Why we need to ditch anti-terrorism and national security

After two decades of “War on Terror,” it’s time to focus on human safety

Written by Anne Dagenais Guertin, ICLMG’s Communications and Research Coordinator

A shorter version of this op-ed was published on rabble.ca on September 10, 2021. Please share on Facebook + Twitter + Instagram


Since September 11, 2001, civil liberties, human rights and anti-racism groups have been raising alarm bells over the impacts of anti-terrorism and national security laws, so much so that it may feel like old news.

While the threat to civil liberties has only grown over the last 20 years, recent events have led to renewed concern: the push for the adoption of new domestic terrorism laws in the United States, the expansion of the Terrorist Entities List in Canada, the ever-growing definition of “national security,” and endless increases to the powers and resources of national security agencies.

Governments attempt to justify their actions in the name of “security,” but none actually go to the root causes of the violence they purport to address.

What we need is to shift away from national security — the preservation of the sovereignty and thus the power of the state — towards human safety — the condition of individuals being empowered and free from want and harm.

The concept of “law and order” — and later “national security” — have been used on this territory now called Canada since European settlers decided that this land was theirs and needed to be secured from Indigenous Peoples, who were in the way of their colonial project. The RCMP was created — then as the North West Mounted Police — in large part as a paramilitary force to surveil, control, and displace Indigenous people; a role they are still playing to this day, prompting calls to abolish the RCMP.

Concerns around “national security” in Canada have led to:

This is only in Canada.

Furthermore, as the climate crisis and COVID-19 pandemic have worsened, calls have grown to label both as “national security” threats. Some of those who have called for urgent action to address these emergencies have noticed the disproportionate amount of attention and resources poured into national security agencies and issues. They hope that the inclusion of the climate crisis and the pandemic as “national security threats” would lead to similarly serious responses. We can certainly understand the logic of seeing the existential threats to humanity that are the climate crisis and the pandemic, as well as the tensions between people resulting from their mismanagement by our governments as security issues. However, not only is the national security apparatus ill-equipped to deal with ecological and human health, but giving more resources to national security agencies will simply lead to more of the same abuses outlined above.

The words “terrorism” and “threats to national security” are powerful. Thanks to years of relentless fearmongering from governments and the media, they elicit automatic condemnation of whomever is stamped with those labels. As a result, these labels have become a very effective tool for the state (and other actors) to discredit and/or repress any group, movement or person — especially people who challenge the status quo, oppose government policies and actions, and fight for collective liberation.

How do we fix this? By getting rid of the word “terrorism,” as well as anti-terror laws and tools, and by replacing “national security” and its apparatus with policies and actions that foster human safety.

Why not just reform our anti-terror laws and national security apparatus to fix its abuses and the erosion of civil liberties? Here are five reasons:

1. “Terrorism” and “national security” are easily malleable

2. The myth of the Muslim ‘terrorist’

3. Diversion from states’ monopoly on violence

4. Targeting Indigenous land defenders and environmental activists

5. National security cannot ensure human safety

1. “Terrorism” and “national security” are easily malleable

Although Canada’s Criminal Code attempts to clearly define “terrorism,” many academics agree that the term is highly malleable and is thus open to many different definitions and interpretations.

Section 83.01 (1) (b) of the Criminal Code partly defines “terrorism” as:

An act or omission, in or outside Canada (i) that is committed (A) in whole or in part for a political, religious, or ideological purpose, objective or cause, and (B) in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act, whether the public or the person, government or organization is inside or outside Canada.

The inclusion of the “political, religious, or ideological” component to the definition of a violent crime is our first clue that the criminal category of terrorism is superfluous. “Violence” is what matters here, and the Criminal Code already covers all violent crimes. These broad terms can also conveniently be used to target, surveil, and criminalize certain political and religious groups solely based on ideas and demands that are outside the mainstream and/or critical of the state. That includes Indigenous land defenders, environmental activists, and anarchists, or specific religions and their practitioners deemed threats to people because of the actions of a few, such as Muslims and people perceived as Muslims.

It is almost impossible to reach consensus on the definition of “terrorism” precisely because to say that some crimes are terrorist acts and some not is to make a judgment about the motive behind a crime. And that judgment will necessarily depend on the social, racial, religious, political or historical perspective of the people making the judgment. Using motive in this manner, as an essential element in defining and identifying a crime, is foreign to criminal law, humanitarian law, and the law regarding crimes against humanity. While a hate motive may be an aggravating factor at sentencing in the traditional criminal law, motive neither establishes nor excuses a crime.

It is, therefore, never possible to create a definition of “terrorism” that is not either over-inclusive or under-inclusive. It can be over-inclusive in that it captures ordinary crimes, civil disobedience, or — through instruments like Canada’s Terrorist Entities List — the justified use of force against oppressive governments and occupations. It can be under-inclusive in that it excludes serious crimes and attacks against civilians that ought logically to be included, but are not, on purely political grounds.

We only need to look at the application of anti-terror laws and tools to see their malleability for racist, colonialist and political ends.

The first time the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2001 was used was in 2002 by the RCMP to obtain a search warrant for the B.C. home of two Indigenous members of the West Coast Warrior Society. The raid was carried out by the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) — a creation of the ATA — and turned up nothing.

We also know that, as early as 2001, the RCMP monitored groups and people advocating on “genetically modified food and ongoing environmental concerns about water, forest preservations, and animal rights,” and identified them as potential terrorists “operating under ideology as opposed to affiliation” in the RCMP Gazette. In Canada’s 2011 counter-terrorism strategy, Public Safety Canada named “environmentalism and anti-capitalism” as examples of “domestic issue-based extremism.” Although public-facing documents have toned down this kind of rhetoric in the recent years, the state security apparatus has not stopped targeting, surveilling, and criminalizing environmentalist and anti-capitalist activists and groups.

This focus has also allowed words like “extremism” and “radicalization” to further otherize ideas, struggles, and cultures that are not mainstream. Many activists – on the Left for example – have long described themselves as “radicals” to mean that they understand the need to go to and transform the roots of societal structures and systems in order to address social issues and harms. A person reaching such a realization would therefore be viewed as going through a form of radicalization. Such a position is often considered “extreme” as it is indeed far from the status quo or the centre of the political spectrum. However, the words “extremism” and “radicalization” are now largely understood in negative ways, discrediting or vilifying people living or advocating outside the status quo by equating views on all sides regardless of the specifics.

Furthermore, we have seen that the malleability of the concept of “terrorism” and its political application has excluded a lot of hateful and oppressive ideologies and religious beliefs. For example, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, colonialist, transphobic and ableist violence is often ignored or excused when carried out or enacted in the name of Christianity and/or by white people and/or by the state, because these three are firmly part of the mainstream.

I once asked an employee of Public Safety Canada why only a fraction of the attention, resources, and energy of combating terrorism was put towards preventing femicide when one woman or girl is killed every 2.5 days in Canada and “terrorism” has led to fewer deaths here? She said it wasn’t something that won votes. Since the state – and the media – have created the monster that is “terrorism,” and thus the electoral demand to slay it, it is clear that they could use their resources to make voters care about violence against women and girls if they wanted to.

2. The myth of the Muslim ‘terrorist’

Another reason the word terrorism has to go is that it is now erroneously and dangerously associated with Islam and Muslims thanks to decades of disproportionate and biased media reporting and representation in films, as well as political targeting and legal prosecutions. The association is so pervasive that every time a violent act is perpetrated by Muslim individuals, Muslims have been expected to collectively denounce actions they had absolutely no connection to. And despite repeatedly speaking out against terrorism, Muslims are still falsely accused of not doing so.

The equating of terrorism with Islam led to one of the worst massacres in Canadian history: the killing of six Muslim men at the Centre culturel islamique de Québec on January 29, 2017. The killer said himself that he targeted a mosque because he believed that all Muslims are terrorists. As another example of the political nature of the word “terrorism,” the shooter was not charged with a terrorist offence, even though the attack definitely meets the Criminal Code’s definition of “terrorism.” Furthermore, in Canada, a Muslim person is 107 times more likely to be killed because of Islamophobia than people are to be killed by a Muslim person. And that is without mentioning the increase in Islamophobia in Canada in the last decade that can be linked to this invalid conflation of Muslims and terrorism.

In July 2021, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), and the Noor Cultural Centre submitted a brief on “Islamophobia in Canada” to the National Action Summit on Islamophobia. In it, legal scholar Azeezah Kanji writes that even without comprehensive data disclosure from agencies, studies by academics and civil liberties organizations have repeatedly documented the disproportionate impact of national security measures on Muslim communities. Laws that expand state national security powers without adequate transparency and oversight (like the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act and the 2017 National Security Act) therefore disproportionately threaten the fundamental rights and freedoms of Muslims — including the rights to privacy and a fair trial, and freedoms of expression, religion, and assembly.

A comprehensive 2019 study by law professor Michael Nesbitt of all terrorism prosecutions in Canada since 2001 found that 98 per cent were against Muslims or defendants linked to Muslim groups. The vast majority did not involve any executed act of violence. Pre-criminal measures imposing behavioural restrictions, such as “terrorism peace bonds,” have also been overwhelmingly applied against Muslims.

Canadian government agencies were complicit in the arbitrary detention and torture of several Muslim men after 9/11, including the notorious cases of Maher Arar, Ahmad El-Maati, Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin, Omar Khadr, Benamar Benatta, and Abousfian Abdelrazik. While several have received compensation and apologies after many years of advocacy, the UN Committee Against Torture has condemned Canada for continuing to obstruct justice for other victims, particularly Abousfian Abdelrazik. The full extent of Canadian complicity in the United States’ international torture program is still unknown. Complainants have continued to emerge, including most recently Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a former Guantanamo detainee and the subject of the movie The Mauritanian who is holding Canadian security agencies responsible for his being sent to Guantanamo Bay Prison.

Furthermore, five Muslim non-citizens residing in Canada have been subjected to security certificates based on secret untested evidence. They were jailed and put under severe bail conditions without ever being charged, let alone convicted of any crime. Two are still facing potential deportation to torture as a result of this rights-violating tool.

Last but not least, Hassan Diab is currently suing the Canadian government for its role in his wrongful extradition to France based on dubious terror allegations. After being detained there for more than three years in solitary confinement, Dr. Diab was finally released and able to return to Canada in 2018 without ever being charged, let alone convicted of anything.

3. Diversion from states’ monopoly on violence

Although we are socialized from day one to understand and accept the state’s monopoly on violence — that the state alone has the right to use or authorize the use of physical force — it doesn’t make state violence right, necessary or desirable. States enact terrible violence on their own populations and people in other countries through police repression and wars, including the “War on Terror.” Since terrorism — which is by definition carried out by non-state actors — is framed as one of the most heinous and contemptible forms of violence, it serves as a diversion from more frequent and more murderous state violence. This is despite state violence being a primary cause of non-state violence, such as the illegal invasion of Iraq and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis which led to the creation of Daesh.

In the case of the recent addition of some white supremacist groups, such as the Proud Boys, to Canada’s Terrorist Entities List, writer and activist Matthew Behrens rightfully points out that Canada labelling these groups as terrorists for holding ideologies and engaging in violent behaviour similar to that which the state enacts is highly hypocritical, and an effective diversion. As Behrens states:

Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, could well be viewed as a founding Proud Boy, given his racist anti-immigrant sentiments and genocidal policies enacted against Indigenous nations. Long-time prime minister William Mackenzie King’s clearly-stated desire “that Canada should remain a white man’s country” would make him an honourary Proud Boy as well, along with his “none is too many” restrictions against Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi Holocaust.

4. Targeting Indigenous land defenders and environmental activists

During 2014 and 2015, the RCMP gathered intelligence on 313 Indigenous activists as part of project SITKA, an RCMP surveillance initiative targeting Indigenous rights activists.

Human rights lawyer Paul Champ has obtained government documents showing over 500 reports by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) about individuals or groups who protested the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.

“[It] raises concerns that this isn’t about national security, but it’s about protecting the economic interests of Canada’s energy sector and, in our view, that’s completely beyond CSIS’ mandate,” he said.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) first challenged CSIS’ actions in 2014 with a complaint to the Security and Intelligence Review Committee (CSIS’ former watchdog) alleging the agency was spying on pipeline opponents. The BCCLA further claimed the information was being shared with the National Energy Board and the petroleum industry. The complaint was dismissed when the review committee reached the questionable conclusion that CSIS had acted properly since information had only been gathered on peaceful protesters as a by-product of investigations into legitimate threats, not as the goal.

In 2019 and 2020, the RCMP attacked the Wet’suwet’en Nation for opposing a pipeline going through their unceded territory, and arrested several land defenders and allies. The RCMP continues to harass the community to this day.

The infamous Bill C-51 (formally the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015) introduced by the Harper government, facilitated — through the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act (SCISA) — the sharing of Canadians’ personal information with 17 government agencies for “activities that undermine the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada.”

The original definition also included activities that “threaten the country’s economic interests and financial stability.” While that was removed by the Trudeau government, the ongoing targeting of opponents to pipeline projects and collusion of the national security agencies with energy companies are clear indications that “threats” to the state’s economic interests are still synonymous to “threats to national security.”

Bill C-59 — the National Security Act, 2017 — was introduced by the Trudeau government partly as a (failed) promise to correct issues with C-51.

It amended the law so that an activity must constitute “significant and widespread” interference with critical infrastructure in order to be considered a threat triggering information sharing. That minimal change means the law still applies to environmental and Indigenous acts of dissent, which often entails blocking bridges and roads to protect water and land from dangerous energy projects that communities have not consented to. It could also potentially encompass activities related to Indigenous sovereignty initiatives if they are defined as “undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Canada.”

In the book Policing Indigenous Movements, authors Jeffrey Monaghan and Andrew Crosby examined four prominent movements — the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, the struggle against the Northern Gateway Pipeline, Idle No More and the Elsipogtog First Nation anti-fracking protests. They documented the normalization of police surveillance targeting social movements and the criminalization of dissent in an era of extractive capitalism, as well as how the security state functions as the enforcement tool of settler colonialism.

Furthermore, C-59 modified SCISA and renamed it the Security of Canada Information Disclosure Act (SCIDA). SCIDA legislated the disclosure of Canadians’ information between Canadian departments as well as between Canada and foreign entities in relation to “conduct that takes place in Canada and that undermines the security of another state.” This is incredibly broad, and could allow, for example, the sharing of information on individuals involved in international solidarity campaigns such as the Boycott, Divest and Sanction or BDS movement against products coming from illegal Israeli settlements.

5. National security cannot ensure human safety

Today, it’s not just the word “terrorism” that is used excessively but also the words “threat to national security.” As part of my work, I publish a bi-weekly news digest containing all news related to the negative impact of national security on civil liberties. In order to do so, I collect and read a lot of articles, and have seen in the recent years an increase in news and opinion pieces calling for the inclusion of more topics into the definition of threats to national security, namely the climate crisis, COVID-19, tax evasion, and even… obesity.

The climate crisis and pandemics, if left unchecked, could lead to the collapse of states, specifically because they are threats to, and have already taken so many human and non-human lives. Spying and state repression can’t stop climate disasters and viruses. Heavily investing in healthcare, protective measures and ecological solutions can. In any case, saving lives is more important than saving states, and that’s what our priority should be.

Furthermore, climate and COVID do not care about state boundaries and we’ve seen how a national focus on global issues such as these has been ineffective and even damaging. Finally, we cannot rely on a state apparatus that is foundationally racist, antagonistic, in the business of surveillance and incarceration, and in the corner of the extractive industry, to take care of people’s health and the environment.

As I’ve said above, many are hoping that by designating these crises as national security issues, the state will finally take them seriously. But why does it need to be a “threat to national security” to be considered important? Isn’t our very survival as a species, as well as the health of non-human nature, and the deaths of millions of people serious enough? Apparently not, otherwise climate justice, healthcare and people’s lives would be priorities over profits and the integrity, territory and sovereignty of the state.

Giving more powers and resources to the state security apparatus to fight climate change and pandemics is non-sensical, and will most definitely continue being used to target, harass and criminalize climate justice advocates, Muslims and Indigenous peoples. The Canadian state will always use its security apparatus to preserve its power, and to further its colonialist and capitalist goals as that is the fundamental purpose of “national security.”

Given that the Criminal Code already covers all violent crimes, and we’ve seen that the concept of “terrorism” is malleable and harmful, there is no need for or benefit to anti-terror and national security laws and tools. We need, instead, to dismantle the state security apparatus, as its foundations, purpose and actions are antithetical to the human rights and civil liberties in Canada and around the world. All the resources used to surveil and repress people can instead be used to focus on real human safety. With the millions, if not billions saved, we could create initiatives and institutions that foster caring and supportive human connections and communities that would also help prevent hate, oppression and violence in all its forms. This includes providing shelter, food and clothing to everyone, as well as true universal healthcare. We could also build structures that empower people to make decisions affecting their lives, and allow everyone to develop their full potential, in a safe and healthy natural environment in which future generations will thrive. Imagine the possibilities.

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Anne Dagenais is the Communications and Research Coordinator for the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG).

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