OTTAWA – Amid revelations about Canadian links to a deadly terrorist siege in Algeria, intelligence experts are urging Canada to track citizens as they leave the country – or detain them at the border – to prevent attacks overseas.
Such ideas are sure to light up the civil liberties and human rights community, which is still wincing from the Harper government’s failed attempt to legislate increased surveillance on the Internet.
Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director of intelligence at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said Canada should consider so-called exit controls, including the removal of a citizen’s passport if the person is deemed a threat.
“There has to be an easy way to trigger a denial of a passport – or the removal of somebody’s passport – if there is sufficient information to demonstrate this person has become highly radicalized and or made threats, or done things to threaten lives or the welfare and well being of others,” Boisvert said.
The radicalization of young people, while not new, can take place at lightning speed in today’s wired world, said Boisvert – and preventing any ensuing violence is a moral imperative, not just a legal one.
“They are our problem,” he said.
“We cannot be a net exporter of terrorism. We can’t have people with Canadian documents, Canadian citizens or persons with Canadian status going off to foreign lands and killing other people. Can you imagine if the situation was reversed?”
The RCMP confirmed Thursday the bodies of two young men from London, Ont., were among those found at the site of a deadly terrorist siege in Algeria.
They asked for the public’s help in tracking the movement of Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, including any information that would shed light on how the two left Canada and who may have helped them.
Medlej and Katsiroubas are believed to have played key roles in the January attack on a natural gas plant, which killed at least 38 hostages and 27 other militants.
It is not the first time a Canadian has been killed fighting with hard-line Islamic militants. William Plotnikov, of Toronto, was killed by Russian security forces in Dagestan last July, according to published reports.
Canadians have also been turning up in Somalia looking to join the al-Qaida affiliate Al Shabab.
As many as 60 young Canadians are known to have left the country to join extremists, according to recent testimony by CSIS boss Richard Fadden before a parliamentary committee.
At a news conference Thursday, RCMP Supt. Marc Richer sought to reassure the public that investigators are on top of the issue of radicalization, but the depth of their trepidation was evident.
Aside from urging the public to report individuals who seemed withdrawn and angry, and blithely tweeting a toll-free number to call “if you have info about individuals leaving Canada to take part in terrorism plots,” the Mounties handed out a pamphlet entitled: “Radicalization: A Guide for the Perplexed.”
Another intelligence expert and former security officer, Michel Juneau-Katsuya, said the notion of passport exit controls has been growing in popularity at CSIS since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Canada is the last country in the Western world which has yet to adopt an exit program,” he said. “When people leave this country we should be capable of being able to report where they are going and when they are leaving.”
But Juneau-Katsuya said any such move towards legislation must be balanced against individual privacy concerns.
Boisvert said a process of legal safeguards similar to security certificates, which are used to detain and deport non-residents who are deemed a threat to national security, could be put in place.
Both former security officers said the best way to engage radicalization is at the community level, where youth who are withdrawn and intolerant can be spotted more easily.
The Conservative government has not talked about introducing exit controls.
Constitutional expert Errol Mendes, of the University of Ottawa, said the federal government would likely have a fight on its hands if it chose to go down that road.
“We have to not take knee-jerk reactions,” Mendes said.
“Canadian citizens have mobility rights just like any one else. The first thing is, if there were to be any limitations on these people, it would have to be justified in a court of law.”
Mendes said he’s in favour of strict, smart surveillance of people who pose a threat, but with the necessary safeguards in place.