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Terror on the campaign trail

[PoliticsWatch posted May 27, 2004]

Two Canadian citizens are among a group of individuals the FBI believe may be plotting an Al-Qaeda attack this summer. 

OTTAWA — Terrorism appeared on the campaign trail yesterday after top U.S. officials issued a bulletin for seven suspected Al-Qaeda operatives they believe are planning to "hit the United States hard" during the summer. 

Prime Minister Paul Martin and Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan both had to take time out from campaigning and step into the story because two of the suspects were Canadian citizens and another may be carrying a Canadian passport. 

And the question about whether Canada represented a hole in North American security planning was raised when FBI director Robert Mueller said one of the men, Amer El-Maati, was a licensed pilot who is believed to have discussed "hijacking a plane in Canada and flying it into a building in the United States." 

But Martin and McLellan both downplayed any concerns about a Canadian role in a U.S. terror plot and Martin said there were no plans to increase security at Canadian airports. 

"There really is no threat addressed against Canada," said the prime minister. 
"Canadians can feel very, very confident that we have been on heightened vigilance ever since Madrid," in reference to an Al-Qaeda terror attack that happened during Spain's elections. 

McLellan, who is also public security minister, went even further and appeared to contradict the opinions of intelligence and terrorism experts about the existence of Al-Qaeda in Canada. 

"We have no reason to believe that there is a Canadian cell, and again, I want to reassure Canadians around their safety and security and the fact that there is no specific threat in relation to Canadians," she said.

But David Harris, a former chief of strategic planning for CSIS and a terrorism expert, accused McLellan and Martin of being in denial. 

"I don't think we can take much reassurance from that attempt to reassure us," said Harris. "We've got some major issues to look at and it's not entirely reassuring hearing federal politicians attempting to downplay the naked reality that's facing us." 

He expressed surprise at McLellan's statement that there is not an Al-Qaeda cell operating in Canada. 

"There's no reason to imagine that there isn't a Canadian cell here," he said. "The simple fact here is that we're so heavily infiltrated by Islamic extremists and other groups that it seems impossible to give any kind of iron-clad (statement) that there are not groups here of that nature."

McLellan could not be reached for comment.

Harris, who currently is the director of the international and terrorist intelligence programs for Insignis Strategic Research Inc., said Islamic extremist organizations have proliferated in Canada over the last decade, including Al-Qaeda. 

Harris is not the only person with CSIS experience who appears to have been more pessimistic about the possibility of an attack than McLellan. 

Earlier this month, the outgoing director of CSIS, Ward Elcock, told a Commons subcommittee on national security that an Al-Qaeda attack on Canada was inevitable. 

"As Al-Qaeda has directly threatened Canadians twice in as many years, the last time only a month ago, it is therefore safe to assume that it is no longer a question of if, but rather of when or where, we will be specifically targeted," he said.

But later that same day, McLellan tried to downplay Elcock's rather blunt comments and said there was no known specific terrorist threat aimed at Canadians.

"I'm not sure that I would say it (an attack) is inevitable," she said, adding that post-Sept. 11 security measures could break up a potential attack before it is carried out. 

But Harris said he could understand to some extent why McLellan and Martin are downplaying the potential for an attack. 

"We do not want panic," he said, "but it's truly time that the Canadian public awaken to the nature and the extent of both the infiltration and the threat that is posed to Canada." 

He said the terror groups have been tremendously straightforward about their plans. 

"It's the rest of us, frankly, who have been involved in a kind of denial or self-deception for many years," he said. "There is going to be denial. We haven't seen the kind of violence that might really wake up somebody who doesn't really want to believe things are as bad as they are." 

A further example of this is an interview the prime minister gave to the editorial board of the Windsor Star on Mar. 12, a day after the Al-Qaeda train bombings in Madrid that killed 190 and injured nearly 2,000. 

Martin was asked directly if a Madrid-style terror attack is inevitable on Canadian soil. 

"No, not here. No, no, not here, no, no," the prime minister said. 

So why in Madrid, but not in Canada? 

"I think the general view of the Europeans was it was only a matter of time before there was going to be a European attack." 

According to Harris, a terrorist attack would be "devastating for the Liberals" if the government was considered to have been negligent or reckless in inadvertently contributing to a terrorist attack in Canada or any other territory. 

Conservative foreign affairs critic Stockwell Day said that while the public should not become "unduly alarmed," Canada is a target based on an alleged communiqué from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden which specifically named Canada. 

Day said while the U.S. is Al-Qaeda's primary target, Canada is in its "secondary sights." 

"Al-Qaeda and its operatives hate countries which have democracy, freedom of religion and equality for women," he said. "And they have mentioned the fact that they are not happy that we have troops in Afghanistan. So we have caught the attention of this narrow and violent group called Al-Qaeda." 

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