On the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack in Canada: ‘I think we’re very vulnerable’

| April 3, 2018 | 0 Comments
Security and intelligence expert Martin Rudner (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

Security and intelligence expert Martin Rudner (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

Martin Rudner is a distinguished research professor emeritus from Carleton University. He spent his career working in the field of intelligence and national security studies and critical infrastructure protection. He worked at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his PhD, as well as the Australian National University, before he joined the faculty at Carleton in 1982, first as a visiting associate professor and later as full professor. He has published extensively, including having contributed to, edited or authored 11 books. He sat down with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell.

Diplomat magazine: You’re written recently on protecting Canada’s critical national infrastructure from terrorism. Were any of your suggestions implemented?
Martin Rudner: I would answer yes. Not necessarily from my remarks, but my remarks reflected a growing consensus in the government of Canada, the security agencies and industry. I should mention I’m a member of the energy and utilities sector network, which is a government-sponsored network of provinces, security agencies, the federal government and representatives of Canadian critical infrastructure — private sector — from across Canada.
We meet twice a year and are in regular communication, so I was aware of, on one hand, a threat environment and on the other hand, the corporate culture of how one deals with threats in Canada. We have a national government in charge of national security, provincial governments responsible for natural resources and private sector organizations responsible for the actual infrastructure.
The infrastructure owners and operators are very aware of the threat environment. My work is circulated to the private sector as well, so they’re certainly up-to-date from me and the RCMP and the Canadian intelligence community. They do get these inputs and take them seriously. Provincial governments are aware of the threat environment and their regulatory responsibilities — to provide appropriate regulations for the critical infrastructure environment. And needless to say, the federal government — on the intelligence side and on Natural Resources Canada’s side — is very aware of the threat and the policies required for resilience. There are threats that could damage critical national infrastructure [by] taking out natural gas in the middle of winter in a particular location [and] you need resilience. What do you do to make sure these resources are available to people if an attack occurred?
One of the most recent challenges, of course, is the cyber threat, which is different than the physical threats and much more complex in terms of responding. So far, in Canada, there have been cyber attacks on the banking sector. We don’t know whether these were successful in infiltrating the banking sector — they were certainly successful in stealing information from that sector. This was a complicated one facing Canada and the rest of the world and even people with a smart phone.
In answer to your question, I would hope that the work I’ve done has made a contribution to our ability to protect critical infrastructure.

Nexen, an oil and gas company based in Alberta, owned and operated all of the oil facilities in Yemen, but sold all of its oil facilities to the Chinese when threats from al-Qaeda became too severe. (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

Nexen, an oil and gas company based in Alberta, owned and operated all of the oil facilities in Yemen, but sold all of its oil facilities to the Chinese when threats from al-Qaeda became too severe. (Photo: Jana Chytilova)

DM: Did you have any recommendations for actions that haven’t been taken yet?
MR: There’s one very complex issue in Canada, which is very difficult to deal with and that’s the role of various aboriginal and environmental groups in protecting what they see as their particular interests about pipelines and the electricity corridor. We haven’t quite yet managed to resolve these issues. There is [now] much closer consultation with aboriginal groups so their interests are assured. With environmental groups, it’s much more complex.
One of the challenges is that there are certain foreign interests who exploit these groups to challenge the Canadian energy sector to protect [their own] energy interests. One example: The Iranians celebrated a visit by a Canadian aboriginal leader — [Chief Terry] Nelson from Manitoba — for a campaign sponsored by the government of Iran to prevent the building of pipelines across aboriginal territories where those pipelines would feed natural gas to the coast and would be sold in Asia, which Iran sees as its market.
This was public in Iran, but didn’t get much profile in Canada. Industry certainly knew about it. I circulated Iranian publications on this. There’s likewise American interest in blocking the Keystone Pipeline, which would have challenged American producers with Canadian imports. The minister at the time mentioned this, but the environmental groups were very critical of the minister for intervening and for political reasons, the government prefers not to say anything.
Canadians have the right to protest against things they don’t like, but when a foreign interest sponsors a Canadian protest, then we have worries.
There was one other notorious one with the Energy East Pipeline and the aboriginal attacks on the RCMP in New Brunswick. They were protesting the building of the pipelines across aboriginal lands in New Brunswick, but I was in the U.K. at the time and I heard a senior official of British Gas saying they were sponsoring the protests to protect aboriginal rights in New Brunswick and to also prevent the export of Canadian natural gas from N.B. to the U.K. where natural gas sells for six times the price [that it does in Canada.] Those kinds of issues are sensitive. No one wants to transgress the rights of aboriginals.

Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri is the current leader of al-Qaeda. (Photo: Hamid Mir)

Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri is the current leader of al-Qaeda. (Photo: Hamid Mir)

DM: Is security and intelligence adequately funded in Canada?
MR: It depends how one defines adequate. The intelligence and law enforcement communities are reasonably well funded. The question in my mind, looking forward, is: Do we have sufficient investment in building future capacity? I’m concerned that we’re not fully investing in that.
For example, for intelligence analysis, we need an ability to analyze emergent threats from around the world that aren’t very familiar to us. We have very few specialists in Canada on Iraq or North Africa, where ISIS and al-Qaeda are extremely active in trying to build a new domain after Syria. There’s very little competence in those areas in our universities and, frankly, in our government. We have to find a way to build knowledge capacity between government and universities on imminent emergent threats. As we speak, the Southeast Asians are investing massively in building capacity because they see the threat at present — even in a place like Singapore.
We don’t want to just protect. We want to prevent something first, and then protect. And to prevent, you need to have far-sighted analytical capabilities.
[An example:] There was a major Canadian company based in Alberta [Nexen] that owned and operated all of the oil facilities in Yemen. I was sharing with them the rising threats in Yemen by al-Qaeda and other groups. They sold all of their oil facilities in Yemen to the Chinese and then came disaster in Yemen, so the Chinese are stuck with them. Fortunately, Canadians shed those assets in good time. This is an indicator that the Chinese didn’t look ahead at Yemen.

DM: Is security and intelligence in Canada adequately staffed?
MR: My personal assessment — not an academic assessment — is that our security and intelligence community is, on the whole, efficiently staffed and we could have confidence in their capacity to deal with the current threat environment. But things are happening in the world where we don’t have a deep enough understanding. There’s no Canadian centre for studies of regions of North Africa in politics and economics.
When I [was in school,] we had what was called ‘area studies.’ I studied at McGill, Oxford and in Jerusalem. We studied politics, economics and international affairs together with geography, culture, history and the literature of those societies. We came out knowing them. That approach of area studies was changed in favour of theory.
At Carleton, we built a little bit of area studies, but without language. We would study East Asia without knowing Chinese or Japanese. [Not speaking the language] weakens the graduate’s capacity to understand the region.

DM: What countries are most vulnerable to cyber threats and where does Canada stand?
MR: Everybody is vulnerable to cyber threats because of the role of the internet and the internet-of-things and artificial intelligence. It’s quite clear that financial sectors are the primary targets for criminal groups, but also for certain governments that are adversarial. [They say] ‘If you put sanctions on us, then we’ll penetrate your financial and banking systems,’ as the North Koreans and the Iranians have done. That’s one of the vital areas.
We also know that certain adversarial governments have put malware into the computer system of providers of critical infrastructure. This malware is latent, but if conflicts arise, the malware would be blown up. The Russians have been doing this to British critical infrastructure. You can’t tell it’s there, but it is. If there’s ever a confrontation, they don’t have to bomb your oil refinery, they can take it down by activating the malware — literally pressing a button, just as the U.S. and Israel did with the Iranian nuclear facility. They took it down.
This is happening all the time. We know that because there are reports, but very few are authenticated by officials, mainly because we don’t want to tell adversaries or criminal groups what capabilities we have.
As we speak, the Canadian government has a bill to enable the Communications Securities Establishment — our signals intelligence agency — to proactively take down the computers of anyone abroad attacking Canadian infrastructure. I published an article 10 years ago [that] recommended a proactive capability and now [there is a bill] before Parliament. Other countries, such as Israel, already have this. If you attack Israel, the U.K. or some European countries, they can take down your computer.

DM: This gives them permission, but do they already have the capacity?
MR: That, they won’t tell you or me. But one certainly hopes so.

DM: What countries are the most likely perpetrators of cyber-threats against Canada?
MR: That’s very difficult to know. Our banking system is considered among the best in the world. We saw that after 2008 when U.S. banks became almost bankrupt, our banks were well prepared and solid. Therefore, if you were an international player, you’d make sure you have money in the Canadian bank where it’s very secure. If you have criminal groups or adversarial governments who want to damage Canada, you would infiltrate Canadian banks.
Energy would be another and the third would be research areas in science and technology, where innovative ideas are being developed and tested. We know this happens with adversarial governments, but also even with friendly countries.
We know that France has a foreign intelligence service whose primary objective is the collection of economic intelligence.
The U.S. Senate publishes an annual report on foreign efforts to steal American proprietary interests and Canada is listed among the top five. These aren’t necessarily government, but they may be Canadian companies. I’ve made inquiries on this. If you go to a conference on computers and you collect a lot of brochures, you’re considered, by Congress’ definition, to be a spy.

DM: Do you have thoughts on the alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election?
MR: Not really. To me it’s probably something that the Russians did, but likewise the U.S. and other countries do it around the world. The meddling was in fact releasing what amounts to false news, which is a nice word for propaganda or, to use a term around the Second World War, disinformation. In other words, they’re lying about authorities. All of these things have been practised by many governments, including the U.S., Europeans and Russians. In the old days, you had to have your disinformation published in a newspaper, so there was a degree of editorial discretion. Today, if it’s posted on the internet, you’ll get readers and you’ve won. But the real test is to read carefully and ask yourself if it complements what we do know. That’s where area studies come in.

DM: In a piece you wrote in 2013 on al-Qaeda’s 20-year plan, you noted that it culminates in 2020 with a renewed Islamic caliphate. We’re getting close. How much of this plan has been implemented so far?
MR: So far, each stage [described] in the article has been fulfilled on time. Right now, the current stage is that of mobilizing the modern world in preparation for ‘the great confrontation.’ We see that happening. That’s why you see al-Qaeda and ISIS very active across a range of Muslim countries from Mindanao in the Philippines to Morocco. The great confrontation is supposed to [start] next year against the infidels — the West and the Russians and China. They see a two-year struggle, culminating in their victory. That’s [al-Qaeda’s] strategic plan.

DM: Given what we know of their plans and how well they execute, what’s the most imminent threat?
MR: It’s very difficult to know. I tend to write things and say things when I can confirm with the actual source, but I’m not in touch with [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] of ISIS or [Ayman Mohammed Rabie] al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda [laughs.] What I see them trying to do is capture two places in the world that were central to their theory — Damascus, where the first caliphate was established, and Bagdad, where the second caliphate was established. They’ve been pushed back in Syria, but in Iraq, the regime’s hold on territory in Bagdad is very tenuous and I would worry that our failure would give them either Bagdad or Damascus and then they could say they’re ready for the great confrontation. History has come to the present, so to speak. That’s one of the concerns we should have about a stable Iraq. We need to address some of the sectarian differences and struggles in Iraq between the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. And in Syria, we’re going to need to stabilize the Syrian government and that’s not an easy one for us in the West to swallow.

DM: You’ve said you believe we should take radical Islamic terrorist organizations at their word when they promise to do something such as carry out an attack. What have they promised recently, according to your readings? What do you think they will deliver and when?
MR: They’ve quite explicitly said they’re in the process of mobilizing Muslims for the imminent great confrontation with the infidels.

DM: What shape will that take?
MR: It certainly will take the form of terrorist attacks, but also, as they seize territory, they’ll build on that territorial [success] to conquer neighbouring territory. This is Islamic history. It’s what they teach themselves. It began with a fairly modest presence in what is today Saudi Arabia and within a very short time, expanded from the Atlantic Ocean to India, through Spain into central France, and through Turkey to Europe, literally through the gates of Vienna by the 16th Century. They would say that if they get their territory, they could expand by persuading people to become Muslims or by defeating them as infidels. Their targets are China, Russia, Europe, the U.S. and Canada. They see us as the far enemy.

DM: Given that, how vulnerable is Canada to al-Qaeda?
MR: I think we’re very vulnerable. Just talking about energy: Among the writings of their strategy, they make the point that Canada exports energy through electricity, oil and natural gas to very important regions of the U.S. They’ve said ‘If we could cut off that supply of energy, we could not only damage Canada, we could undermine the U.S.’ This is their writing. We’re not only a target, we’re an instrumental target, because the United States depends on us.

DM: So you see it as a targeted focus on energy, rather than, say, an attack on a crowd on Canada Day?
MR: An attack on Canada Day may also take place, but that’s in order to undermine Canadian public confidence in our government. I’m not saying it’ll be one or the other. My concern is it’ll be both and it will also impact, for example, Muslims who disagree theologically with [al-Qaeda’s] interpretation of Islam.

DM: We seem to have been rather lucky so far, relative to other G7 countries.
MR: CSIS doesn’t publicly say how many terrorist plots they’ve disrupted. But the RCMP does and in an annual report to Parliament, they [stated] as a one-liner that it was more than 30 last year. This doesn’t mean people were arrested and charged — they would have been caught before they committed an indictable offence, which is what we want. For obvious security reasons, they won’t indicate where, what and how. They don’t want to tell their adversaries where people failed.

DM: Do you find Canada is a little less concerned about an attack in general?
MR: I don’t think our intelligence community is complacent at all. [But] the Americans and British have developed a relationship between the intelligence community and the university. Members can be seconded to universities for a couple of years — a sabbatical — to build up their knowledge and to teach about the community. It goes the other way, too. That hasn’t happened in Canada. We’re siloed. Part of it is constitutional because universities are provincial and the intelligence community is federal. You also have corporate cultures where these two groups can be secrecy-bound.

DM: Is the Canadian public too complacent?
MR: Yes. I do feel that there is a certain complacency amongst the Canadian public apropos national security matters. The prevailing feeling seems to be, ‘We’re so nice and decent, who would want to do us harm?’

DM: Do authorities in Canada know of and/or monitor mosques where radical imams and youth worship?
MR: Officially, the RCMP has collaboration between the Muslim community and law enforcement to protect the security of Muslims. CSIS has a remit to investigate threats to Canada. They have to go through a process to get warrants for such investigations, but they don’t, for reasons of secrecy, disclose.

DM: Do they follow similar protocols in other countries?
MR: Oh yes.

DM: What are your greatest concerns when it comes to security and terrorism in North America?
MR: One of my great concerns for North America is the risk, if not the threat, of right-wing populism becoming militant, especially in the U.S.

DM: What about Europe?
MR: On the policy side, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, if it culminates, could cause economic instability in the U.K. and also in Europe, which would feed two threats that concern me. One is the emergence of a more militant Islam, especially given al-Qaeda’s 20-year strategy where they themselves say they plan to act against Western interests. The other would be the rightists — the ”populists” — who, with destabilization of the European economy, would argue the case for what I would consider a form of fascism.

DM: The Middle East?
MR: Very many problems there, but to me, the major ones are the risk of the collapse of nation-states, essentially because they’re not nation-states — they were boundaries drawn up after the First World War. And the problem there is a transition to small ethno-sectarian regimes in either Iraq, Syria or Northern Africa. But worse yet would be successful conquests by ISIS or al-Qaeda.

DM: In South and Southeast Asia?
MR: Here, the economies are recently prosperous, but there are very serious threats from ISIS and al-Qaeda, who are very active in those countries at mobilizing young people who are fighting with ISIS in the Middle East — people in Indonesia, Malaysia or Mindanao, Philippines.

DM: China?
MR: China doesn’t have these kinds of risks except in Xinjiang, where we have the Uyghur infiltration. And in South Korea and Japan, the problem is North Korea, but that’s an international problem.

DM: Africa?
MR: North Africa has the challenge from al-Qaeda and ISIS. And the rest of Africa, like in Europe, is seen [by both groups] as the neighbouring region called “the harb” or the area of the sword, which [describes] infidels in a tribal environment who are ready to be converted or conquered by Islam.
DM: Should foreign fighters be allowed to return to Canada with their citizenship unchallenged?
MR: In my opinion, no. In my opinion, they are suspect and they ought to be investigated closely to determine their culpability in fighting with terrorists or, as we see it, jihadists.

DM: When Joshua Boyle was recently arrested, what were your thoughts?
MR: I reserve judgment to let the courts decide. I was suspicious all the time of this story. But let the courts validate the suspicion or validate his innocence.

DM: What are your thoughts on the Iran nuclear deal?
MR: I’m not unhappy about a 10-year pause, but I do worry the Iranians are building nuclear capacity — a missile with range — to deliver, not in 10 years, but in one year. I don’t trust them. There’s a doctrine in Shia Islam where they describe the legitimacy of lying or deception. [If they’re speaking to] non-Shias, it’s absolutely legitimate to lie.

DM: You’ve written much about Southeast Asia. Thoughts on the Myanmar situation?
MR: In Myanmar, it’s a very complex situation that goes back to 1937 when Britain created a boundary between Indian Raj and what became Burma. It wasn’t drawn along economic or ethnic lines, it was bureaucratic. This problem has been there ever since and it’s not unlike the problems in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where boundaries were drawn that didn’t reflect the identities and affinities of the population. The Rohingyas and the Myanmar government are in a disastrous situation — there’s no solution, I don’t think, other than partition. No one in Myanmar will accept the creation of an independent [Rohingya] state.

DM: What about the Philippines under Duterte?
MR: That’s a difficult one. There are two issues. One is in Mindanao, the area to the south and that goes to the conflict between jihadist and infidel authorities in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting that the Muslim countries of Southeast Asia support [the Philippine government] against jihad. On the other hand, you have a problem of criminal law. You have very severe drug addiction in the Philippines around the drug trade and that issue is criminology and law enforcement rather than national security as we define it. It does affect security of the nation, but it’s criminality, ultimately.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

Category: Diplomatica

About the Author ()

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *