OTTAWA—The RCMP has about 63 active security investigations on 90 suspected extremists who intend to join fights abroad or who have returned to Canada, said Bob Paulson, commissioner of the national police force.
“The pace and tempo of operations is quite brisk,” Paulson told the Commons public safety committee on Wednesday.
He quickly added: “It’s nothing that I think that Canadians need to be alarmed about.”
Paulson said the RCMP was “managing, through our collective efforts,” a response that would be “appropriate” to the nature of the suspected offences.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney conveyed a sterner message.
“Let me be clear: these individuals, posing a threat to our security at home, have violated Canadian law,” Blaney told MPs on the committee.
The Mounties will “seek to put them behind bars where they belong,” he added.
“Barbarity is not a Canadian value and will never ever be one.”
A recent federal report said the government knew of more than 130 individuals with Canadian connections who were abroad and suspected of supporting terror-related activities.
It said the government was aware of about 80 such people who had returned to Canada.
As extremists affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant wage guerrilla-style battles in war-stricken Syria and parts of Iraq, western nations are warning that combatants could arrive home harbouring violent intentions.
CSIS director Michel Coulombe noted that fighters from many western countries with trusted passports could enter Canada easily with the aim of carrying out an attack.
“We don’t want to sound alarmist. We’re telling people that they should go about their daily life, but we have to be vigilant,” Coulombe said.
He said CSIS knows where the 80 returnees to Canada are. And while “all of them potentially could be a threat,” some were involved not in armed conflict abroad but terrorist-related activities such as fundraising and propaganda in an array of countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Lebanon and regions such as North Africa.
“So I don’t want people to believe that we have 80 returnees who were hard fighters in Iraq and Syria, because that is not the picture we have at the moment,” Coulombe said.
Later Wednesday, an NBC News report quoted unidentified U.S. intelligence officials as saying Canadian authorities have heard would-be terrorists discussing potential ISIL-inspired “knife and gun” attacks against Canadian and U.S. targets in Canada.
Those targets ranged from an unnamed shopping mall to attacks on Americans or the U.S. Embassy, NBC said. In the mall plan, the group allegedly discussed mowing down people on crowded escalators until police arrived, but the NBC report said the plan was disrupted.
A spokesman for Blaney said in response to the NBC report that he could not comment on “operational matters of national security.”
“I can say that security agencies are constantly evaluating the terrorist threat and taking action to protect Canadians,” Jason Tamming told The Canadian Press in an email Wednesday night.
The federal government has brought in a law that allows police to arrest extremist travellers before they leave Canada. But sometimes authorities have to be creative due to lack of evidence, Paulson indicated.
Federal security agencies—including the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency and Passport Canada—meet regularly to devise means of stopping these travellers, laying charges “against at least five individuals” for passport misuse, Paulson said.
The Mounties are also developing an intervention program that would engage police and local communities to deal with people at risk of turning to extremism.
A man from Timmins, Ont., who died in combat in Syria last year had taken part in a slickly produced video, widely circulated on the Internet following his death, with the aim of inspiring like-minded young people to wage jihad.
While offering no details, Blaney told MPs the government would bring forward new measures to help monitor suspected terrorists and deal with “those Canadians who have literally been brainwashed to take part in this evil cause.”
“They will face the full force of the law.”
Blaney provided no additional details after the meeting.
The government is more than three months late—with no revised deadline—on delivering a tracking system it has touted as a means of stopping homegrown terrorists from joining overseas conflicts.
Under the Canada-U.S. perimeter security pact, Canada promised to begin collecting records as of last June 30 on people leaving Canada on international flights. The Conservatives missed that deadline because legislative and regulatory changes are needed before the plan can take effect.
During the hearing, Blaney noted the Tories recently added ISIL to the federal list of terrorist entities, and have passed a law permitting the government to strip Canadian citizenship from convicted extremists.
The government is also investing in academic research to help better understand terrorist thinking, an ongoing project that flows out of recommendations from an inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing.