PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2006.08.12
PNAME: Arguments
BYLINE: Wesley Wark
SOURCE: Citizen Special

The new agenda for Canada's intelligence service

WASHINGTON - In the aftermath of the foiled United Kingdom airplane bomb plot, we can expect three things: more counterterrorism investigations, more transport security restrictions, and, least noticeable but every bit as important, a frantic effort to learn from the most recent example of an ongoing taste in terrorist circles for spectacular assaults.

Once again, as in July 2005, Canadian intelligence officials will stream to London to keep a watch on the un-folding investigation, or head back to their Ottawa desks from hastily cancelled holidays.

The scale of Canadian security interest in the London plot may have little to do with any actual Canadian connection. It will have everything to do with the new reality of terrorist organizations, the closeness of alliance relationships in the secret world, and the barb of past criticism of Canadian intelligence performance.

No less an authority than the Office of the Auditor General has been critical in the past of the failure of the Canadian security and intelligence community to adequately learn and systematically apply lessons from past terrorism cases. The criticism emerged in the aftermath of the arrest of Ahmed Ressam, the so-called millennium bomber, in December 1999 at a U.S. border crossing while on his way to target the Los Angeles International airport.

It surfaced again in regard to the inability of the government to effectively apply lessons from its response to the 9/11 attacks. It's a criticism Canadian security agencies do not like and do not need. They know it may come around again in the next cycle of Auditor General studies.

But learning lessons has a new edge for Canadian intelligence, even while it has an on-going taskmaster. There is a new government in power, feeling out its security functions. There is a new onus on integrated security operations, laid down by the previous Paul Martin government and continuing to be enforced by the Conservatives.

There is a new sense of threat, stimulated by the deepening conflict in Afghanistan, the fear of blowback, and the evidence of at least one serious homegrown terrorist cell in the Toronto area. And there is the fear factor involved in the upcoming fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

While Canada long ago divested itself of imperial ties with Britain, a close working relationship remains between British intelligence and the Canadian community. It's a relationship between an old intelligence player and a relatively new one, marked by a large degree of Canadian trust and even admiration of British capabilities.

There may be something of the James Bond mystique to the Anglo-Canadian relationship, but it is also founded on hard-headed realities. These include the fact that Canadians are currently charged with complicity or connections to past terrorist plots involving British nationals. The intimate world of intelligence alliances has its counterpart in the globalized world of terrorism.

The most important thing that Canadian intelligence will be seeking to learn from the airline plot is how the new threat of homegrown terrorism actually works.

We have some experience of this with regard to the alleged Toronto cell, arrested in the spring. The U.S. authorities have faced similar issues with a ragtag group in Miami and plotters who desired to blow up the tunnel connections into Manhattan. But the British now sit on the goldmine of information on homegrown terrorism, because of their combined experience of the July 2005 transit bombings in London, and now the airline plot.

The lessons that need to be learned are about how jihadist ideology takes hold among second generation immigrants. How does al-Qaeda "inspire?" How are technical expertise and finances generated? How are connections and communications forged between members of a domestic cell and overseas operatives?

Above all, the key lesson is about prevention. How are such plots to be stopped? And beyond that, how can the incentives to get involved in such plots be eradicated?

This is the agenda for Canadian intelligence, as for British, American, and Pakistani intelligence and every other unlikely partner in the 21st century's new conflict.

Wesley Wark is a professor at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, specializing in security issues.