About 30 Canadians are now fighting with extremist groups in Syria, leading to concerns they could return home and pose an "immediate" threat to national security, the head of Canada’s intelligence service said Monday.
Appearing before the Senate National Security and Defense Committee, Michel Coulombe testified about "canadians who are abroad in support of extremist activities, including approximately 30 in Syria alone".
Their activities range from paramilitary activity and weapons and explosives training to fundraising and studying at extremist Islamic schools, said Mr. Coulombe, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
He said "some never achieve their intent and simply return home. Thus their depth of experience varies widely, making some individuals much more concerning than others".
He said that investigating Canadian extremists once they are abroad was "inherently challenging", adding "the number of individuals overseas are in constant flux, their motivations are difficult to ascertain, their movement across sometimes isolated terrain are difficult to track".
While officials had previously said that “dozens” of Canadians had left for Syria to fight, this was the first time a more specific figure had been disclosed. It follows similar admissions by the U.S and U.K.
In the past six months alone, three Canadians have been killed while fighting with Al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria, most recently Damian Clairmont, 22, a Muslim convert from Calgary who was reported dead last month.
Another convert from Timmins, Ont., André Poulin, appears to have died last summer, around the same time that Ali Dirie, a convicted Somali-born Canadian terrorist from Toronto, was killed.
Canada is hardly the only Western country whose citizens have taken up arms in Syria. A British think tank reported there are now up to 11,000 foreign fighters in the conflict from 74 countries, and that between nine and 100 may be Canadian. Because of the difficulties verifying its numbers, the group provided ranges rather than exact numbers.
Michel Coulombe, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said "the number of individuals overseas are in constant flux, their motivations are difficult to ascertain".
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation attributed the steep rise in foreign fighters to the increasing sectarian nature of the conflict, which has pitted Sunni armed opposition groups against pro-government Shiite fighters from Hezbollah, Iran and Iraq.
In its latest annual report, released last week, CSIS warned about the long-term consequences of radicalized Canadians fighting in Syria. “There is significant concern that extremism in Syria will result in a new generation of battle-hardened extremists who may seek to return to their home countries or export terrorism abroad.”
Canada outlawed the Syrian extremist group al-Nusrah Front as a terrorist organization in November, blaming it for killing civilians and planning to expel minorities and establish an Islamic state. Ottawa also passed legislation in April that made it illegal to attempt to travel overseas to engage in terrorist activities.