OTTAWA–Canada’s spy agency halted a running investigation into right-wing extremism just months before 2017’s mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) saw right-wing extremism not as a national security threat, but a “public order threat” to be dealt with by police, according a new report from the agency’s watchdog.
“(CSIS) found that the majority of right-wing extremism activities consisted of, or were ‘near to,’ lawful protest, advocacy, and dissent,” the report from the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), released Wednesday, reads.
“CSIS ended its investigation of right-wing extremism in March 2016.”
The agency reversed its decision and re-opened its investigation 10 months later, after Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire at the Grande Mosquée de Québec in January 2017, killing six worshippers.
Bissonnette’s trial heard that the 28-year old was attracted to far right figures online, including U.S. President Donald Trump, and his crimes were partially motivated by Canada’s acceptance of refugees. He now faces up to 150 years in jail.
Public Safety Canada, the department that oversees CSIS, listed right-wing extremism as a “growing concern” in Canada in its most recent annual report on terrorism threats.
A 2016 study, posted to the department’s website, estimated there are 100 white supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups operating in Canada, and more than 30,000 individuals involved in “sovereigntist” causes. VICE Canada has rigorously documented the growth of these groups, including the Soldiers of Odin, La Meute in Quebec, and the III% in Alberta.
CSIS itself listed extreme right-wing ideology and white supremacy as the “main ideological source” of so-called lone wolf attacks worldwide, followed by Islamic extremism.
If the agency believed that to be true in 2015, it’s unclear why they would have shut down their right-wing extremism investigation in 2016.
CSIS spokesperson Tahera Mufti said that the agency’s analysts, regardless of their area of focus, must assess any threats that have the potential to provoke “serious acts of ideologically-motivated violence agaisnt Canada and Canadians.”
“Any group or individual who sees violence as a legitimate form of political expression, including those who support right-wing extremism, is of concern to us,” Mufti wrote in a statement.
Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst who teaches international relations at Carleton University, said the agency is grappling with how to investigate far-right extremism — which often mobilizes on the internet rather than in public.
“I think this is something they’re still wrestling with … the challenges of dealing with that. We’re still not comfortable with national security agencies monitoring the internet,” Carvin told the Star.
“Do you want to send CSIS in to monitor (anonymous message board) 4Chan, or monitor some of these Incel forums? I think people in the wake of an attack might say yes, but when you broaden it out it becomes much more of a challenge. We haven’t quite figured it out yet.”
The SIRC examined CSIS’s investigation into right-wing extremism from 2012 to 2017, and found the agency complied with its legal restrictions and ministerial direction.
Since 2017, CSIS has worked more closely with the RCMP and law enforcement groups around the country on right-wing extremism, according to the SIRC.
“Besides helping to maintain awareness (of the threat), these tools (and partnerships) were valuable in investigating right-wing extremism activities that may present a threat to he security of Canada, including, for example, hate crimes against Muslims,” the watchdog’s report reads.
But it noted that recent events – included a thwarted mass shooting in Halifax and the violence at protests in Charlottesville, Virginia – show “the potential threat of violent and non-violent right-wing extremism.” The watchdog said it will continue to monitor CSIS’s investigations into these groups.
Bernie Faber, the chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a newly-formed organization that monitors hate groups in Canada, called CSIS’s decision to suspend their investigation into far right groups “an error in judgment.”
“Hate movements go through peaks and valleys, but they never fully disappear. These groups should always be monitored and countered,” Farber wrote in an email to the Star.
“We hope they devote the appropriate resources to this threat, especially as we are becoming increasingly aware of dangerous far-right extremism in Canada.”
“It’s unfortunate that it took the tragic killings at the mosque to alert CSIS to the growing threat of right-wing extremism in this country,” said Amira Elghawaby, a CAN board member.
“Canadian Muslims and their allies have been raising the alarm about this phenomenon for quite some time.”