When foreign fighters from conflicts abroad try to return to Canada, a senior official with the spy agency tasked with keeping Canadians safe says he is confident law enforcement will know about them and be able to prepare before they arrive back.
Speaking before the Senate national security committee on Monday afternoon, Jeff Yaworski, deputy operations director at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), told senators during questioning about the committee’s study of Canadians kidnapped abroad and foreign threats.
“We’re confident the ones who do make their way back to Canada, we’ll certainly have advance knowledge of,” he said in response to a question about how law enforcement is dealing with returning foreign fighters from conflicts like that in Syria, given the Liberal government’s stated view that many need to be rehabilitated when they return.
That advance notice could come in the form of individuals being flagged when they try to get new copies of their passports at foreign Canadian embassies, their names or aliases being flagged on various no-fly lists, and getting a heads-up from allied intelligence partners, he suggested.
The question of foreign fighters received renewed focus late last year amid concern over the threat posed by individuals who might seek to return to Canada as allies in the coalition against ISIS solidify their grasp on territories once under the terrorist group’s control.
With the Syrian regime increasingly taking back control of its territory from rebels as well, the group and its adherents are facing the challenge of finding new bases and strongholds.
WATCH ABOVE: What the RCMP has done to prepare for ISIS fighters coming back to Canada
Canadian security officials have repeatedly said there are roughly 180 individuals “with a nexus to Canada” currently fighting in conflicts abroad, with about half of those believed to be involved in some of the various conflicts in the Middle East.
About 60 individuals have returned to Canada in recent years after fighting with terrorist groups abroad.
That number includes groups from around the world, however, and experts believe the number of returned ISIS fighters in Canada is likely closer to around 10.
The question of whether Canada is equipped to deal with such people is one that has kept both political communications staff and security officials busy in recent months.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of not doing enough to prosecute returning fighters and for not taking the threat they pose seriously enough.
WATCH ABOVE: Opposition question consequences for ISIS fighters returning to Canada
Trudeau, in turn, has said returning fighters will be prosecuted where evidence exists but that they also need to be rehabilitated to prevent them from posing a longer-term threat to the public.
“We recognize the return of even one individual [who joined the ISIS group] may have serious national security implications,” Trudeau said, noting the government created the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence to help those who work with extremists have the tools they need to help extremists let go of violent ideologies.
“We are going to monitor them. We are also there to help them to let go of that terrorist ideology.”
James Malizia, assistant commissioner in charge of the RCMP‘s federal policing operations, also weighed in on the matter of foreign fighters and told the committee that the question of whether rehabilitation can be successful has no easy answer.
“It’s a very complex issue because with the issue of radicalization to violence, there’s no set piece. One [person] may take a year to radicalize to violence, someone else might take five years and someone else five months. That said, there are individuals who we need to invest in and make the effort to prevent them from being further radicalized to violence,” he said.
“Whether it works or not, that will remain depending on case-by-case.”