Canadians on Unfamiliar Ground: Homegrown Terror

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Officials bring in a terrorism suspect at the Durham Regional Police station in Pickering, Ont.

Amid unconfirmed reports that the 17 men and boys arrested in Toronto over the weekend aimed to bomb the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and office towers in downtown Toronto, Canadians are still breathing a sigh of relief that the Mounties — along with other police and intelligence agents — appear to have got their men. But there are still fears about what threats may remain undiscovered. Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, responsible for the Canadian Intelligence and Security Service and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said there could be more arrests coming as the investigation continues.

Meanwhile, Canadians are wrestling with the shock of finding an alleged terror plot on their own soil, and debating what it may mean for Canada's role in the war on terror. Michael Wilson, the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., was quick to assert that Canada is on top of its domestic security threats, and to dispute New York Senator Peter King’s suggestion that there is “a disportionate number of Al-Qaeda in Canada because of their very liberal immigration laws." In fact, since most of the young men arrested were born or grew up in Canada, this appears to be a homegrown threat. Which leaves another question that Canadians are not accustomed to: why would their fellow citizens be willing to resort to acts of terror in their own country?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, echoing President Bush's past statements, said Canadians are targets “because of who we are and how we live, our society, our diversity and our values — values such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law.” Though Canada has not participated in the war in Iraq, some have linked the terror plot to the country's continuing military presence in Afghanistan, which has been the subject of recent heated debate. In May Parliament approved extending the Afghanistan mission by the narrowest of margins.

Wesley Wark, a terrorism expert at the University of Toronto, says he doesn’t see a direct connection to Canada’s military role in Afghanistan. “I don't think it is especially because of what we're doing at the moment, but more because of a sense that Canada is part of that Western camp and is equally complicit with the United States and others in what these people regard as a generalized assault on the values and security of Muslims and Islam in general.” However, he added, “The connection that has to be worrying is that if Afghanistan is seen by young Muslim radicalized youth in Canada as a sign that Canada has joined an American crusade, then there may be a backlash potential.”

Some new details emerging about the suspects are worrying in that respect. Wajid Khan, a Muslim Member of Parliament, says he was invited to speak last year at a mosque in the suburb of Mississauga, where several of the young men now charged were members. Qayyum Abdul Jamal, 43, the oldest of those charged, was a volunteer in the mosque and introduced Khan, in the process accusing Canadian soldiers of going to Afghanistan to rape Muslim women. Khan says he defended the Canadian military, and many of the people gathered were also offended by Jamal’s comments But his story raises questions about the ways in which young Canadians could be influenced by those with extremist views. Notes Khan: "Every Canadian has to be concerned about it." And every Canadian citizen is wondering why.