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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada is tracking more than 200 people linked to al Qaeda and other organizations considered to be terrorist, the head of the nation's spy service said in a rare public appearance on Tuesday.
Richard Fadden, head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), also said he was particularly concerned by radicalized youths, whose families may have been in Canada for several generations, but who have become disenchanted with Canadian society.
"Confronting the threat from al Qaeda, its affiliates and its adherents remains our number one priority," he told a parliamentary committee.
"As of this month CSIS is investigating over 200 individuals in this country whose activities meet the (official) definition of terrorism."
As an indication of the potential threat to Canada, Fadden also mentioned the so-called Toronto 18, a group of mainly young men who were accused of plotting al Qaeda-inspired attacks on Canadian landmarks.
He said the Toronto 18 were an example of "second or third generation Canadians, who in some ways are relatively well integrated" but who had become "appallingly disenchanted with the way we want to structure our society."
He added: "There are a number of such groups that we are investigating."
CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been involved in a string of high-profile anti-terror cases in recent years, sometimes coming under strong criticism.
In the most infamous case, an inquiry found the RCMP falsely told their U.S. counterparts that software engineer Maher Arar had extremist links. The United States deported him to Syria in 2002, where he says he was tortured.
CSIS is also under fire over the separate case of three Canadians of Middle Eastern descent who say they were arrested in Syria and asked questions that could only have come from officials in Ottawa.
Fadden defended the links CSIS had with around 275 different agencies in 150 nations, saying such ties were crucial in the war on terror.
"To shy away from such engagement would in my view a form of unilateral disarmament in a dangerous world," he said.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson