Canadians join fight in Syria as civil war turns nation 'into hub for terrorist activities': report
Stewart Bell | 13/06/13 | Last Updated: 13/06/14 12:20 AM ET
A few Canadians are fighting in the Syria civil war, some as members of extremist factions, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Thursday after releasing a report on the terrorist threats facing the country.
"There are some, yes," he said in an interview with the National Post.
Asked if some had joined extremist groups, he said, "That's correct." But he added it was hard to known how many Canadians had taken up arms.
"I wouldn't say there were 50 to 60 in Syria. I would say that figure is more broadly over the Middle East," he said. "It's very difficult for us actually to tell who in fact is over there because, of course, we have no exit information in this country."
While websites have reported some Canadian combatants have died, the minister said he had received "no specific information" on deaths.
"We don't have a police presence that would be able to say, 'All right, let's sort out the dead here.' "
Mr. Toews spoke after releasing the 2013 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, which said Syria was becoming a "major theatre of operations" for terrorists and "reinvigorating" the extremist cause.
"Canada is concerned that the civil war is turning Syria into a hub for terrorist activities that will heighten the terrorist threat to Canada, Canadians and Canadian interests," said the 30-page report, the first of its kind.
AP Photo / Aleppo Media Center AMC
AP Photo / Aleppo Media Center AMCBuildings damaged during battles between the rebels and the Syrian government forces, in Aleppo, Syria.
"Individuals have travelled to Syria from around the world - including from Canada - to fight the Syrian government. Some of these foreign fighters are suspected of joining local extremist groups. As a result, some experienced extremists from other conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan are now operating in Syria."
It said a prolonged conflict risked turning Syrian into a "training ground"
for terrorists who could then "return to their home countries, including Canada, to attempt to radicalize others or conduct terrorist attacks."
The report reflects the concern shared by Canada's allies that al-Qaeda, which was thought to be near collapse after the death of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring, has found new life by hijacking the Syrian uprising.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is leading the most extreme factions in Syria, notably the Al-Nusrah Front. It has imported veteran foreign terrorists and introduced tactics such as suicide bombings to the two-year-old civil war.
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"There's at least a couple of dozen major organizations involved and some of those are of concern, what we would I think call terrorists," Mr. Toews told the Post.
"As well, certain Iranian-backed groups are fighting on behalf of the old Syrian government."
The Canadian report accused President Bashar al-Assad's regime of sponsoring terrorist violence in Lebanon and Turkey.
"Canada is also concerned that Syria's conventional and chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist groups," it said.
Canada is also concerned that Syria's conventional and chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist groups
It is the first to be released since the government unveiled a counter-terrorism strategy last year that promised an annual update "to inform Canadians of the evolving domestic and international threat environment."
Its release follows the Boston Marathon bombings and a string of attacks attributed to Canadian terrorists in Algeria, Bulgaria and Somalia.
On April 22, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested two men in Toronto and Montreal over an alleged al-Qaeda-linked plot to derail a VIA Rail passenger train.
Almost a dozen years after the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain Canada's leading terrorist threat, the report said.
While al-Qaeda, now headed by Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was described as "weakened" and "in decline," the report said it continues to provide strategic guidance to its network of regional affiliates.
Africa, in particular, has witnessed an expansion of al-Qaeda-linked extremism, with Islamist extremist violence in Nigeria and northern Mali.
"Canada is concerned that the conflict is attracting individuals from other countries to the region, including two Canadian citizens involved in the Algeria attack," the report said.
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