The Magazine

The Canadian Peril

Why they're checking passports at the border now.

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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In terms of Islamic extremists in Canada [as] they regard the proximity of Canada to the U.S., it's making Canada a kind of Islamic extremist aircraft carrier for the launching of major assaults against the U.S. mainland.

--David Harris, former chief of strategic planning for the
Canadian Security Intelligence Service

The above, slightly overdramatic statement is taken from an interview with Frontline all the way back in May 2001. Just last week, the United States finally got around to instituting identification checks on its sparsely patrolled 5,500-mile northern border. These replace the longstanding honor system beloved of frequent border crossers and aspiring terrorists alike.

As of January 31, U.S. and Canadian citizens age 20 and up must present proof of citizenship and identity to enter the country. The simple oral declaration that one is an American or Canadian citizen will no longer suffice.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a service of the Department of Homeland Security, has its work cut out for it. In just three months last year, from October to December, CBP officers reported 1,517 instances of individuals stopped at the border falsely claiming to be U.S. citizens. And according to a report from the Government Accountability Office dated September 2007, investigators were able "to cross undetected, successfully simulating the cross-border movement of radioactive materials."

The threat is not merely hypothetical. Not only have members of extremist groups and wanted suspects found a congenial haven in Canada, they have done so at a time when immigration to Canada from terror-exporting regions is on the rise.

The list of terrorist attacks planned or perpetrated by Canada-based individuals--of which the "millennium plot" against Los Angeles International Airport is only the most famous--is already considerable. The millennium plot, of course, was foiled when an alert border guard at Port Angeles, Washington, arrested an Algerian resident of Canada attempting to enter the United States with nitroglycerin and four timing devices concealed in a spare-tire well of his car. A member of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, Ahmed Ressam is serving 22 years in prison.

More recently, on January 18, a New York judge sentenced Canadian Mohammed Jabarah to life for plotting to blow up the U.S. embassies in Manila and Singapore in 2001; apparently his clean Canadian passport helped him become an al Qaeda operative. The October 2002 bombing of a night club in Bali and a 1996 truck bomb attack in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, also had Canadian connections.

According to Le Figaro, Canadian authorities recently confirmed that a Lebanese Palestinian sought by France for his role in the 1980 bombing of the Rue Copernic synagogue, which killed 4 and injured 20, is in Canada and has become a citizen. Even the leader of the Canadian branch of the Tamil Tigers, Manickavasagam Suresh, arrested in 1995 as a threat to national security and ordered deported, is still in Canada 13 years later.

Some Canadian authorities admit the vulnerabilities created by their laws and lax policies on matters like extradition. A June 2007 backgrounder on counterterrorism by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (a kind of combined FBI-CIA) concedes, under the heading "Canada as a base for terrorist activities":

Our country's openness and respect for human rights also make it attractive to members of terrorist organizations bent on using Canada as a base to support their activities. International terrorist groups have been active in Canada for years but, more often than not, they were engaged in support of activities such as fundraising or acquiring matériel and equipment. In the last decade or so, the threat has evolved, and Canadians and Canadian interests at home and abroad are at increased risk.

Canada's immigration policies deserve similar scrutiny. In particular, the province of Quebec, seeking to augment its French-speaking population, is actively recruiting immigrants from North Africa. Some 38,000 came between 2002 and 2006. The Muslim population of the province, just 45,000 in 1991, is estimated at 200,000 today. Algeria and Morocco--both enduring increasing violence from groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb--together provided 17 percent of new arrivals to the province in 2006. Extremist sympathizers and terrorists on the run can easily enter North America as part of this flow.

Still, more stringent border and immigration policies are not by themselves a solution. The arrest of 18 homegrown terrorist suspects in Toronto in June 2006 is evidence that in Canada--as in Europe--Islamic extremism is no longer necessarily imported.

Stewart Bell, National Post reporter and author of the eye-opening Cold Terror: How Canada Nurtures and Exports Terrorism Around the World (2004, updated in 2007), quotes an unnamed Russian security official telling a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, "Canada is the land of trusting fools." The message for its southern neighbor: Beware.

Olivier Guitta is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the founder of the newsletter the Croissant.