Paranoid styles in politics .. how much home-grown terrorism can there really be in Canada?

Jun 11th, 2006 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

TORONTO, SUNDAY, JUNE 11. US historian Richard Hofstadter’s article on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” first appeared in Harper’s magazine in November 1964. Canadians who live in the alleged new “hotbed of Islamic extremism” can be excused for remembering this 1960s landmark, at the end of the first full week of the “Canada terror plot” in June 2006.

How, US-born Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente asked her Canadian readers in the middle of the week, were the neighbours in the enormous house next door to know that “us locals found these headlines” about “our would-be terrorists … plotting to …behead the PM … less scary than amusing?”

By the end of the week, however, it seemed some of the neighbours had figured this out. And that really alarmed them. As at least Canadian newspapers were keen to report: “Indiana Republican John Hostettler … accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of laughing off’ an alleged terrorist beheading plot when he quipped that he can live with all these threats as long as they’re not from my caucus.'”

And then again there was the New Republic, which is not exactly on the hard right wing in the USA today. It warned that even though Canadians still “seem largely unconcerned about the threat of Islamic radicalism,” Canada today “may actually be a haven for terrorist cells.” Even some Canadians are starting to wonder: How much of this can possibly be even half-true?

1. Just more Muslims in Canada, “per capita” …

As Richard Hofstadter long ago pointed out, the paranoid style in anyone’s politics is not without its own belief in letting facts speak for themselves. (“One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows.”)

So, as the arrest of 17 alleged terrorist plotters in the Toronto area of Southern Ontario has just brought somewhat more clearly home to many Canadians, there are certain plain facts about the situation in Canada that cannot be denied.

To start with, statistics do show that “Muslims” themselves account for about 2% of the present Canadian population, as compared with only 0.5% in the United States. (See Table below.)

As everyone sensible is very concerned to stress in Canada at the moment, not all or even most Muslims are “Islamist” terrorists. But inevitably all Islamist terrorists are Muslims. And from this you can plausibly enough deduce that, other things equal, a place with more Muslims generally than another place will probably have more Islamist terrorists. You might even go so far as to be impressed by the thought that since Canada has, on what Joshua Kurlantzick in the New Republic calls “a per capita basis,” four times relatively more Muslims than the United States, it will also have, say, about four times relatively more Islamist terrorists too.

CANADA 2001

UNITED STATES 2001

Religion

%

Religion

%

Catholic

43.7

Catholic

24.5

Christian Orthodox

1.6

Orthodox

0.3

Protestant

29.2

Protestant and Other Christian

51.9

Other Christian

2.6

TOTAL CHRISTIAN

77.1

TOTAL CHRISTIAN

76.7

Muslim

2.0

Jewish

1.4

Jewish

1.1

Muslim

0.5

Buddhist

1.0

Buddhist

0.5

Hindu

1.0

Hindu

0.4

Sikh

1.0

Eastern religions

0.1

Other religions

0.2

Other religions

0.9

TOTAL OTHER

6.4

TOTAL OTHER

3.7

NO RELIGION

16.5

NO RELIGION

14.2

Refused to answer

5.4

TOTAL

100.0

TOTAL

100.0

SOURCES: Statistics Canada; US Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 20042005, Table 67.

2. In absolute numbers … a lot more Muslims in the USA …

All this is interesting enough, in some ways. But in the end, sensible Canadians will want to stress, it is just too egregious a case of misleading “factuality.” On a higher plane of realism, it is absolute and not relative (or “per capita”) numbers that count, when you are trying to figure out just how many potential Islamist terrorists there really are in one place as opposed to another.

Canada actually has somewhat more raw physical geography than the United States. But most of it is not hospitable to extensive human settlement (not without altogether massive climate change, at any rate). And, as is well enough known, in absolute numbers the United States at the moment has almost 10 times more people at large than Canada.

So if Canada has relatively, or per capita, four times more Muslims than the United States, but the United States has almost 10 times more people than Canada, there are still going to be, in absolute numbers, a lot more Muslims in the United States than there are in Canada – and thus a lot more potential Islamist terrorists too.

(If Mr. Kurlantzick of the New Republic were to drive due west from Toronto for a few hours, e.g., he would bump into quite a lot of Muslims in Michigan. It is also intriguing that at least two major Muslim organizations in Southern Ontario and the Toronto area are mere continental branch plants, as in the local cross-border auto industry – the Islamic Society of North America Canada, and the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada.)

3. Canada today does have a more liberal immigration regime

It seems an indisputable plain fact of some lower order as well that, as Mr. Kurlantzick of the New Republic and others in the USA today often enough complain, present-day Canada has a more “liberal immigration and refugee system” than the United States.

As the US Associated Press service has also pointed out – in a June 9 article called “Critics Say Canada Too Immigrant-Friendly,” that even the New York Times deigned to print – “Canada has the highest per capita immigrant admission rate of any major nation, according to experts – admitting more than 262,000 last year, including about 35,000 refugees … The United States, with nearly 10 times Canada’s population, admitted 53,813 refugees last year and about 1.1 million legal immigrants overall.”

The higher-order factual question here, on the other hand, is do these statistics – and the more liberal Canadian immigration regime they clearly do reflect – really mean that, as Mr. Kurlantzick of the New Republic and others urge, it is somehow easier in Canada for Islamist terrorists to “enjoy safe haven, raise funds, arrange logistical support, and plan terrorist attacks”?

Some Canadians at least will still argue that a more liberal immigration regime actually makes it more difficult for Islamist terrorism to spread – as strange a notion as this may seem in some other parts of the global village

4. The case of Ahmed Ressam in 1999 …

Mr. Kurlantzick, e.g., has yet again trotted out the key piece of factual evidence that US critics of Canada’s allegedly too liberal immigration policies love to keep on raising, even though it is now long past its best-before date.

It is the case of an “Algerian man named Ahmed Ressam,” who was caught, back in 1999, trying to “cross the US border from British Columbia,” with “the phone numbers of top Al Qaeda members on him,” and “some 100 pounds of explosives” in the trunk of his car.

No doubt, the Ahmed Ressam case does show some troubling weaknesses in Canadian security arrangements against Islamist terrorism in North America during the late 1990s. Yet as many Canadians still love to explain, to each other at any rate, there were clearly troubling weaknesses in US security arrangements against Islamist terrorism during the late 1990s too.

In fact, not a single one of the terrorists responsible for the appalling and tragic attacks of September 11, 2001 entered the United States from Canada. It was in the free and democratic society in the United States itself – and not its (as Jon Stewart on the Daily Show likes to say) “sidecar” attachment up north – that the 9/11 terrorists learned how to fly airplanes, and do such other vital work as “raise funds, arrange logistical support, and plan terrorist attacks.”

5. The case of Imam Hindy in 2006 …

Of course, since 9/11 security arrangements against Islamist terrorism have been tightened, in both the United States and Canada. And Canadians tend to see the arrest of 17 alleged Islamist plotters in the Toronto area last week – before any actual terrorist event actually happened – as evidence that these tightened security arrangements are more or less working, as planned.

For whatever other reasons, some US critics see the same events as evidence of some unique danger in Canada. But the crucial practical fact remains that there has still as yet been no actual terrorist attack in Canada – and no actual attack in the United States perpetrated by terrorists who arrived from any point along its 5,000-mile border with Canada.

Back in Canada itself, another wrinkle has come to light over the past week. And it could even be said to confirm the argument that Canada’s more liberal immigration regime makes it more difficult for Islamist terrorism to spread and be effective.

A key to preventing terrorist attacks, both Canadians and Americans regularly hear on US TV, is getting good intelligence from the communities within which the terrorists breed. It has now been reported that one of the informants who helped tip police and security authorities in the Toronto area off, leading to the 17 arrests, was Toronto Imam Ali Hindy. And Imam Hindy is almost certainly the kind of unsettling and aggressive Muslim cleric that a less liberal immigration and refugee regime would bar from the country. (See earlier reports below.)

6. Still a while before ultimate facts are known …

A week after the 17 arrests, most Canadians in the area where most of the action was supposed to have been planned to take place do appear to have relaxed on the issue somewhat. The local news reports on the latest developments now seem concerned to convey a certain tentative note.

Even the TV news from Barrie, Ontario – in the exurbia-suburbia somewhat north of the Greater Toronto Area that has a greater tendency to periodically elect Conservative Members of Parliament – has shown interviews with friends of the accused, who say they find it hard to believe that their friends are terrorists.

Overall, would you say immigrants are having a good influence or a bad influence on the way things are going in your country?

Country

Good

Bad

Canada

75%

20%

Australia

54%

40%

United States

52%

46%

Germany

47%

45%

France

46%

49%

Italy

45%

40%

Spain

45%

46%

Britain

43%

48%

SOURCE: Ipsos/Associated Press. Telephone interviews with 7,986 adult residents of Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States, conducted from May 1 to May 22, 2006.

Family and friends of the 17 accused are understandably also concerned to stress that, under Canada’s free and democratic rule of law, accused persons are considered innocent until proven guilty. Under Canada’s Charter of Rights (a still comparatively recent but nonetheless quite popular early 1980s imitation of the grand old US Bill of Rights), everyone is equally entitled to a fair trial.

There now seems some agreement that it will be some considerable time yet (more than a year perhaps?), before court cases make altogether clear just what is supposed to have been going on – and just what various individuals among the 17 accused are in fact guilty of, even under the new Canadian anti-terrorism laws passed in the wake of September 11, 2001.

7. Natives and newcomers …

Meanwhile, there has been one prominent mindless act of vandalism against a Toronto-area mosque. But all sensible people agree this is unacceptable. And local Muslim community spokespersons say on TV that they have been encouraged by the strong expressions of sympathy and support they are receiving from the local non-Muslim community.

On TV you can also see the local Muslim community itself standing on its head, in an effort to show the local non-Muslim community that the Muslim religion in Canada does not in any way condone or support the handfuls of misguided and mostly very young Islamist terrorists in its midst.

To further leaven the situation somewhat, there are assorted other public troubles to occupy the minds of Southern Ontarians at this particular juncture in the history of planet earth. Not too far south and west of Toronto, in Caledonia, Ontario, e.g., the legendary Six Nations of the Grand River are still occupying a construction site, on land that they claim was wrongly taken from them in the middle of the 19th century.

This protest by some of what the Canadian Constitution Act 1982 calls “the aboriginal peoples of Canada” has been going on since the end of February. And local non-aboriginal residents of Caledonia are growing increasingly irked by the disruption it is bringing into their lives. Over the past few days there have been further small bursts of violence at the still occupied construction site. So, you could say, all of the Canadian natives and the Canadian immigrants and the Canadians in between have been getting a bit restless lately.

8. In conclusion … is Canada really “a hotbed of Islamic extremism” … or not?

Then there is the spectre of the warring provincial premiers of Canada. On some accounts they are poised to spend most of the treasured Canadian summer locked in a bitter dispute over revising the formula for calculating constitutionally mandated federal “equalization payments” to less affluent provinces. (Though in the very end it doesn’t really matter what the premiers think, since the federal government can decide what the formula is going to be all by itself.)

Then there is just the new general stress and strain in Southern Ontario, as elsewhere in the confederation, created by the somewhat surprising sort-of election of a new Conservative minority federal government in Ottawa just this past January – dominated, more or less, by the oil-rich upstart Western Canadian province of Alberta.

(Though the good news here, as reported even in the New York Times, is that despite critics who say Canada is too “immigrant-friendly,” even the Harper Conservative government will not be changing Canada’s liberal immigration regime: “‘We’re standing by our policies,” said Lesley Harmer, spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Monte Solberg [from Alberta]. The department hopes to admit the full quota of immigrants this year – roughly 255,000.”)

But we digress. What is the ultimate answer to the question under review? Has Canada today really become “a haven for terrorist cells” – a new “hotbed of Islamic extremism” – or not? Ironically enough, this may be one case where, as matters stand at least, one week into the various still unresolved mysteries of the June 2006 Canada terror plot, most Canadians would probably be inclined to agree with the George W. Bush administration in Washington.

As the AP piece published in the New York Times has also reported: “The Bush administration [particularly in the person of Condoleeza Rice] has congratulated Canada for the arrests” of the 17 alleged terrorists in the Toronto area, even if “some congressmen have seized the occasion to complain.”

(And if you had to get stuck on a desert island with either Condoleeza Rice or the Indiana Republican congressman John Hostettler, who would you choose? Even most right-wing Canadians would almost certainly choose Ms. Rice.)

Finally, to round everything off for the moment, the latest opinion poll on the subject suggests that over the period June 78, 2006 71% of Canadians agreed it was likely “that an act of terrorism will take place in Canada within the next few years,” up only somewhat from 62% over the period August 57, 2005.

And, despite what some have predicted, the events surrounding the Canada terror plot of the past week “do not appear to have given Mr. Harper’s party a bounce in the polls. The poll found that 36 per cent of Canadians would vote Conservative if an election were held today, the same number who voted Tory in the January election.” Pollster Allan Gregg “said the static Tory number demonstrates just how difficult it is for a Conservative Party in Canada to win a majority government.”

JUNE 6: UNDERSTANDING THE CANADA TERROR PLOT .. clashing Muslim voices on TV Ontario

TUESDAY, JUNE 6. Sometimes good public affairs TV can help clarify difficult issues. TV Ontario’s Studio 2 last night cast some intriguing light on this past weekend’s arrest of 17 alleged Toronto-area terrorists – with what are now apparently also alleged to be plans for bombing the “Peace Tower and the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, and the CN Tower, the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Toronto.”

The public broadcaster in Canada’s most populous province began with background from one of its usual groups of well-informed white-male talking heads. But the more cutting intelligence came from a subsequent panel of four local Muslim community pundits, who quickly divided into two opposing camps. Watching the two camps clash on TV, you could better appreciate just how difficult the problem of “home-grown terrorism” is and will no doubt continue to be.

Secular and sacred Muslims …

As the June 5 version of the Studio 2 website explains, the “Muslim community” panel included “Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam Today; Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress; Ali Hindy from Scarborough’s Salaheddin Islamic Centre [where Scarborough, for those who may wonder, is the very culturally diverse most easterly part of today’s City of Toronto]; and Zafar Bangash, director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought.”

It is intriguing enough in its own right, no doubt, that a North American city like Toronto today can draw on such a depth of local Muslim cultural resources – as can such related places as Montreal, Vancouver, and the quite large present-day Muslim community in Michigan, due west of Southern Ontario in the Great Lakes region. (To say nothing of New York, Los Angeles, and other big US cities too. Though official statistics show that the current Muslim population in Canada is proportionately somewhat greater than in the USA, in absolute numbers there are of course many more Muslims in the much more populous United States than there are in Canada.)

In any case, the first two panelists named above represented what might be called the local/global secular Muslim camp. Ms. Manji seems to have been both in and out of Toronto lately (and might actually be currently living in some place fairly close by in the USA?). She has, as Studio 2 hostess Paula Todd alluded to at one point, a notably “global” outlook. The somewhat cherubic Mr. Fatah is a more fixed local fixture, who has been in the local media for a while now. (And whatever his origins may be, he seems to fit into the current Toronto mainstream almost like a glove – albeit sometimes as a friendly and constructive critic.) In the past Ms. Manji and Mr. Fatah have apparently had their differences. But on last night’s TV Ontario, they were, at least close enough for jazz, on the same broad side.

Mr. Hindy and Mr. Bangash, on the other hand, represented, say, the local/global sacred Muslim camp. Mr. Hindy has already been noted in our original countertweights report on the Toronto terror swoop below. As explained earlier in the Globe and Mail: “Aly Hindy, a Toronto imam and friend of the highly-controversial Khadr family, who have well-established connections to al-Qaeda … said he knew several of the accused because they prayed at his mosque but said they were not terrorists.” In his view, “the charges are to keep George Bush happy, that’s all.” Mr. Bangash is quieter than Mr. Hindy, but would seem to finally share many of his essential views. And he certainly shares Mr. Hindy’s open contempt for the likes of Ms. Manji and Mr. Fatah.

Religion and politics …

Broadly, you might say that Ms. Manji and Mr. Fatah more or less accept that the terror plot the police and security authorities say they have foiled is more or less what the authorities allege it is. They want to talk about how to prevent local Muslim young men from getting involved in similar misguided plots in the future.

Mr. Hindy and Mr. Bangash, on the other hand, are more skeptical about what the police and security authorities have done. (As suggested by Mr. Hindy’s comment about how “the charges are to keep George Bush happy, that’s all.”) Even Mr. Hindy seems to agree that some of the 17 individuals arrested so far have been involved in, well, criminal activity. (Which has to be true, since, as also noted earlier below, two of the 17 “were already in jail serving two-year sentences for weapons smuggling when they were hit with new Canadian terrorism charges.”) But Mr. Hindy feels that there is much exaggeration for political purposes in what the police and security authorities have alleged. Mr. Bangash seems to share this view, and is concerned to ensure that all those charged get fair trials, in court, and not in the media.

Perhaps the clearest and most intriguing division between the two local Muslim community camps, however, is over the question of mixing religion and politics. Mr. Fatah is particularly convinced that this kind of mixing has gone too far in the Toronto Muslim community – and he does seem to believe that this has something to do with the problems of home-grown Islamic extremist terrorism. He urges, and points to what he knows about the details of one Mississauga example, that some Toronto-area mosques are being haphazardly taken over by very conservative old-world clergy. They preach a politically over-aggressive brand of the Muslim faith, which at least inadvertently attracts some restless young men to the violent extremist global culture of Osama bin Laden on the Internet. (Or something like that.)

From the Internet as well, you can learn that Tarek Fatah has publicly expressed some reservations about Irshad Manji’s recent book, The Trouble with Islam Today. (Mr. Fatah, it would appear, is speaking especially for local reform-minded Muslim professional and even business men. Ms. Manji is also a Lesbian activist with more exotic cultural concerns – and perhaps greater crass North American ambitions, as the Muslim sacred community especially complains.) But on Studio 2 last night Ms. Manji seemed to be delivering a similar broad message to that of Mr. Fatah. And she related her own story about stumbling across an Islamic extra-curricular gathering at the University of Toronto, where impressionable young men were being told that the jihad was not just in the Middle East. It was in Canada too.

All this brought an intriguing intervention from Imam Ali Hindy. He too, he said, believed that the jihad was not just in the Middle East but also in Canada and so forth. But, he hastened to add, he did not mean by this what Irshad Manji was implying it meant. He does not believe in any kind of violence or killing people for political/religious reasons. That is not what the jihad is about (despite what the crazed Osama bin Laden says). It is just about defending the faith, in a hostile environment. (And, Imam Hindy seems to imply, Canada today, which has only some 750,000 Muslims in a population of more than 32 million, is bound to be something of a hostile environment. Just like the expanding global universe of the materialistic free-market economy, with its surviving cultural facade of crusader Christianity?)

Zafar Bangash, “director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought,” put a somewhat sharper analytic edge on this point. The trouble with what Tarek Fatah says, Mr. Bangash says, is that you cannot ask real Muslims to separate religion and politics. Islam is all about a fusion of these two things, as Mr. Fatah would better appreciate if he ever actually read any Islamic scriptures. The trouble with Mr. Fatah himself, Mr. Bangash seemed to be saying, is that he is just not a Muslim at all. (Though Mr. Fatah does seem to believe that he is indeed a Muslim, among other things). If Tarek Fatah expects any real Muslims to pay any attention to what he says, Mr. Bangash urged at one juncture last night on TV, he has to point to his evidence in the traditional scriptures. He cannot just say Islam is this or that, all by himself.

Pastor Haggee from Texas in Toronto … and Ezekiel 37, 38, and 39 …

Imam Hindy’s and Zafar Bangash’s claims about the fusion of religion and politics on Toronto TV last night arguably do suggest some still quite vast problems that lie ahead, as growing numbers of Muslims struggle to adapt to the mainstream culture of North America today – where religion and politics are not supposed to be mixed together, in a society of diverse religious freedom. Or you might at first think something of this sort. Until you also remember bumping into the latest wisdom from Pastor John Haggee, on another recent bout of local/global TV.

Pastor Haggee broadcasts from San Antonio, Texas. But he also appears on late-night Christian television the Toronto area – despite some past protests from the local Muslim community. Lately, along with copies of his Walmart best-selling new book, Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World (627,000+ copies sold so far), Pastor Haggee has been promoting something called the “Washington Israel Summit, July 18-19,” sponsored by “Christians United for Israel.” He urges his viewers to register, because “Israel is in a war with terrorists for her survival! It’s time to declare to Israel and the Jewish people You are not alone.'” If you do register you will be able to attend the Action Point Dinner in a Washington hotel at 7:30 PM on Tuesday, July 18 – and then participate in a “Leadership Press Conference” and “Meetings with elected officials” on Capitol Hill, on Wednesday, July 19.

As part of this promotion, Pastor Haggee has been appearing on his TV show lately with a San Antonio rabbi, who seems to share the Pastor’s view that the Middle East at large is ripe for a great conflagration predicted long ago in the Book of Ezekiel, in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, chapters 37, 38, and 39. When you remember how, not all that long ago, Christian fundamentalism in North America often enough had crude anti-Semitic overtones, all this might seem a bit like a form of progress in its own right, of a sort. But that only fits in another earlier world – before Jews and Muslims were living side by side, more or less, in North America (and Europe and so forth), as well as in the Middle East.

Some Toronto area residents will also have caught yet another US TV show recently, late at night on the local “Buffalo.Toronto” PBS outlet, WNED. Here Gary Hart and Tavis Smiley were talking about the problems of the Christian Church in the USA today, to which both are apparently quite attached. As especially hard as that is to believe, some will say, in the case of Mr. Hart, famous for the sexual scandal that ruined his promising political career a while back now. But then again remember Sinclair Lewis’s book, Elmer Gantry? Or, much more up to date, how about the sexual scandals surrounding even Pastor Haggee’s colleague, Jimmy Swaggart (also apparently a cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis)? In any event, as you think about it now, there were similarities between what Gary Hart and Tavis Smiley were saying then, and what Irshad Manji and Tarek Fatah were saying on TV Ontario last night. Except that their versions of Imam Hindy and Zafar Bangash, as opponents, are of course Jimmy Swaggart and John Haggee himself.

What would a foreign policy that promotes Muslim secularism look like?

If Canada and the United States actually were altogether free and democratic societies, where religious and all other forms of individual freedom are at the top of the list of key community values, the most sensible foreign policy in the new age of global terrorism probably would be to support the contemporary local and global causes of Muslim secularism – represented in the Toronto area by the likes of Irshad Manji and Tarek Fatah. (And it seems no accident that, on the Studio 2 Muslim community panel, Ms. Manii and Mr. Fatah took the more positive attitude towards what the police and security authorities have done in Toronto over the past weekend.)

Some would say this is just what the current troubled War in Iraq and the recently enhanced international intervention in Afghanistan are trying to do. And they would probably include both the new Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and the current leader of the Liberal official opposition, Bill Graham – along with the current Canadian federal Liberal leadership candidates Michael Ignatieff and Scott Brison. (But they would probably not include the other nine current Liberal leadership candidates – or the 144 Canadian federal MPs, from the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois, who voted against the Harper minority government’s two-year extension of Canada’s current military commitments in Afghanistan, in Parliament a few weeks ago?)

In fact, down on the ground – from what one can judge watching the news here in North America – it increasingly does not seem that promoting Muslim secularism is what the current “Western” interventions in the Middle East are actually doing. They seem instead to be propping up the local Middle East cause of the analogues of Imam Hindy and Zafar Bangash in Toronto, and not that of the analogues of Irshad Manji and Tarek Fatah. And this may finally be proving no better at realistically combating Islamic extremist terrorism in the Middle East than it apparently is in North America, or Europe, and so forth. (Even if the immediate political impact of the “Canada terror” plot in Canadian domestic politics will be, as many suggest, to boost the fortunes of the Harper Conservatives.)

It is logical in this context that neither Ms. Manji nor Mr. Fatah appears to support either the War in Iraq or Canada’s recent extension of its military commitment in Afghanistan. Tarek Fatah in particular has made it  clear, in various Toronto area TV appearances over the past several days, that he does not think what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan at the moment is the right approach to combating global terrorism in the Middle East. (Just as he does not think that the Canadian security and police authorities, who currently liaise almost exclusively with local Muslim religious leaders – as opposed to local Muslim professionals and business people, or perhaps even the likes of Irshad Manji – are following the right approach in combating home-grown Islamic extremist terrorism in the Toronto area.) And it still seems conceivable that, as we continue to learn more about the Canada terror plot in Toronto, starting with the next court appearances today, something of this new message of realism may start getting through to the wider Canadian electorate too.

FIRST REPORT ON JUNE 4:

SUNDAY, JUNE 4. 2:00 AM ET. [WITH MONDAY, JUNE 5 UPDATES]. You have to believe Canadian and Toronto area police and security forces when they report that their sudden arrests of 17 local residents have thwarted terrorist bombings in the most densely populated parts of Canada. (Especially when they point to three tonnes of a potentially explosive substance as evidence.) And you have to be grateful too.

But if you are just a local resident yourself the trouble with thwarting a terrorist act is that you can never be dead certain the act would have happened if it hadn’t been thwarted. So far David Rudd of the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies, appearing on a local TV phone-in show, has given the best answer to the question of what is really going on. It is still too early to know.

What is known right now …

What is clearly known at the moment is that starting on the evening of Friday, June 2 police arrested 12 mostly young adult males from the Toronto area and somewhat beyond, and an additional five younger male teenagers who under Canadian law cannot be publicly named.

The 12 adults include: four from the City of Toronto – Fahim Ahmad (21), Steven Vikash Chand alias Abdul Shakur (25), Amin Mohamed Durrani (19), and Jahmaal James (23); six from the City of Mississauga, due west of Toronto – Shareef Abdelhaleen (30), Zakaria Amara (20), Asad Ansari (21), Ahmad Mustafa Ghany (21),Qayyum Abdul Jamal (43), and Saad Khalid (19); and two from the City of Kingston, a university town some distance east of Toronto – Mohammed Dirie (22) and Yasim Abdi Mohamed (24).

Fifteen of the 17 arrested appeared at a court in the City of Brampton, just northwest of Toronto, on the afternoon of Saturday, June 3. According to the Toronto Globe and Mail: “The accused, dressed casually in jeans or jogging pants and t-shirts, sported traditional Muslim male beards. Most were Canadian citizens or residents.” In court “it was noted that the alleged conspiracy” to bomb as yet un-named public places in southern Ontario “dated back to March 2005. It was also revealed that some terror training may have taken place in Fort Erie, Ont. near the U.S. border and at location north of Toronto near Barrie, Ont.”

According to the Toronto Star: “Handcuffed to one another and wearing leg irons the detainees stood silently while the justice of the peace remanded them into custody until June 6 when they are scheduled to reappear.” According to local TV reports Saturday night, lawyers for the accused are still not sure exactly what their clients have been charged with. This will presumably be made clear when the accused reappear in court on June 6.

As reported in the Toronto Star as well: “At a news conference earlier in the day, a CSIS [Canadian Security Intelligence Service] official said a series of terrorist attacks plotted against unspecified targets in southern Ontario were “inspired by Al Qaeda,” adding that the ring of suspects arrested posed a “real and serious” threat … Three tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a commonly used fertilizer used to make explosives, were recovered by police, who say that’s three times the amount used in the bombing of a government building in Oklahoma that killed 168 people … It was their intent to use it for a terrorist attack,’ RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] assistant commissioner Mike McDonell told a news conference in Toronto … If I can put this in context for you, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people was completed with only one tonne of ammonium nitrate … This group posed a real and serious threat,’ he added. It had the capacity and intent to carry out these acts.'”

Finally: “A source who asked not to be named said information provided by U.S. officials played a part in the Canadian arrests … An FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] affidavit alleges Amercians Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, both from the Atlanta region, travelled to Toronto in March 2005, meeting with others of interest to U.S. authorities … The men supposedly discussed terrorist training and bomb plots against military facilities and oil refineries … FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said today there are apparent links between the two American visitors and the police sweep in Canada.”

A few further contextual details for the moment …

There is no doubt a side to both Toronto and Canada at large that still has some trouble taking the concept of terrorist threats inside Canada itself altogether seriously. More than a generation ago, the early Quebec sovereigntist movement actually had its own 1960s terrorist fringes, which came to a head in October 1970 with the murder of a Quebec provincial cabinet minister. But this was finally dealt with firmly by the (Liberal) federal prime minister of the day, Pierre Trudeau, and has faded in the popular memory. (And for the past generation the Quebec sovereigntist movement has been resolutely democratic and law-abiding.)

Despite a quite explicit warning from no less than Osama bin Laden a few years back, the threat of radical Islamist terrorism inside Canada has seemed a dim prospect to many Canadians. Like Mexico on the other US border, Canada has not joined in on the War on Iraq. (Even if the former Chretien and Martin Liberal governments did send some Canadian troops to Afghanistan, and the new Harper Conservative minority government has lately stiffened this commitment).

This weekend’s Toronto terror swoop by Canadian and local police and security forces can also at least appear to take on a somewhat suspicious character, in the context of recent Canadian political debates (including the quite recent ups and downs of the new Harper government’s stiffened Afghanistan commitment). A rather unprecedented intervention by the RCMP in the Canadian federal election campaign of January 2006, against the interests of the scandal-plagued Liberals, has unfortunately bred a certain scepticism about the national police force as well, especially in such urban places as Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.

So it should not be too surprising that phone-in radio and TV shows in Toronto over this troubled weekend have included their fair shares of skeptical callers, wondering aloud just what is going on, and just what might really lie behind it. If the terrorist plot had not been thwarted – and some kind of actual bombing had taken place – this scepticism would of course not be possible. And many sensible people do seem to agree that if police and security forces actually have discovered three tonnes of a potentially explosive substance in the possession of a group of local young Canadians with Middle Eastern names, they certainly ought to have done something about it.

On the other hand again, as some phone-in show callers who also have Middle Eastern names have hastened to urge, ammonium nitrate by itself is commonly just used as a fertilizer. (Though three tonnes does seem a lot, unless you have a farm.) And as the Toronto Star has reported: “I think there are a lot of people here today who should not be involved in this,’ said Anser Farooq, a lawyer representing several of the accused. I think they (the police) cast their net far too wide. We’ve been talking several lawsuits as a result of this action,’ he said.”

The Toronto Globe and Mail has reported as well that “lawyer Rocco Galati, who was representing some of the suspects … scoffed at the allegations … I’ve seen fertilizer for the last eight years,’ he said, commenting on the strength of previous cases by the government that he has fought against.” Mr. Galati was “accompanied by Aly Hindy, a Toronto imam and friend of the highly-controversial Khadr family, who have well-established connections to al-Qaeda.” Mr. Hindy “said he knew several of the accused because they prayed at his mosque but said they were not terrorists.” In his view, “the charges are to keep George Bush happy, that’s all.”

In this context, comments on TV from the quite liberal Toronto Mayor David Miller, who no one familiar with local politics could remotely accuse of being a stooge for right-wing conspiracies in either Canada or the United States, were probably reassuring to many liberal-minded Torontonians. As the Toronto Star has reported again: “Toronto Mayor David Miller said he was told by Police Chief Bill Blair several months ago that a suspected homegrown terror cell was being investigated … I was relieved that police had discovered the activities at a very early stage,’ he told a news conference. I was relieved on behalf of Torontonians because I knew because of the police activities that if there was an actual threat they would be able to stop it before anything serious happened.'”

(It could be said too that Toronto’s current “Police Chief Bill Blair” is arguably about as liberal as a police chief anywhere can be – at least much more in the mold of the 1970s US TV show Barney Miller, as opposed to what New York policing subsequently became in NYPD Blue.)

The home-grown radical Islamist bombing of the transit system in London, England last summer suggests as well that home-grown radical Islamist terrorism in Toronto or any other part of Canada is far from an altogether unreal prospect. Mayor Miller has been concerned on TV to stress that the Toronto transit system was not a target for the 17 suspected home-grown terrorists arrested and detained this weekend. And whether home-grown Islamist terrorism in such places as Canada and the United Kingdom (or the United States or Australia or France or Spain for that matter) can be realistically combated by going to war in the Middle East remains highly arguable, at the very least. But there is no doubt no good reason to seriously believe that Canada is somehow immune to the terrorist disease that does haunt the global village nowadays.

Meanwhile, the 17 suspects arrested and detained this weekend will be appearing in court on Tuesday, June 6. And this will just be the beginning of a long process of further discovery for the interested public at large. Right now, as David Rudd of the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies wisely advised on local TV early Saturday evening (on CP24, with Ann Rohmer), the only serious answer to virtually any serious question about what is really going on is just that it is too early to know, with any kind of realism and confidence.

MORE RECENT UPDATES: The Toronto Globe and Mail for Monday, June 5 has reported that: “All 12 men arrested for allegedly plotting a terrorist attack in Canada are facing one count each of participating in a terrorist group … Three of them – Fahim Ahmad, 21, Mohammed Dirie, 22, and Yasim Abdi Mohamed, 24 – also face charges of importing weapons and ammunition for the purpose of terrorist activity … Nine of the men are facing additional charges of receiving training from a terrorist group, while four of them are also charged with providing training … Six are also charged with intending to cause an explosion causing serious bodily harm or death … Five youths have also been charged in connection with the alleged plot, but details of their charges were not released.”

In addition: “Mr. Dirie and Mr. Mohamed were already in jail serving two-year sentences for weapons smuggling when they were hit with new Canadian terrorism charges … Assistant RCMP Commissioner Mike McDonnell … said that it was possible that more people involved in the plot could be taken into custody in the coming days as the investigation unfolds … The accused are suspected of allegedly planning to bomb several locations in Southern Ontario, including the Peace Tower and the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, and the CN Tower, the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Toronto … The suspects were reportedly arrested after the RCMP staged a controlled delivery of more than three tonnes of ammonium nitrate … Muslim leaders and relatives of the accused the government and the intelligence community Monday of convicting the men in the public realm without trial.”

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