OTTAWA — Canada’s spy agency is gearing up to assist Ottawa’s new mission against the Islamic State, even as its assistant director questions whether the extremist group can ever be truly defeated.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale confirmed Thursday that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service will be part of the Liberals’ new strategy to stem Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
“We are providing new and additional intelligence capabilities in the region. . . . CSIS will have a role to play,” Goodale told reporters Thursday.
“It will certainly be an increased role to accomplish larger objectives. It has some very valuable expertise that will be of assistance.”
The spy agency was active during Canada’s long engagement in Afghanistan but Goodale said he couldn’t say more about this new role, adding, “that would be counterproductive.”
Michael Peirce, the assistant director of intelligence at CSIS, served up a blunt assessment of the challenge facing Canada and other nations working to curb Islamic State.
“We won’t defeat ISIL and have rainbows and unicorns,” Peirce told a gathering of military and security officials and academics at a gathering organized by the Conference of Defence Associations.
“Even if we were able to proclaim victory over ISIL, take back territory, we’ve seen what happens.”
He pointed to the example of Al Qaeda’s Somalia-based group, Al Shabab, which he said was pushed back from territory it held but simply retreated to an area where it could continue its terrorist activities.
“With over 20,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, defeat of ISIL is really just going to be moving those foreign fighters to other theatres, other kinds of warfare,” Peirce said.
“It will be an ongoing battle,” he said.
With CSIS preparing to take on a larger role against Islamic State, Peirce offered insights about the agency’s role in Afghanistan, where he said it first forged a close working relationship with the military.
He admitted that CSIS first arrived in the war-torn country uncertain of its role.
“But very quickly we started developing the capacity, using one of our greatest strengths: our capacity to recruit human sources,” he said, adding that those contacts were able to provide tactical intelligence.
Early on, Peirce said CSIS was able to provide timely warning to the military about a potential attack, saving Canadian lives and highlighting the kind of work the agency could do.
“From that moment forward we started working very closely together . . . . There was a recognition that we could have an impact,” he said.
Peirce said his agency is now looking to forge similar ties to the intelligence capabilities within the foreign affairs department, which he said has been “up and down over the years.”
“There have been times when it’s been an effective operating unit and other times when it has stumbled,” Peirce said.