Above: Vice president of intelligence at Stratfor Fred Burton says he believes the threat of ISIS will be contained to the Middle East, while individual sympathizers could threaten at home.
Islamic State militants have seized the world’s attention, most recently with what appears to be another gruesome beheading, this time of a British aid worker.
But how much of a threat is the militant group to North America? Is military force the most effective way to fight, or will intelligence efforts prove the better battle plan?
In an effort to curb the group’s growth and spread, Canada announced it would send special operations forces to Iraq, while the United States committed to more air strikes in Syria as well as in Iraq.
The menace of the militants, however, is likely contained to the Middle East and Europe, according to a leading authority of security and terrorism.
“That’s due simply to volume and proximity and geography of [Islamic State] operatives in the Middle East currently,” said Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.
“I think for the most part, the biggest challenge facing the United States and Canada from ISIS are lone-wolf sympathizer attacks.”
The group’s tactics are so brutal, even al-Qaida has disowned them. The militants have ignored international borders, capturing territory from the fringes of Aleppo in Eastern Syria to Fallujah in Southern Iraq.
They have also attracted foreign fighters from every corner of the world, including Canada. The latest federal report from Ottawa, now months old, indicated more than 130 Canadians abroad taking part in terrorist activities, and another 80 returned to Canada.
WATCH: Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney says Canada is responsible for citizens who go abroad to join in terrorist activities and outlines how his government is addressing the issue.
The threat of widespread attacks in North America is slim, however, thanks to the work of the FBI in the U.S. and RCMP in Canada, which has created a relatively solid border to keep terrorism out, Burton said.
“If you look at the porous borders in Europe, for example, where individuals have the ease of transport … the real challenge from European intelligence services is monitoring those operatives as they move between countries,” he said.
Without criticizing the recent commitments from Canada and the U.S., Burton said it’s the “clandestine wars” that are so important in protecting security; the quiet war the Central Intelligence Agency in the U.S. carries out on the ground collecting assets to produce high value targets for drone strikes.
“It becomes really an intelligence challenge to keep track of these individuals as they move,” Burton said. “The fear is those individuals who could slip through the cracks.”
WATCH: Chris Boudreau’s son was killed in Syria, fighting with ISIS. She said she believes de-radicalization is worth trying with Canadian youth who are “brainwashed” by extremists abroad.
One such individual is believed to have wound up at a Jewish museum in Brussels four months ago, where he opened fire and killed four people.
“Those are the kinds of problems that are going to persist in our lifetime and there’s really very little that can be done to prevent those from occurring, besides very aggressive and proactive security at soft targets,” Burton said.
Though the latest report from Ottawa indicates 80 radicalized Canadians have returned home, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney says the “situation is fluid,” without providing any update on the numbers.
“There is a growing concern among the law enforcement community of the phenomenon of radicalization,” he said.
Actions the government has taken, Blaney said, include passing the Combating Terrorism Act. That law, however, was wrought with controversy, for allowing preventative arrests and secret judicial hearings.
The law allows the government to seize the passport of a Canadian attempting to leave the country to participate in terrorist activities, and to revoke Canadian citizenship from dual citizens who are convicted of terrorism.
Several recent cases of radicalized Canadians involve young men who lived in Calgary, something of serious concern to the city’s police chief, Rick Hanson.
“Why it’s happening in Alberta and, I think, here in Calgary, is because it is linked to money. In order to operate, these groups need money,” Hanson said.
WATCH: Vassy Kapelos travels to Calgary to talk with people at the heart of the issue. They offer their perspective on what it’s going to take to solve the problem.
Blaney also said law enforcement would acquire extra tools to monitor and track individuals, but didn’t elaborate. Nor did he say whether the government would go so far as to remove citizenship from a Canadian abroad, effectively leaving that individual stateless.
“Let’s be clear,” Blaney said. “If you are willing to use violence to reach your means, you will face the full force of the law.”
When Parliament resumes this week, the government will be moving forward on additions measures “to better coordinate our effort to track those who are leaving the country, once they leave the country, and once they’re abroad and what they are doing,” Blaney said.
When asked how far the government will go, Blaney said only they will go “as far as it is needed to protect Canadians.”
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