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June 13, 2006

Q&A with terrorism expert David Harris

On how Canada is handling the issue of Islamic extremism

LINDA FRUM

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David Harris is one of Canada's leading experts on terrorism. A former chief of strategic planning for CSIS, he is now director of the international and terrorist intelligence program at Insignis Strategic Research in Ottawa. One of Harris's most important qualifications as a Canadian terrorism expert is his almost unique willingness to speak publicly and fearlessly about Islamic extremism. In 2004, Harris was sued by CAIR-CAN, the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, for raising questions about the connections between CAIR-CAN and Islamic extremist ideology. In April, CAIR-CAN dropped its suit against Harris with no damages, costs, apologies, clarifications, "or cab fare."

You have said that Canadians are in denial about terrorism. After the events of last week, do you still believe that's true?
By and large, yes. I think we've seen a transient awareness, but underlaid by a gigantic inertia. We've had warnings and indications for a great many years that extremists -- particularly Islamic extremists -- have infiltrated and targeted us, yet we persist in pretending that this is not a particularly pressing threat.

I suppose what you are describing was best characterized by Jack Layton's gobsmacked reaction. He expressed complete shock that such events could happen in Canada!
It's embarrassing to -- how do I put this, just in relation to the Layton thing -- how unusual for a public official to advertise his ineptness.

I know what you mean. It's like the mayor of Toronto saying he just can't figure out what these terrorists are so upset about.
That's right. I mean, the thing that's beginning to be frightening is the naïveté of individuals. Or maybe it's just a pretense.

On the other hand, can we take comfort in the idea that CSIS knows what it's doing?
Obviously, this operation was a very good sign, as well as an ominous augury. It seems to establish the competence and ability of police and intelligence services to work together to bring resolution to a potential threat. However, it underscores the very existence, in our community, of potential threat.

In your opinion, how radicalized is the Canadian Muslim population? What kind of numbers are we up against?
Well, of course, it's impossible to assess -- there is no poll measuring the support for Wahhabism amongst our communities. But one can look at some of the statements by genuinely moderate clerics concerning the situation in North America. Imam Palazzi has claimed that 80 per cent of mosques in Canada are under the influence of radicals, though he does not by any means appear to suggest that 80 per cent of Canadian Muslims are themselves radical.

Who is Imam Palazzi?
He's an Italian imam and he comes to Canada every now and then. He provided this assessment about two years ago and it's absolutely in line with the appraisal of Imam Sheik Khabani, who's president of the Supreme Islamic Council of America.

So do you trust Palazzi's assessment? Why would he have a sense of things in Canada?
Well, he seems to take quite an interest in the country and has played a leading role in trying to bring about substantive reconciliation rather than the cosmetic variety the Wahhabist-oriented national Islamic organizations propagate. But it's a genuine question. And I guess a larger, related question is on what are they basing that assessment. My answer, unfortunately, is I really don't know. So I can't certify the validity of those stats.

But the underlying premise is that our country is full of radicalized imams -- leading a non-radicalized population?
But that won't last long.

Because the imams are so influential?
That's right. Especially if you're dealing with a culture, a community of religion that's inclined to idealize "men of God" -- clerics -- and hand their children over to such folk for extended periods, you can predict what the outcome could be. And this is why it is of great concern that radical Wahhabist Saudi money is being injected into certain Canadian mosques and Islamic facilities. There seems to be quite a correlation between that sort of influx of cash and radicalism.

And there's nothing illegal about that money coming in, correct?
Correct.

Should there be?
I believe so. I believe funds from Saudi and Saudi-related sources should be banned from that kind of thing.

What other measures might Canada adopt to protect itself from radical Islam?
One of the things is to deal with our nearly-out-of-control immigration and refugee situation. To the extent we're bringing in some people from some regions where liberal, pluralist, democratic, live-and-let-live, Charter-type values are considered anathema, are considered devilish -- we need to be sure that we have the capacity to absorb people properly. It's important to emphasize that absorption includes the absorption of our broader values of tolerance, civility and so on.

Like the Dutch are now doing?
That's right. I know reasonable people differ on these sorts of issues. But one thing that's of great concern is the sheer number of people coming in: 230,000 people a year in the immigration stream, and refugees above and beyond that. That number has gone from 500 in 1977 to about 29,000 this year. That sets up a situation where some populations might be tempted to form self-isolating ghettos, particularly if there should be a significant supremacist inclination to the group. We've seen this sort of thing, say 20 years ago, when "home-grown" meant ethno-European white racist neo-Nazis, and we recognized that and called it for what it was, and through education, and pretty swift and decisive police action, we were able, I think, to largely bring to heel that kind of ugliness.

But in the case of radical Islam, we are not prepared to call it for what it is.
That's a key point. In terms of facing the enemy, we must first face the facts. And our ability to face those facts is completely blocked by official efforts to obfuscate the nature of the adversary. I was disbelieving when I listened to some of the briefings by police and security officials who refused to pronounce the "I" and "M" words -- Islam or Muslim -- or their derivatives.

They're very proud about that. They think it proves what nice people they are.
Yes, and I'd say this is completely unacceptable, particularly for those of us who have freely and without intimidation in the past identified Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists, and Sikh terrorists in precisely those terms when it was clinically appropriate. This idea of not defining the enemy concerns me. In order to position ourselves to deal with an enemy we must understand the enemy's doctrine and mindset. And we can't do that if we don't recognize the realities. But a secondary aspect is that it also -- how would I put this? -- it also subverts the basic egalitarianism of our society, because it offers special treatment to one ethno-cultural or religious group over all others, and that would be very satisfying to some of the fifth- and maybe sixth-column organizations that seem bent on Islamicizing Canada.

Can you help us understand how much underground terrorist activity might be occurring in our country? How many of these kinds of cells are there?
We can't say for sure and that's one of the troubling features. If you've got relatively spontaneously generated organizations of a small, fairly independent nature, that makes the challenge immensely greater. In the case of Toronto, so you've got one batch of alleged terrorists, but really does that say an awful lot about who else in that city may have very similar ideas or be even more advanced in preparation?

It's so unnerving because we know that they are determined to commit the mass murder of Canadians . . .
And we're not showing comparable determination. Political correctness in counter-terrorism could kill us. To listen to security officials at press conferences practically presenting a burlesque on the theme of political correctness is devastatingly unnerving. What we were hearing was surreal. It's also unprepossessing to see police officers and other public officials indulging in theological moonlighting. I do not want to hear from my local cop a detailed analysis of the relevance of Islam to violence.

Is part of the problem that the police don't want to speak in a way that will inspire "backlash"?
One of the terrible developments has been the extent to which radical self-styled Islamic representative organizations in Canada have exaggerated and even fabricated scare stories about imagined anti-Muslim behaviour or threats. This has caused immense damage within the Muslim community, and alienation. In doing so, I believe it has enhanced the prospects for recruitment of otherwise moderate Muslims by extremists.

You are saying that some cases of "backlash" have been exaggerated with the purpose of fuelling the fire?
In general there's been near-hysteria on the part of certain national Canadian, Arab and Islamic organizations claiming all kinds of abuse rather than trying to bring Muslims more constructively into the fold. It's not clear whether it's by design or accident that this kind of behaviour has been sustained.

Let me return to the question of what we as a society can do to better protect ourselves against Islamic fanatics. Is it your opinion that CSIS and the RCMP have enough resources for this kind of "homeland protection"?
It's hard to imagine they could, because the challenges are piling up, and they're cumulative. Immigration is just such a huge factor -- it's hard to imagine how, on the basis of relatively stable investments in national security, our security side is going to be able to keep up. When you look at some of the numbers: 2,700 people at CSIS vs. 230,000 people a year coming in. In short, on that score, we're simply not behaving as though we're a country that's been faced with an imposed war.

What do you say to people who say: "Well, this is all because of our increased role in Afghanistan. If we had taken a different path these guys wouldn't be so upset"?
Yeah, it's funny. I guess I'm inclined to draw a parallel. It's a hint exaggerated -- I don't want to be insensitive -- but to me it's a little like going up to a black in the southern U.S., say in the '20s, fresh from lynchings in the area, and a fairly sound beating, and there's a white guy next to him who looks hostile, and you as a good Canadian wanting to resolve issues -- you go up to the black guy and say: "Consider the root causes of this. There must have been some way that you contributed to this? And therefore, together, perhaps, we can dig ourselves out of this challenge."

So what you are really saying is that in order to protect ourselves, we have to be honest about the true nature of our problem?
That's right, without honesty we're lost. And the enemy knows that too, and that's why some of their sophisticated elements are playing us for all we're worth.

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