Has ISIS Brutality Shifted the Political Dynamics of Terrorism?

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) snuff films are going viral, and the group’s barbarity has drawn recruits in the West at the same time that it has galvanized support for democratic governments to take action to stop them. In the United States, the threat of terrorism remains a top public concern almost 15 years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. National security is becoming a central issue for 2016 campaigns. 

How will U.S. voters view the tradeoffs between civil liberties and public safety, and the positions of candidates and parties on these issues? For a preview, look north. 

The March 9 arrest of Jahanzeb Malik in Toronto on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack, with the U.S. consulate as a potential target, was a reminder that not only is Canada at risk, but that Canadian authorities are proactively engaged in combating terrorism at home. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced Bill C-51 on Jan. 30 to expand the powers of the security services in addressing terrorist activity. The omnibus bill is striking. It amends rules on information sharing; air travel screening; immigration and refugee protection; the criminal code and would empower Canadian police and intelligence services to proactively disrupt terrorist activity in Canada and abroad, permitting courts to shut down websites seen as promoting terrorism or seeking to recruit for terrorist groups. 

It would also allow for court proceedings related to terrorism to be held under seal from the public record. Given the Conservative majority in the House of Commons, the bill is certain to pass, and to subsequently to become part of the Canadian federal election campaign (the election is expected to be called for an October vote), with Conservatives claiming to be tough on terrorism as a new formulation of their traditional “tough on crime” message, and the opposition Liberals and New Democrats charging that Canadian civil liberties are at risk. 

It will be interesting to observe how the Canadian public reacts to this debate in 2015. After the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States, many Canadians expressed both sympathy for their American neighbors and the conviction that “it could not happen here” because Canada was less engaged in the Middle East and a more peaceful place at home. Like the United States, Canada is a multi-ethnic, immigrant society that has seen some of its citizens join the ISIS fighting in Syria and northern Iraq. And Canada has a surprisingly large number of terrorist incidents in its recent history, from Ahmed Ressam, the al Qaeda “Millennium Bomber” who was captured entering the United States in 1999 with the intent to attack Los Angeles International Airport, to the group of 18 young men were arrested in 2006 for plotting attacks in Toronto and Ottawa. 

And in October 2104, two “known gunmen” ambushed a soldier in Quebec and launched an attack on Parliament Hill; the perpetrators of both attacks had earlier sought to travel to Syria to join ISIS, but following intelligence reports, the Canadian authorities had invalidated their passports to prevent them from leaving Canada. It was these most recent attacks that prompted the Harper government to introduce their new legislation. 

Although you might not know it from reading U.S. news coverage, Canada also has soldiers and pilots engaged against ISIS from bases in Iraq. This forward engagement by the Canadian military follows on a significant combat role Canada undertook in Afghanistan. Contributing to allied efforts in the Middle East and Central Asia has been a source of pride for many Canadians, but it has also dispelled any illusion that Canada was an innocent bystander in the fight against Islamist terrorism. 

The Canadian experience offers several potential lessons for U.S. leaders on the changing politics of the metastasizing Islamist terror threat. 

First, homegrown terrorism, and the reports of “the boy next door” being radicalized online and seeking to join ISIS, have strengthened Canadian public support for tougher security measures at home. 

Second, however effective ISIS’s social media campaign is in attracting new recruits, it has also been effective in attracting support for countermeasures by Western governments, from domestic security to sending troops overseas. 

Third, the Canadian election in October will pit the incumbent Conservative Party’s “tough on terrorism” approach against opposition parties who have emphasized civil liberties — an echo of the split in many U.S. races since 2001. The election-year debate in Canada prompted by the rise of ISIS could be a preview of how terrorism will affect the American electorate in the months ahead. 

The hill

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