OTTAWA – The question of what to do about members of the so-called Islamic State who try to return to Canada has become a heated political battle in recent weeks.
“The Liberals are putting the safety of all Canadians at risk by allowing (Islamic State) fighters to return to Canada and proposing a ‘reintegration program’ and support services for them,” Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt wrote in a fundraising letter last week.
WATCH: Opposition questions consequences for IS fighters returning to Canada
The insinuation is that the Liberals are soft on terrorists.
“We have enforcement, surveillance, and national security tools that we use to a significant degree,” he said.
“But we also have methods of de-emphasizing or de-programming people who want to harm our society, and those are some things we have to move forward on.”
So is the government putting Canadians at risk with its approach to returning Islamic State members?
Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).
This one earns a rating of “a lot of baloney.” Here’s why.
The so-called Islamic State has been all but driven from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, but that victory has sparked fresh fears that members from countries like Canada will try to continue their fight back home.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Wednesday that the government has identified about 250 people with links to Canada who are suspected of travelling overseas to engage in terrorist activity .
This could involve front-line fighting, training, logistical support, fundraising or studying at extremist-influenced schools. Yet the number who have returned to Canada has remained largely unchanged at around 60 over the past two years, suggesting there has not been a sudden influx of terrorists into the country.
Still, the government has refused to say much about those 60 individuals, including who they are, where they travelled, what they may have done, and what the government is doing about them.
Much of the current political furor has centred on a new government centre that is funding research and programs to stop radicalization and help people leave extremist groups like IS.
The Conservatives have heaped scorn on the work of the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence and suggested the Liberals aren’t taking a hard line with IS returnees.
WATCH: Canada offers ‘reintegration support’ for ISIS fighters
But the government says it has deployed a full range of counter-terrorism tools for returnees, including surveillance, criminal investigations, peace bonds, and the revoking of passports.
However, it says it is ultimately up to intelligence officials and police – and not politicians – to decide who should be investigated, arrested or charged.
As for the centre, which has a budget of $35 million over the next five years, it will fund programs and initiatives run by local organizations and groups. That means the federal government will not actually be rehabilitating or re-integrating returnees.
What the Experts Say
Several terrorism experts say there is a clear need for more deradicalization and re-integration programs in Canada – and that such efforts don’t detract from holding terrorists to account.
“An intervention program does not derail or take away from other counter-terrorism measures,” said Jez Littlewood, an expert on national security and terrorism at Carleton University.
“Counter-terrorism is never one-dimensional in a democracy. Prevention and re-integration are simply strands within a comprehensive counter-terrorism approach.”
One of the reasons the experts say it complements other counter-terror measures is that actually convicting someone of having committed a terrorist act overseas is extremely difficult, the experts say, which is why so few cases have actually gone to court. Authorities do have the ability to monitor those they suspect of having nefarious plans, and even restrict their movements with peace bonds or no-fly lists.
WATCH: ‘Who Do You Want To Be?’ Counter-terrorism campaign in Edmonton
Lorne Dawson, a University of Waterloo sociology professor and director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, said it would be folly to believe they aren’t using those powers. But there are limits, Dawson said, which is where re-integration and disengagement can fill the gap.
“If you can’t prosecute them or there’s long delays in prosecuting them or if peace bonds are only a partially effective measure … we can just do nothing. Just let them loose in our society,” he said.
“Or you try and have some kind of program available that they could be strongly encouraged to partake in these programs.”
There is a valid question as to whether the police and prosecutors have the right resources, said Craig Forcese, a law professor who teaches on national security at the University of Ottawa.
“And in terms of policy reform, why have we not moved in full on the various recommendations for more effective terrorism trials proposed by the Air India bombing inquiry?” he said.
Among the inquiry’s recommendations in 2009 were the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle terrorism-related trials, and clearer rules and guidance in the collection and use of secret intelligence in court cases.
But, he added, “those are questions for two governments – the present and the past.”
Should the Liberals dedicate more resources to ensure anyone coming back to Canada who is a member of ISIL or another terrorist group is investigated and prosecuted? Could the government be more transparent in terms of who is returning and what is being done to ensure they don’t pose a threat to society?
These are fair questions.
But the Conservatives suggest there has been a sudden influx of IS members into Canada, and that the government is welcoming them with open arms, the experts say.
“(Raitt’s) statement is trying to play upon people’s emotions in a reactionary way instead of being practical and realistic,” Dawson said.
Adds Littlewood: “The statement implies things that are not correct. There are no factual errors in the statement – but there is an interpretation of the issue and the response of the government of the day to the problems posed by returnees.”
For that reason, Raitt’s statement is deemed to have “a lot of baloney.”