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Weak link found between religion, terrorism for Canada

Weak link found between religion, terrorism for Canada

Only two per cent of attacks labelled as violent extremism were perpetrated by religious groups.

TSAS Graph
Canadian Incident Database.

Marie-Danielle Smith
Published: Wednesday, 05/20/2015 12:00 am EDT
Last Updated: Wednesday, 05/20/2015 10:23 am EDT

A new comprehensive database on terrorism occurring in Canada, or involving Canadian perpetrators, victims or targets, has added another tool to the belts of policymakers focused on anti-terrorism efforts.

The open-source Canadian Incident Database is available for free at extremism.ca. It captures unclassified incidents from 1960 to present, including hoaxes and threats. Data was drawn from more than a dozen existing datasets, according to a presentation given at Carleton University last week.

Despite the existence of new threats and new trends such as the recruitment of foreign fighters by terrorist groups, incidents of terrorism haven’t necessarily become more prevalent in Canada, according to findings from the database.

Of 1,405 recorded incidents that occurred in Canada since 1960, 50 happened in the last five years and 13 in the last two, the majority of them threats instead of successful attacks. The Oct. 22 shooting in Ottawa counts as two incidents—one at the war memorial, one on the Hill.

Though recent discourse from Canadian politicians has focused on religious motivations for terrorism, and ISIS in particular, events that occurred in Canada have tended not to be religiously motivated. Of the 1,405 incidents, 255, or about 18 per cent, were religiously motivated, according to the database, and only two per cent of attacks labelled as violent extremism were perpetrated by religious groups.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has consistently characterized terrorist threats facing Canada as coming from a single category: Islamic extremism or “jihadism.” In a January 30 speech introducing the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act, or Bill C-51, Mr. Harper said: “Jihadi terrorism is not a human right; it is an act of war.”

That exact phrase has been repeated, verbatim, 10 times in the House of Commons by 10 different Conservative MPs in the last couple of months, according to Open Parliament, largely in defence of Bill C-51. 

The bill, which introduces a swath of new powers for Canada’s spy agencies, passed in the House of Commons with Conservative and Liberal support on May 6 and is currently in front of the Senate.

Redistributing resources

While there are legitimate concerns leading to support for anti-terrorism legislation, University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes told Embassy it’s important to keep things in perspective: “In the US, more people have died in the bathroom than have died by terrorism.”

Threats from organized crime and biker gangs are more pressing in Canada than terrorist threats, but more personnel in Canada’s law enforcement agencies have been put on the terrorism beat, he said.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told a parliamentary committee in March that 600 officers now work on counter-terrorism, up from 300 in October.

But funding to RCMP isn’t increasing to accommodate that change, with no additional resources included within the provisions of Bill C-51. That means fewer investigators will work on issues such as narcotics and organized crime.

“It makes you wonder whether or not the whole resource aspect is being driven by political messaging instead of what the stats are telling us,” Mr. Mendes said.

Universities, federal law enforcement partners

Funded by Public Safety Canada and Defence Research and Development Canada, the database is the brainchild of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. Additional federal partners include the RCMP, StatCan and FINTRAC.

The project was completed in about 16 months with help from five university partners: the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Carleton University, University of Waterloo and Université de Montréal.

There are about 40 variables to pick and choose from to narrow down the 1,815 incidents, 1,579 of which are described as terrorism as defined by the Canadian Criminal Code, and 236 as violent extremism.

The code defines terrorist acts as committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious, or ideological purpose, objective, or cause” with an intention to intimidate the public “with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government, or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act.”

Variables include the number of casualties, the number of injuries, nationalities of perpetrators and victims, ideological motivations, event types, weapon types, target types and others.

‘Unprecedented access’

Project Lead James Ellis, from UBC, told Embassy the database gives Canada “unprecedented access to its own history, which is important to making evidence-based policies.”

He said looking at terrorism connected to Canada from a big-picture perspective can contextualize current threats.

“When you look at the history of terrorism in Canada, you see that terrorism has come from all sorts of political, social, economic movements, religious movements, secular movements. You realize, if you were to drop in at any point in history…this type of behaviour has been used in all sorts of different categories,” Mr. Ellis said.

“That means Canada has dealt with it, in some form or fashion, for decades. That means we can look to our history and see how it was handled.”

Mr. Ellis pointed out several spikes in terrorist activity in Canada, such as the Sons of Freedom campaigns in BC in the early 1960s or events linked to the Front de libération du Québec.

The biggest spike in casualties came from the deadliest terror attack in Canadian history, the Air India bombing in 1985, killing 329 people, most of them Canadians.

Funding concerns

At the presentation launching the CIDB, Mr. Ellis said cajolingly, in front of his Public Safety colleagues, that participants should “write to your MP or relevant government agency” about more funding to expand the project and maintain the existing database.

Carleton assistant professor Jez Littlewood, who helped to organize the presentation, said negotiations for funding are ongoing, but he is “relatively confident” there will be a Phase Two of the project.

One idea is to enrich existing data by including detailed information on terrorist groups, including profiles of leaders and of rival or related groups. Linked to infrastructure maps and court documents, the database would create a rich tapestry of information to help researchers detect patterns within terrorist activity.

A Phase Two would also enrich the interactive elements of the current CIDB and include incidents of cyber-terrorism.

msmith@embassynews.ca
@mariedanielles

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