The Achilles Heel of the New Wave of Anti-Terror Legislation

There has been much talk about the recent shootings in Canada and how it bodes ill for Canadian national security. However, the bigger takeaway is how poorly governments are reacting to the problem of foreign fighters entering the conflicts in the Middle East. Policies intended to prevent nationals from joining foreign fights and bringing extremist tendencies back with them are often made without consideration for the domestic backlash they could provoke.

In the third week of October, Canada experienced two separate attacks by what seemed to be lone wolves with jihadist aspirations. The first incident occurred on October 19th, in Quebec, when Martin Couture-Rouleau rammed two Canadian soldiers in a parking lot with a car. Three days later in Ottawa on the 22nd, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot a soldier at the parliament building. While media attention has focused on the possibility that both men were recent converts to Islam, there is another similarity that connects them – both had their passports confiscated under the recent move to tighten Canada’s anti-terror legislation.

Invoking the long-established Canadian Passport Order, the Canadian government announced on September 21st that it would invalidate the travel documents of its citizens who were currently engaged in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. Likewise, the government also announced its intention to revoke the passports of individuals who had either already returned from fighting, or had a high-possibility of leaving to join the conflicts.

Denied the Libyan passport needed to join the conflicts in the Middle East, Zehaf-Bibeau felt trapped in Canada.
Denied the means to join the conflicts in the Middle East, Zehaf-Bibeau felt trapped in Canada. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) commissioner Bob Paulson believes that “the passport issue is central to what was driving [Zehaf-Bibeau’s] attack.” As a Canadian with dual Libyan citizenship, Zehaf-Bibeau had previously tried applying for a renewal of his Libyan passport on October 2nd but was refused the very same day on the grounds of suspicious behavior. The old Libyan passport, photos, and driver’s license Zehaf-Bibeau provided for documentation purposes did not match. Furthermore, embassy officials were not satisfied by his answers when asked about his parents’ relationship and they were also unable to contact his mother using the contact information he provided. Moreover, Zehaf-Bibeau was recently designated a “high-risk traveler” by the Canadian government, meaning that the state deemed that there was a high possibility of him traveling abroad to take up arms. Zehaf-Bibeau then travelled from Vancouver to Ottawa for the exclusive purpose of applying for a Canadian passport instead, yet his application was  “subject to investigation.” It is thus believed that the delay in his Canadian application was what drove him to execute the attack.

Couture-Rouleau faced similar obstacles in his efforts to travel to Syria. He was also identified as a high-risk traveller and was arrested at the airport in July while en route to Turkey. After being arrested, his passport was also taken away. Couture-Rouleau was viewed with suspicion, since Turkey is a common transit point for foreign fighters seeking to enter Syria.

Domestic Rage

There are two ways of looking at commissioner Paulson’s theory. First, having already been radicalized and thus harboring intentions to join the frontline of the conflict, revoking passports deprives individuals such as Zehaf-Bibeau of a means to channel their extremist ideologies. Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, points out that most foreign fighters intend to fight abroad and resort to domestic operations only when they are unable to leave the country. Notable examples include Samir Azzouz from Amsterdam and Jamal Ahmidan from Madrid. While the revoking of travel documents achieves the exact purpose of the legislation – reducing the number of foreign fighters entering the Syrian conflict – it gives radicals no alternative means to channel their new-found radical motivations. This is exacerbated by the fact that the confiscation of their documents creates a dead-end, since they are unlikely to be able to leave the country in the near future. Helpless and prone to violence, they turn to domestic targets.

Second, the very act of denying Zehaf-Bibeau’s requests for travel documentation may have been what triggered the attack. According to the European Commission’s expert group on violent radicalization, excessive repression by state authorities is likely to lead to antagonism and contribute to instances of political violence, not unlike that observed in Canada. In the case of Zehaf-Bibeau, the act of denying his request could be seen as direct provocation and a form of discrimination. A study on the causal factors of radicalization by the European Commission likewise posits that targeting individuals only highlights their vulnerability, especially if they identify as being part of a victimized minority. Thus when faced with any form of segregation and discrimination, they are most likely to respond by means of aggression. For this reason it is conceivable that the revival of anti-terror legislation in Canada was a major reason for the attacks.

This chain of events highlights the recent debate in Canada over using passport confiscation as an anti-terror tactic. On the one hand, it seems the most effective way to prevent the escalation of the conflicts in the Middle East and it theoretically stops citizens from bringing back militant influences. On the other, it is possible that the confiscation of potential militant’s passports actually makes the suspects more dangerous. In fact, revoking passports makes little difference to individuals such as Zehaf-Bibeau if they already harbor jihadist motivations. Instead, unobtrusively monitoring these individuals’ behavior and employing counter-radicalization techniques would likely be more effective at preventing jihadist inspired violence at home and abroad.

Global Anti-Terror Legislation

With the adoption of the Security Council Resolution 2178 on September 24th 2014, concerns have risen globally over its implications for civil liberties. The resolution declared that member states should prevent the “recruiting, organizing, transporting or equipping of individuals who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of perpetration, planning of, or participation in terrorist acts.” Analysts and reporters alike have picked up on the unintended consequences of such measures, such as giving repressive states new tools and justifications for cracking down on separatist groups. Worries abound that under the façade of anti-terrorism operations, authoritarian states such as China and Egypt will now have a legitimate justification for suppressing political opposition.

Though these concerns are valid, we need to recognize that countries cannot moderate how anti-terror legislation may be abused by fellow states (but they can call them out on it), but what they can do is adapt their domestic legislation to prevent alienating radicalized nationals – which is what appears to trigger domestic terrorist attacks in the first place. In applying the SC Resolution 2178, states need to balance the potential threats of returning experienced fighters and frustrated aspiring jihadists. The recent Canadian example demonstrates how a state’s choices to revoke passports may reduce the international flow of fighters at the price of domestic peace and stability.

While monitoring all suspected Islamist extremists might overstretch domestic security forces, experts have recommended that states focus more on detaining returning fighters. Moreover, countries such as Malaysia have established comprehensive de-radicalization programs where suspected extremists are exposed to moderating influences such as a wide range of religious materials, job opportunities, and support for their families.

The response of the Canadian government to the shootings has been to turn up the heat. The government elevated its domestic terror threat level from low to medium, while Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed that “Canada will not be intimidated.” His words have only fanned the flames of rage among domestic jihadists.

Featured image source: CTVnews.ca, September 2014