OTTAWA (Reuters) - The head of Canada’s national police told a parliamentary committee on Monday the government must do more to stop homegrown radicals, such as those who killed two soldiers on home soil last week, from going overseas for militant training.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson said last week’s killings in Ottawa and outside Montreal, which he said appeared to be carried out with minimal planning or preparation, show the nation faces a “serious” threat.
“While we are facing this threat at home, we must focus our efforts on preventing individuals traveling abroad to commit acts of terrorism,” Paulson said. “Preventing the individuals from traveling is critical. If these individuals return with training and/or battle experience, they pose an even greater threat to Canada and our allies.”
Paulson’s remarks followed the fatal shooting on Wednesday of a Canadian soldier standing guard at an Ottawa war memorial by a man who then charged into the Parliament building. Two days earlier, another man rammed two soldiers with his car near Montreal, killing one.
“The magnitude of the threat is perhaps best characterized as serious,” Paulson told a Senate committee.
The attacks in Ottawa and outside Montreal came during a week in which Canada sent warplanes to the Middle East to take part in air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq. Canadian officials vowed their involvement would not be influenced by the attacks.
Paulson spoke a day after the RCMP said the Ottawa gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, had made a video of himself just before the Wednesday attack, and that it contained evidence that he was driven by ideological and political motives.
“He was quite lucid and was quite purposeful in articulating the basis for his actions,” Paulson told reporters after testifying. “They were in respect broadly to Canada’s foreign policy, and also in respect to his religious beliefs.”
Lawmakers could help security agencies track suspected militants by making it easier for courts to limit suspects’ right to travel, Paulson said. Lawmakers could also make it easier for investigators to get hold of suspects’ Internet and phone records to allow monitoring of their communications, he added.
The government introduced a bill on Monday to broaden the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The bill would confirm the agency’s ability to conduct investigations outside the country and allow for earlier implementation of a program to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals who are convicted of terrorism.
The bill had been due to come to Parliament last Wednesday, but was derailed by Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack.
CSIS Assistant Director for Intelligence Michael Peirce told the committee that people in Canada who become radicalized tend to educated and not to have lived in poverty, which can make it easier for them to plan and carry out attacks
“We are concerned about the emergence of more violent and radical groups such ISIL,” Peirce said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State militants. “Their violent and extremist ideologies are resonating with some individuals in Canada.”
Both the attack launched in Ottawa by Zehaf-Bibeau and the one near Montreal by Martin Rouleau, 25, ended when the men were shot dead by security officers.
The incidents sparked questions about Canada’s culture of openness, which, for example, allows free access into the Parliament building in Ottawa.
But civil liberties advocates urged lawmakers not to overreach.
“There is talk of a need for a fundamental shift in the way in which Canada engages in the task of dealing with criminality and violent individuals in our society,” Sukanya Pillay, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, wrote in an open letter to members of Parliament. “These comments have been made as if they represent simply minor modifications to our moral fiber as a country ... We could not disagree more.”
Public tours of Parliament resumed on Monday and galleries, where visitors can watch lawmakers in action, also reopened for the first time since Wednesday’s attack.
Canadian officials are tracking 93 people they consider high-risk travelers, who they fear could try to leave the country to join militant groups or mount attacks in Canada. The bulk of those people are Canadian citizens, Paulson said.
Zehaf-Bibeau had traveled to Ottawa from Vancouver in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a passport, police said. Rouleau’s passport had been seized in July as he tried to leave for Turkey.
Zehaf-Bibeau was not among the high-risk travelers officials were tracking, but the RCMP said it met with Rouleau “multiple times” before dropping their surveillance of him early this month.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is due to travel to Hamilton, Ontario, on Tuesday for the funeral of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, 24, the soldier who was killed in Ottawa.
The funeral for 53-year-old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, who police said was run down by Rouleau near Montreal, will be on Saturday, Nov. 1.
Additional reporting by Jeffrey Hodgson in Toronto; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Alden Bentley, James Dalgleish and Peter Galloway