OTTAWA - A senior Canadian spy gave stunning new details Monday about the involvement of Canadians in the Islamic State, and admitted that due to “limited resources” CSIS is unable to provide blanket coverage of all 80 suspected Canadian terrorism sympathizers who went abroad and returned to Canada.
Jeff Yaworski, deputy operations director at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a Senate committee Monday that CSIS has to “prioritize” its active monitoring of individuals who are now back on Canadian soil and pose a potential threat. Some are under judicially warranted surveillance, he said, implying their communications and/or movements are intercepted and tracked.
He said the RCMP is working “wherever possible” with CSIS to cover them. But he was blunt in his assessment.
“When they do come back to Canada, obviously we’ve got to monitor their activities as much as we can but prioritize as well. We can’t devote all our resources to all of them all the time.”
Yaworksi said CSIS must closely investigate not just returnees, but extremists who are prevented from going overseas who have been “radicalized to the point where they wanted to leave.”
“There’s nothing more that we can do with the budget that we have except to prioritize internally as effectively as we can and I think we’re doing that. Our success rate has been quite good . . . I’d be foolhardy to say we’ve got all the bases covered. We do what we can with the budget that we have.”
It was a surprising declaration given assurances that the heads of CSIS and the RCMP had given a Commons committee less than two weeks earlier that all 80 sympathizers were being tracked.
Yaworski testified that the spy agency had no information about any imminent terrorism threat to Canada, including the fatal police shooting in Quebec Monday following a hit-and-run that injured two soldiers in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
Yaworski repeated the assurance of no imminent threat twice even as he painted a picture of an intelligence service under pressure in the face of the expanded threat from al Qaeda sympathizers and its more brutal castoff, ISIL or the Islamic State group as it now calls itself.
CSIS previously stated 130-145 Canadians have travelled abroad to join terrorist activity to fight, to fundraise, to assist in social media or Facebook propaganda campaigns, or to attend jihadist training schools. He said he worries most about individuals who are not yet known to authorities.
On Monday, Yaworksi provided important new details about just how deeply engaged Canadian foreign fighters are with the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.
“CSIS is aware of at least 50 Canadians involved with terrorist related activities with ISIL and other extremist groups in the region. Of these individuals we are aware of approximately 30 in Syria alone with the remainder located in Iraq, Turkey and associated border regions.”
He said CSIS “remains concerned” about the threat posed by individual returnees who have “engaged with in threat-related activities abroad, whether with ISIL or other groups like Jabat al Nusra in Syria.”
Yaworksi welcomed the expected announcement later this week of new powers for CSIS — especially identity protection for CSIS’ human sources without whom, he said, CSIS could not do its job. He said the bill is expected to clarify the existing power of CSIS to operate abroad, one it has had since its creation 30 years ago, he added.
In fact, he said, CSIS agents are currently working in the Middle East to identify threats to Canadian security “outside the conflict zone,” but they have not been asked “yet” to become involved in the allied combat campaign against ISIL in Syria or Iraq.
Yaworski declined to comment directly about what might be in the bill that hasn’t yet been tabled. But Yaworski told senators CSIS would find it “extremely helpful” if Canada were to institute an “exit information system” to track foreign fighters who go abroad to join terrorist groups.