Jun 06, 2006

Canadian Terror busts

Your neighbour, the terrorist

The Ottawa Citizen Monday, June 5, 2006 Page: A13 Section: News Byline: Peter Bergen


On April 30, 2003 two British middle-class citizens of Pakistani heritage walked into Mike's Place, a nightclub in Israel's capital, Tel Aviv. One of them detonated a bomb killing himself and three others. This appears to have been the first suicide mission carried out by a western citizen motivated by al-Qaeda's ideology. While neither of the Britons had trained in an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, both had attended meetings of the London-based al-Muhajiroun, effectively an al-Qaeda support group. The Mike's Place attack in Tel Aviv sent an important signal -- that the al-Qaeda ideological virus could be adopted even by the citizens of western democracies who had had little or nothing to do with al-Qaeda the formal organization, and were instead motivated by an ideology of "Binladenism," which they had imbibed while living in Europe. Since then we have seen European citizens conduct a number of Islamist terrorist attacks: In March 2004 Spanish jihadists killed 191 people on commuter trains in Madrid. On July 7, 2005, four British suicide bombers killed 52 on the London transportation system. A few months later Muriel Degauque, a blonde 38-year-old Belgian female convert to Islam, conducted a suicide operation against an American convoy outside Baghdad. In the past few years law enforcement authorities in Britain, France, Spain and Italy have also foiled several plots by homegrown terrorists, most recently on Friday when British police launched a massive operation in East London arresting two British-Bangladeshis in a case that may involve some kind of crude chemical weapon. Canadians and Americans have hitherto felt insulated from the curse of homegrown or second-generation Islamist terrorism. In the past, when terrorists have used Canada or the United States as a place to launch operations they have done so only after arriving from somewhere else. Ahmed Ressam, for instance, who lived in Canada before he tried to blow up Los Angeles International airport in December 1999, was an Algerian who had trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Similarly, the 19 9/11 hijackers hailed from countries around the Middle East. Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first WorldTradeCenter attack in 1993 that killed six, is a Pakistani who had also trained in an al-Qaeda camp. Those who have tried to explain why both the United States and Canada have so far avoided homegrown Islamist terrorism have made the point that the two countries have done better at integrating their Muslim populations than is the case in Europe. No doubt this is true. Societies that are built on immigration as Canada and the U.S. are will likely prove less susceptible to the spread of the al-Qaeda virus than European countries that have had little historical experience of dealing with waves of mass immigration. However, the news over the weekend that Canadian citizens and residents have been arrested and charged with planning bombings in Ontario with three tons of ammonium nitrate must make us reevaluate the comforting notion that homegrown jihadist terrorism might not become a feature of life in North America as it has been in Europe in the past few years. Indeed, several recent cases should have already alerted us that this was a real possibility. In August 2005 four American citizens and residents were indicted in southern California for planning to attack U.S. military targets and synagogues in the Los Angeles area. Last year Jim Judd, the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said publicly that Canadian militants were fighting in Iraq. In February, U.S. authorities announced the indictment of three American citizens and residents living in Ohio who were allegedly training to fight in Iraq. In April two American citizens living in Atlanta were arrested on terrorism charges that involved strikes on U.S. military bases. According to the FBI the two men arrested in Atlanta had earlier met with some of the Canadian suspects arrested over this past weekend. For the moment one can only speculate about why "self-starting" homegrown terrorist cells now seem to be establishing themselves in North America. Some of this is surely fuelled by the thousands of jihadist web sites that exist on the Internet today and also the proliferation of 24-hour news channels in which the latest news from Iraq is available in real time. Also, Osama bin Laden's message that Muslims are being persecuted by "infidels" from Kashmir to Palestine and from Afghanistan to East Timor may also be gaining some traction not only among disaffected European Muslims but also among some Canadian and American Muslims. If that is the case we have entered a new and difficult phase of the war on terrorism.

Peter Bergen is a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington  D.C. and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda's Leader.