIRC report said that in one case during the year under review, CSIS received and used intelligence that “may have been obtained under duress” by a foreign government. In addition, CSIS submitted questions to this foreign government through a third party that may have been used to interrogate a Canadian “in a manner that violated his human rights.”
The SIRC report also says CSIS provided information to a foreign government known for rights abuses that may have been used to arrest a Canadian when he entered that country.
These two incidents appear to be references to Abdullah Almalki and Ahmad El Maati, two Canadian Muslim men who were arrested in Syria, like Mr. Arar, and were subsequently tortured. The federal government has said it will conduct independent and public investigations of the two cases in line with the recommendations of Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor, who headed the Arar commission.
SIRC says CSIS must maintain relationships and exchange information with governments and intelligence agencies around the world, including some with questionable human-rights records. CSIS says it takes human rights into account when dealing with these countries, so as not to contribute to rights violations and to evaluate the questionable accuracy of information obtained by torture.
But SIRC said the service needs to formalize its practices into written policies. A new co-operation agreement was entered into with a rights-violating country, but the review committee could find no paper trail suggesting anyone at CSIS looked at authoritative public documents condemning that country's record.