Mark Collins – Canadian Security/Intel Round-Up: Foreign Fighters, Budgets, Disrupting

Three stories:

1) Spy agencies see sharp rise in number of Canadians involved in terrorist activities abroad

Canada’s spy agencies [the RCMP is not a “spy” agency] have tracked 180 Canadians who are engaged with terrorist organizations abroad, while another 60 have returned home.

The latest figures mark a significant increase from the findings of the 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, which identified about 130 people involved in terror-related activities overseas, including 30 taking an active role with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and the Nusra Front in Syria.

“The total number of people overseas involved in threat-related activities – and I’m not just talking about Iraq and Syria – is probably around 180,” Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Michel Coulombe told The Globe and Mail after testifying before the House of Commons public safety committee. “In Iraq and Syria, we are probably talking close to 100.”

These people are involved in various activities, including direct combat, training, fundraising to support attacks, promoting radical views and planning terrorist violence.

Mr. Coulombe said about 60 suspected foreign fighters have returned to Canada, although he stressed the numbers keep changing almost daily.

The CSIS director said the greatest danger to this country remains terror suspects who have not managed to leave Canada.

“By talking about the number of people who are overseas, we are not thinking about people who are either prevented from travelling or have no intention of travelling but are here in Canada and are actually involved in threat-related activities,” he said.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said Canadian security agencies are keeping careful tabs on the 60 people who have returned home, even if they do not have enough evidence to charge them with terrorist activities.

“So we have people coming back to Canada. We will make sure they are interviewed and assessed objectively,” Mr. Paulson said. “We will look at those people in the ops centre and say, ‘Okay, what have we got? What do we know,’ and in some cases, we have to be on them 24/7 [and that takes an awful lot of resources: “…it takes 20, 25 people to keep somebody under surveillance 24/7…”].”..

2) Canada’s spies expecting a budget boost: Canada’s two main intelligence agencies expecting $95 million boost in intelligence, cyber defence mandates.

Canada’s spies are expecting a budget boost when the Liberals table their first fiscal plan next month, documents released Tuesday [Feb. 23] show.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) have estimated an additional $95 million for intelligence and cyber defence operations next year.

The figures were released in the government’s main estimates document [see here], a best-guess scenario for departments and agencies released a month before the Liberals table their first budget. 

CSIS expects an additional $35.5 million “in support of Canada’s national security and the safety of Canadians.” A breakdown of CSIS budget — grouped vaguely into “intelligence” and “security screening” — shows most of the increase will go to intelligence operations.

CSE, the electronic spying and cyber defence agency, is expecting a net increase of $59.5 million “in support” of its mandate. Specifically, CSE expects to spend the money to increase its “capacity to address cyber threats and advancements in technology.” 

Together, the two spy agencies estimate they’ll spend $1.2 billion in 2016-17, a slight increase compared to the 2015-16 estimates of $1.075 billion.

CSE spokesperson Lauri Sullivan said in a statementthat the funding will go to addressing several “key vulnerabilities” in government networks, as well as moving forward with the national Cyber Security Strategy [but see: “Time For Canadian Government to Get Really Cyber Serious“].

“CSE’s mandate, including our unique skills in areas like cyber defence, are critical in advancing Canada’s national security priorities,” Sullivan wrote…

 3) CSIS using new powers to disrupt terrorists since Bill C-51 became lawPowers to disrupt include blocking financial transactions, shutting down websites

Michel Coulombe, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a Commons committee today [Feb. 23] that Canada’s spy agency has used new disruption powers it was granted when Bill C-51 became law this past summer.

This marks the first time CSIS has publicly acknowledged the use of its new powers under the Anti-terrorism Act to disrupt suspected plots rather than just relay information about those plots to the federal government and the RCMP.

[see “British Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Review Committee Shows Some Teeth (cf. Canada)“]

As an intelligence agency, CSIS does not have powers to enforce the law. Its role has been to relay intelligence to other branches of government. That changed when Bill C-51 became law, giving the spy agency power to actively interfere with suspected terrorists if it has reasonable grounds to think a security threat exists.

The disruption powers allow CSIS to interfere with, telephone calls, travel plans and bank or financial transactions. The agency can also disrupt radical websites and Twitter accounts of groups or people inside and outside of Canada.

This provision in the act has garnered criticism from the outset, because there is no clear definition of what “disrupt” means in the legislation, causing some to be concerned the power would be abused by police and intelligence services…

What changes the new government makes to C-51, and the nature of a parliamentary review committee, will certainly be indicative of its overall approach to security and intelligence matters. 

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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