December 13, 2018 6:43 pm
Updated: December 22, 2018 11:27 am

Banks told to watch for signs of ‘extremist travellers’ returning to Canada

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the national terrorism threat level remained unchanged at "medium."

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Canada’s financial intelligence agency warned banks on Thursday to watch for signs that foreign terrorist fighters may be trying to return home from places like Syria and Iraq.

The reactivation of a dormant bank account linked to an “extremist traveller” may indicate that he or she is preparing to come back to Canada, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre (FINTRAC) said.

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Unusual money transfers and new sources of income such as employment or social assistance could also be indicators, FINTRAC said in its first-ever Terrorism Financing Assessment.

“While extremist travellers may remain in the conflict zone after the conflict subsides, some attempt to return home or try to go to a third country,” the report said. “This stage is critical in terms of public safety, since returning extremist travellers may bring their combat experience and connections to terrorist groups home.”

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According to government estimates, about 190 extremists have left Canada to take part in foreign terrorist groups. While about half went to Syria, Iraq and Turkey, federal officials said this week they were not expecting a “significant influx” of returning ISIS members.

But several suspects have come back, including a man living freely in the Toronto area who has told reporters he was in the ISIS religious police. Other Canadian ISIS members have been caught by Kurdish forces while trying to return to Canada through Turkey.

The FINTRAC report, which called extremist travellers “the primary terrorist financing risk to Canada,” is a first-of-its-kind attempt to bring financial institutions up to speed on terrorist financing risks.

“The assessment is intended to provide reporting entities in Canada (banks, money services businesses, caisses populaires, financial technology companies, etc.) guidance on the terrorist financing risks posed by interacting with specific jurisdictions,” said Jessica Davis, president of Insight Threat Intelligence.

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One of its most compelling revelations concerns the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, which the report said runs an international fundraising network that is active in Canada, she said.

According to the report, while Hezbollah gets the bulk of its cash from Tehran, “successful individuals in business and other professions” in Canada and other countries also contribute. In addition, Hezbollah maintains charities and non-profits in countries including Canada, it said.

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“And yet, we have seen no disruption activities targeting these organizations by the RCMP,” Davis said, adding that this suggests a disconnect between FINTRAC’s financial intelligence analysts and law enforcement.

The report said the Middle East was Canada’s greatest terror financing risk but also highlighted concerns about Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

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It said ISIS was “known to have moved unspecified amounts of funds out of both Syria and Iraq into third countries for safekeeping” so it could finance terrorist attacks.

Nada Semaan, the FINTRAC director, said the report was meant to help businesses better identify suspected terrorist financing and report it to the financial intelligence agency.

Despite a drop in the number of Canadians heading to Syria and Iraq, the problem of extremist travellers “will likely persist,” said the report, which cautioned that they may be funded by a “facilitator or donor.”

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

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