Oh the places you won’t go

The Canadian Justice Department has been very busy on the anti-terrorism front lately.  After the Anti-Terrorism Act was passed what seems like ages ago, three other bills were rushed through Parliament in the past few years. S-7 made it an offence to travel to join a terrorist group or commit a terrorist act abroad.  C-44  enhanced CSIS’ powers to share information and operate outside Canada.  And of course there was C-51, the much maligned act that, among other measures, allows CSIS to engage in disruption activity.

And now Prime Minister Harper, in the midst of an election campaign, has promised to bring in more legislation – this time making it illegal to travel to travel to terrorist “hotspots”. (see CBC story here).

I know it we are in the early stages of the longest campaign in Canada in a decades and that much of what is promised by prime ministerial candidates never really gets implemented post election, but a law of this nature cannot remain unanalysed.

It seems to me that there are at least two questions that need to be asked about this proposed new anti-terror law: is it required and is it feasible?

The answer to the first one is easy: no.  S-7 already made it a criminal offence to go abroad for terrorism purposes and we already have a successful prosecution on those grounds (although it predated the law): the Mohammed Hersi case in Toronto. It is far from clear what new advantages this law would bring .

The answer to the second one is more complicated, but it too seems to be negative. Among the challenges are:

a) Most people travel to terrorist zones through international hubs like Frankfurt, London or Dubai.  The architecture to monitor these well-travelled routes would be enormous;

b) Who would determine legitimate travel?  Would you have to fill a form in?  Check off a box (aid worker, teacher, other)?  Furthermore, there are many cases of extremists who claim to travel for reason A (teach ESL, work in a refugee camp, go on hajj) and are actually going for reason B (join IS).  Few will check the “terrorist activity” box.

c) How many hotspots are there?  Yes, some are obvious (Syria, Somalia, Yemen).  But what about Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Turkey? Countries where terrorism flares up vary from to time to time. Would a spate of attacks in Italy put it on the list?  Besides, we already have a useful tool in the Department of Foreign Affairs travel advisory Web site.  Canadians can consult that in figuring out where not to go.

All in all, there does not appear to be much that speaks in favour of Mr. Harper’s plan.  In the absence of recent terrorist plots in Canada (thanks probably to the outstanding work of our security and law enforcement agencies behind the scenes), perhaps this Mr Harper’s way of reminding Canadians that terrorism is a threat (it is, but that does not justify this law).  Or a more cynical person would say the Conservatives are pandering to fear.  Either way, this is a bad idea.

I can think of one place Canadians should not go – to the line that supports this law.

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