Saturday, May 15, 2010


*** The Conservative government is not interested in helping to provide a counter narrative and frankly, that makes us less safe. This should not be a partisan issue driven by political ideology but a Canadian issue driven by common sense. MS ***


When a young African man was caught trying to blow up an airliner last December with underwear-borne explosives, the official response was swift, far-reaching and not altogether coherent.

Knee-jerk airport security measures forced Toronto passengers to rub their hands in their pockets, then extend palms up for an explosives test before boarding.

Washington probed why Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab did not appear on no-fly lists when his own father had alerted authorities.

And focus turned sharply to Yemen, where the suspect allegedly trained.

Soon after, the Obama administration authorized the first sanctioned killing of an American citizen hiding there — online radical orator Anwar al-Awlaki.

Reaction to this month’s failed bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square has been more nuanced — but may pose more troubling questions.

Pakistan, where suspect Faisal Shahzad allegedly received rudimentary explosives training, was already at the centre of Washington’s counter-terrorism efforts and a vital partner in the war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The U.S. administration has sent mixed messages — first criticizing and then praising Pakistan’s ability to root out what Obama called Wednesday the “cancer in their midst.”

It is still uncertain what ties Shahzad to the Pakistani wing of the Taliban, the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), but on Tuesday, U.S. drones rained down on the group’s stronghold in North Waziristan, killing 14.

More troubling is that Shahzad himself was unremarkable in many ways — no obvious warnings were missed.

U.S. Gen. David Petraeus suggested last weekend that Shahzad was a “lone wolf” with questionable ties to Pakistan.

The lone wolf scenario is what worries intelligence agencies, because individuals are difficult to detect. Another concern is the prevalence of what have been dubbed “homegrown groups,” such as the so-called case of the Toronto 18 who plotted to bomb Canadian targets in 2006.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director Richard Fadden told Parliament this week that the spy service is tracking more than 200 Canadians for possible terrorist links.

“They are usually second- or third-generation Canadians who are in some ways relatively well-integrated into Canada, economically and socially,” Fadden said.

But the problem with Shahzad’s case is that he doesn’t neatly fit into one category, and looking for clues to combat future threats provides scant material.

Born into privilege in Pakistan, he came to the U.S. a decade ago and attended school both in Washington and Connecticut. Married, with two kids, he liked Red Lobster and Wal-Mart, was on Facebook, and had financial problems.

He does not appear to be tied to any one mosque or extremist imam, which has sometimes been a factor in past cases. Reports say he was inspired by Awlaki’s online lectures, but that there was no direct contact.

His travels to Pakistan may prove important if reports that he had direct support, training and financing from Pakistan’s Taliban are true. This would counter Petraeus’s description of Shahzad as the lone wolf — akin to Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. army major who killed 13 in a November shooting rampage at his Fort Hood base.

But even if ties to Pakistan become an important part of the equation, they cannot be the sole focus, argues Sahebzada Khan, Toronto’s Consul General of Pakistan in Toronto.

“We will not be forced to accept collective guilt,” Khan said in an interview this week.

“Whether he was a lone wolf or linked to some Taliban organization, this was the work of a twisted mind, motivated by the Al Qaeda narrative.”

A belief in that narrative — that the West has launched a war on Islam — may be the only commonality among Shahzad and other terrorism suspects.

And combating that belief cannot be accomplished with drone attacks or making people take off their shoes at the airport. In fact, security experts fear that misguided drone attacks that kill civilians and the profiling of innocent Muslims only feed the narrative.

Since 9/11, analysts have tried to compile the portrait of a local terrorist or, at the very least, detect a pattern among those who target the West in the name of Al Qaeda or its affiliates.

Al Qaeda before 9/11 was in many ways easier to define and track. The organization was based in Afghanistan, and it had a hierarchy, structure and members who pledged allegiance, or declared a bayat, to leader Osama bin Laden.

Today, what’s left of bin Laden’s group is commonly referred to as Al Qaeda Central. Al Qaeda’s ideology, however, has spread to local groups in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, Iraq and Pakistan, who have expanded their regional wars to adopt bin Laden’s global fight.

In the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and other Western nations, there’s a counterculture protest movement in which, for lack of a better term, jihad becomes cool and Internet chat groups provide fuel for the fire.

Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer in Pakistan in the late 1980s, during the Soviet’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, coined this movement the “blob.”

The author of Leaderless Jihad argues that members come and go and make loose connections, united by the perception that Muslims are being persecuted.

“This is a legal set of activities in a liberal democracy — words are protected by freedom of expression,” Sageman said in an interview this week.

“What keeps it alive usually is government action.”

But when the “blob” is discounted as ineffective and members turn to violence, then comes the dangerous transformation from protestor to terrorist, says Sageman.

Mubin Shaikh, an RCMP police agent who testified as one of the government’s star witnesses against the ring leaders of the Toronto 18 group, says he often hears Muslim youths rage against a war on Islam.

Shaikh knew one of the young Toronto men who travelled to Somalia to fight for the local Al Qaeda-affiliated group and was reportedly killed. He said he was not surprised when a video surfaced that praised Mohammed Elmi Ibrahim, known as “Canlish,” as a martyr and encouraged others to “follow his footsteps.”

“There’s a confluence of factors in these cases,” said Shaikh. “But the feeling that Islam is under attack is how they justify their actions.

“You need to have a counter-narrative.”