Vigilant but Unafraid: Assessing the Threat of Canada’s Returning Fighters

By Eric Fleming, M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University

Responding to the call of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other groups, thousands have ventured to fight in Iraq and Syria, including numerous Canadian citizens and residents. Many of these fighters have decided to return to their home states, some with peacefully intentions, others with the desire to spread terror through violence. Given the destruction that has been wrought by violent returning fighters in France, Belgium, and elsewhere, it is important to consider the threat returning fighters pose to Canada.

Currently, such a Canada-specific analysis appears to be lacking, at least publically. Though immensely valuable, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s (CSIS)  2016 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, and its report on foreign fighters, do not directly address the significance of threat these fighters pose to Canada specifically. This piece utilizes these CSIS reports, a paper by the Brookings Institute, and David Malet’s discussion in Foreign Affairs to provide a brief overview of the level of threat returning fighters from Iraq and Syria pose in the Canadian context.

A number of factors are used to make a threat determination regarding returning fighters, including: i. the fighter’s capacity to carry out attacks, ii. their intent to do so, and iii. their ability to evade discovery and disruption. These individual factors are then multiplied by the number of fighters who successfully return.

Of primary concern for the Canadian government is that returning fighters have the knowledge and skills to carry out sophisticated and devastating attacks. Many individuals returning from Iraq and Syria have trained in methods of combat and destruction. However, the focus of their training is likely to be tactics and skills relevant to the primarily conventional civil war they face, not secretive terrorist operations centred on avoiding intelligence and security agencies. Furthermore, some Canadian nationals returning from ISIL and other groups will not have been fighters per se. Rather, they will have participated in the economic, social, and judicial systems of these groups. In addition, according to CSIS’s report on terrorism, approximately twenty percent of Canadians who have left for Iraq and Syria are women. The vast majority of these women will not have participated in fighting roles and their return poses a comparatively limited threat in terms of their destructive skills. Nonetheless, many returning fighters, men and women alike, could use their newfound militant skills to perpetrate attacks.

However, skills and capacity by themselves do not lead to violence. They are only worrisome if paired with the intent to apply or share them. Surely, some returning fighters will retain part, or all, of the ideology of ISIL and other groups and so may desire to carry on the fight. However, many returnees are, and will be, defectors who have been disillusioned by their group’s ideology or methods. Furthermore, many who have travelled to fight did so out of idealistic hopes to contribute to the protection and reconstruction of Syria and Iraq or combat the Assad regime, not engage in wanton brutality and terrorism. These returnees will be far more likely to want to lead peaceful lives rather than attack Canada, and so pose a limited threat.

Even if a fighter has the capacity and intent, they must still successfully return to Canada, plan, and execute their attack. Canadian security and intelligence organizations monitor returned fighters closely. At every stage of their planning and operation, fighters intent on causing destruction in Canada must evade detection, capture, and death. This includes when they are in the conflict zone, escaping or leaving the area, in transit, arriving in Canada, gathering supplies and creating plans, and successfully perpetrating the attack without being disrupted. Achieving this is possible, though complex and difficult.

Canada is particularly well suited to detecting and tracking incoming returning fighters. CSIS, the RCMP, and a network of international allies are highly effective at gathering and sharing intelligence on returnees. Furthermore, Canada is attuned to the threat, having seen this issue first hand in Canadian returnees from the Spanish Civil War, and through other states with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, and international fighters in the Balkans. In addition, Canada’s geographic distance from the conflict hinders secretive returns and increases the likelihood that intelligence and law enforcement agencies will identify and intercept fighters en route

Most important for gauging the threat returning fighters pose to Canada is understanding how many will return. Through the efforts of CSIS and others, we know that approximately 180 Canadian nationals or residents have travelled abroad to fight. Of these, sixty have already returned. The remaining 120 comprise the current maximum number of fighters available to return. Recent research shows that no more than eleven percent of fighters return with the intent to carry out an attack. As such, if all Canadian fighters returned it is likely that only 18 or 19 would wish to carry out attacks. Given that a sizable portion of fighters will die abroad, or never attempt to return, this number can likely be revised to the single digits. Such a small pool of would-be terrorists limits the likelihood of a successful attack being carried out, while the limited total number of Canadian fighters reduces the burden of monitoring those that return.

However, ISIL thrives on spectacular terror attacks against the foreign powers it fights. With the looming collapse of ISIL as a pseudo-state, its leaders may choose to lash out in an attempt to project strength and maintain its support and prestige among international jihadist groups. Worryingly, given the difficulty of carrying out a large scale attack in the United States, Canada may prove a softer and more inviting target. However, Canada’s shift from a very public bombing campaign to a significant, though less headline-grabbing, special operations involvement in Iraq, may make Canada a less likely object for ISIL retaliation.

This analysis, though brief, suggests that returning fighters do pose a real danger. However, this danger is significantly mitigated by a complex web of factors – some general to all states, some particular to Canada. In light of the above considerations, two lessons emerge. First, the potential destructive capacity of individual returning fighters means that Canada’s security and intelligence agencies should remain vigilant. However, in light of the limited number of returning fighters, the minimal proportion of returnees who are likely to be intent on attacking, and the low probability of a successful attack, the Canadian people should be unafraid.

Canada Declaration” (CC BY 2.0) by Tony Webster

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