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Brussels attack: Could large-scale attack hit Canada? Ex-ISIS fighters make expert uneasy

Belgium saw a large-scale terrorist attack today, France last November, Britain in 2005 and Spain in 2004. The United States, of course, endured one in 2001.

Canada, so far, has only experienced small-scale individual attacks — spectacular, in the case of the 2014 Parliament Hill shooting — but not a big, ambitious terror event taking dozens or hundreds of lives.

Queens’ University political science professor Christopher Kilford, an expert on terrorism, calls the danger “less likely than in Europe, but not impossible.”

Canada doesn’t have the same kind of deeply alienated Muslim populations that some European countries have, which form a base for terrorist groups, he says.

“We just have a better way of integrating people and accepting people,” he says. “That’s not to say we wouldn’t see similar attacks.”

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READ MORE: Brussels attack: Why young Belgian Muslims are easy prey for extremists

However, much depends on what happens when, or if, the Islamic State group is defeated, or nears defeat.

“I think we will see some more attacks take place, as the Islamic State is eventually pushed into a smaller territory and more than likely stamped out, at least in Iraq.”

“The Islamic State has been losing ground. This is one way of pushing their brand name out there, to say ‘We’re still here.’”

If ISIS is defeated, much depends on what happens to volunteers from Western countries who come home. Will they be glad to have escaped with their lives, or will they be bitter and dangerous fanatics?

“Some will come back to Canada, and some are already here. The question is: what do they do?”

“A lot of work has been done to say they’ll just come back and most of them will have seen such horrible things that all they’ll want to do is forget it, get back into society and wish they’d never gone in the first place.”

“Then there are others that may come back with a lot of anger, and we’ll have to see how that plays out. The security services in Canada are not blind to this, and they will do their best to prevent something like what we see in Brussels happening here.”

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The federal government is aware of 60 Canadians who have come home after fighting for ISIS, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told Global News in January. (The real number, of course, is anybody’s guess.)

The London, Madrid and Brussels attacks all targeted transit systems, to devastating effect. While societies can increase security at airports and large train stations by searching passengers before they enter the terminal, for example —  there’s not much you can do to secure a busy urban transit system, Kilford says.

“If terrorists are well-organized and they’ve carried out their reconnaissance and done their work, they will find ways around what you’ve put in place.”

The Toronto 18 group, arrested in a dramatic series of raids in 2006, was perhaps the closest Canada has come to producing a sizable Islamist terrorist organization. It was penetrated early in its existence, and never came close to staging a serious attack.

However, Somali-Canadian Mohammed Ali Dirie, one of the Toronto 18, was reportedly killed in 2013 fighting for ISIS in Syria after his release from prison.

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