When ‘foreign fighters’ meant something very different

Canada was once concerned about Canadian volunteers returning home from the Spanish Civil War back in the 1930s. Fast forward to 2019 and what phenomenon has seized the attention of the RCMP and CSIS and the Canadian public? Returning Islamic State foreign fighters.

I do not normally read the obituaries. It is not that I have no respect for the dead: it is just that I don’t take the time to see who has passed on. This non-practice is bound to change as I get older and more and more people from my generation, including those with whom I worked alongside at CSE and CSIS, leave this mortal coil.

One obituary did strike my eye this week, however. A featured article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail (April 27) gave the story of William Krehm, calling him the “last of the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War” (from 1936-1939). Upwards of 1,600 Canadians, largely though not exclusively Communist or Marxist, left our country to fight for the Spanish government against the forces of Francisco Franco, supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

Forgotten history

I would imagine that this vignette in Canadian history is mostly forgotten, although a memorial was opened in Ottawa by then Governor-General Adrienne Clark in 2001 (NB I devoted a fair bit to this in my second book, Western Foreign Fighters). The Canadians who volunteered to travel to Spain came from all corners of our country and from all socioeconomic sectors. In all somewhere between 400 and 700 of the Canadians died. Many of the rest returned, and not to a heroes’ welcome.

The RCMP of the time was concerned that these ‘foreign fighters’ could pose a threat to national security. As then Commissioner McBrien stated “these youths are being sent to Spain largely for the sake of gaining experience in practical revolutionary work and will return to this country to form the nucleus of a training corps.” The last RCMP file on the returnees was closed in 1984, almost a full half-century following the Franco victory.


Why the Mounties’ concern?

Recall the perceived threats of that era. Stalin’s Soviet Union, albeit an ‘ally’ – especially in WWII – was feared as was the spread of communism. Not that the RCMP probably had the whole story in 1939 – this would have to wait for the Gouzenko disclosures in 1945 – but they were worried about the growth of Communist and Marxist thought in Canada. Those who fought in Spain were seen as potential radicalisers of others at best and as fifth columnists at worst. Battlefield-acquired skills could be passed on to followers back home, leading to the fear of possible political violence: i.e. terrorism.

To the best of my knowledge none of this transpired, certainly not terrorism. Does that mean that the RCMP’s fears were unwarranted? Not necessarily as the potential was indeed there.

an end to the war on terrorism
Phil Gurski is a former strategic terrorism analyst at CSIS. He will be giving a talk on his latest book on May 27 at the Shenkman Centre.

Fast forward to 2019 and what phenomenon has seized both the attention of the RCMP (and CSIS) and the Canadian public? Returning Islamic State (IS) foreign fighters. Some 200 of our citizens have left to join IS and other Islamist extremist groups in recent years and the concern over possible attacks carried out by returnees is not an academic issue. Several attacks worldwide were indeed perpetrated by such individuals and our government, like many others, is struggling to figure out what to do with those who have experience with terrorist groups abroad: whether even to repatriate them, whether (or how) to charge them, whether to rehabilitate them, etc.

That no Spanish Civil War fighters went on to terrorism careers should not give us reason to breathe easily. Past performance is no guarantee of future action, as our financial prospectuses keep reminding us. The threat of terrorism from today’s returnees is not 100% – not all will go down that path – but nor is it 0% The potential is there and our protectors will have to be on their toes, laying charges where possible. It is best not to panic but also not to dismiss this threat.

Phil Gurski will be giving a talk on his latest book on May 27 at the Shenkman Centre on Ottawa.

Episode 14 – Christian Extremism

While Christianity is often associated with ‘turn the other cheek’ there are individuals and groups who use scripture to call for, and justify, acts of terrorism much like members of other faiths.

In this episode, former Canadian intelligence analyst Phil Gurski analyses if Christian extremism is a thing and how it really poses a threat.

We hope you are enjoying the content of the podcast. Now it is your turn to suggest topics or ask questions.

Follow us on Twitter @LookatTerrorism and tweet us your question with the hashtag #QuestionsforPhil. We will adress all questions in the August podcast.

Let us know what you want to hear!

Terrorism: plus ca change (Part 2)

If you are a faithful reader of my blogs or have had the opportunity to listen to my podcasts you will know that I have been going on lately about Buddhist terrorism. Yes, I am referring to that oddly-phrased form of violent extremism which I imagine strikes most as oxymoronic (can peaceful Buddhists REALLY engage in terrorism?) And if you have indeed read my posts you already know the answer is yes (a quick search told me that I have used the words “Buddhist extremism/terrorism” 34 times since I began this blog in May 2015).

The manifestation of this form of terrorism most familiar to many would be the current scourge of Buddhist-infused hatred directed mostly against Muslims in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand (although Christians have also been targeted in Sri Lanka). The more astute reader may have cited the bizarre Aum Shinrikyo quasi Buddhist cult in Japan in the 1990s. Aside from these examples, however, I’d bet that you would assume that, like other terrorist ‘movements’, Buddhist violent extremism is a recent phenomenon.

Think again.

Master Nissho Inoue and his band of assassins teach some uncomfortable truths about terrorism, for those who will hear
Master Nissho Inoue and his band of assassins teach some uncomfortable truths about terrorism, for those who will hear.

I came across a very interesting article on the Aeon Web site on Nissho Inoue, a convicted Japanese domestic terrorist and lay disciple of one of Japan’s most famous modern Zen masters, Gempo Yamamoto. Inoue had once been the leader of a terrorist band, popularly known as the ‘Blood Oath Corps’, which was responsible for the deaths of two of Japan’s political and financial leaders in the spring of 1932, with plans to assassinate many more.

In the midst of the Great Depression and a government crackdown on left-wing activists accused of ‘dangerous thoughts’ as defined by the Peace Preservation Law, Inoue became radicalised. After receiving some Zen training he headed up a Buddhist temple where initial normative religious instruction led to political activism and militancy. In his own words:

“In an emergency situation emergency measures are necessary. What is essential is to restore life to the nation. Discussions over the methods for doing this can come later, much later… We had taken it upon ourselves to engage in destruction, aware that we would perish in the process.”

Drawing on the lessons of a 13th-century Zen collection of koans Inoue maintained that

“Revolution employs compassion on behalf of the society of the nation. Therefore those who wish to participate in revolution must have a mind of great compassion toward the society of the nation. In light of this there must be no thought of reward for participating in revolution.” In other words, the use of violence was actually compassionate Buddhism!

The terrorist group sought to assassinate (their terrorist method of choice) 20 Japanese political and financial leaders but managed to kill only two before the band’s members were arrested. At his trial Inoue again emphasised the links between his acts of violence and Buddhism:

”I was primarily guided by Buddhist thought in what I did. That is to say, I believe the teachings of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism as they presently exist in Japan are wonderful.”

Inoue’s Zen master Yamamoto testified for his disciple on trial stating

”It is true that if, motivated by an evil mind, someone should kill so much as a single ant, as many as 136 hells await that person … Yet, the Buddha, being absolute, has stated that when there are those who destroy social harmony and injure the polity of the state, then even if they are called good men killing them is not a crime.“

In the end Inoue was convicted and given a life sentence, although he was released a scant six years later. Incredibly, this Buddhist terrorist was invited by the then Prime Minister to serve as an ‘advisor’ and never expressed remorse for his role in the assassinations. On the contrary: he felt that his actions had “dealt a blow to the transgressors of the Buddha’s teachings”.

So what are the lessons here? There are several:

  1. Any ideology, including religion, can be used to justify terrorism, even Buddhism;
  2. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon;
  3. Terrorists sometimes never apologise for their actions;
  4. Extremists will go to inordinate ends to use ideas and sacred teachings to make their violent acts acceptable or even preferable.


The campaign of terror spurred by Inoue based on his interpretation of Buddhism should give pause to those who maintain that certain religions (i.e. Islam) are inherently violent (hint: no they are not). It has been my experience that many religions have served as the foundation for terrorist movements and that the ways in which terrorists use and misuse doctrine are all but incomprehensible to normative believers. We might want to bear that in mind when we think and write about terrorism based on religions.

At the same time it perhaps gives new meaning to the phrase “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”.

PS This is as good a time as any to promote my new book, When Religion Kills, to be published by Lynne Rienner this winter.

Terrorism: plus ca change (Part 1)

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

For many in the post 9/11 world, it may seem as if terrorism is something new – and terrible. We are constantly inundated with news about attacks here and attacks there, sometimes in our own backyard. For instance, Canadians were hit with a double whammy over two days in late October 2014 when two Islamist extremists killed two members of the Armed Forces in Montreal and Ottawa.

It may appear at first blush that terrorism is a new scourge, and one that we are having a very hard time eradicating. And it all began with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on that fateful day 18 years ago, right?

The last prisoners awaiting execution during the Reign of Terror in 1794, undated engraving
The last prisoners awaiting execution during the Reign of Terror in 1794, undated engraving.

Except that terrorism is not new. Not at all.

The term ‘terrorism’ itself is not that old – its first usage dates back to the French Revolution (do you remember reading about the ‘Reign of Terror‘?). As a more widespread phenomenon, however, I imagine most scholars would say that it really took off in the late 19th century. The first broad manifestation of it was the wave of anarchist attacks that plagued the West in the form of assassinations (although assassinations certainly pre-date the acts of anarchists – et tu Brute?) and bombings.

Among the victims of terrorist acts were Tsar Alexander II (1881), French President Carnot (1894), Spanish Prime Minister Canovas de Castillo (1897), Italian King Umberto (1900) and US President McKinley (1901).

The TV version is quite compelling and very true to the original book: I highly recommend you watch it

All this came to me as I watched a recent dramatisation of Joseph Conrad’s classic 1907 novel The Secret Agent. This is the fictionalised story of a group of revolutionaries bent on undermining British complacency to terrorism by blowing up the iconic Greenwich Observatory.

The TV version is quite compelling and very true to the original book: I highly recommend you watch it (available on Acorn TV, an American subscription streaming service offering television programming from the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Spain).

The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent is a riveting masterpiece of literature with all the requisite characters: Verloc, the agent provocateur who owns a seedy shop in Soho and who is paid to infiltrate terrorist cells; the Professor, a madman who makes explosives; Winnie, Verloc’s wife who tolerates her husband’s activities until it is too late; Stevie, Winnie’s simpleton brother who dies tragically for a cause he cannot understand; Vladimir, the First Secretary at the Russian Embassy in London who wants to shake Britain to the core and force it to crack down on the anarchists; and the Chief Inspector trying to keep a lid on all the violence.

What is more important for our purposes today is the fact that while the anarchist ‘wave’ of terrorism (to use David Rapoport’s framework) may have waned in the aftermath of WWI it did not disappear. Anarchist groups – Black Bloc is a good example – are still among us and still capable of carrying out acts of violence. They are still against capitalism, a system they think insulates those in positions of economic power and disenfranchises those of targeted groups. And as economic inequality is still with us, and may be getting worse, it is not too difficult to predict the actions of these terrorists will increase.

All this merely underscores the reality that terrorism is a longstanding problem and remains complicated. Yes, Islamist terrorism still poses the greatest threat and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future but attacks by anarchists, other far right extremists, ethno-nationalist groups and probably eventually far left actors cannot be ignored. We might want to keep this in mind as we continue to deal with terrorism. We also might want to brush up on our history so that we don’t assume that our problems are new ones.

As for me I think I will re-read The Secret Agent this week and I think you should give it a go as well.

Episode 13 – Jewish Extremism

While we normally see Jews as victims of terrorism, it is nevertheless true that they are also perpetrators. This podcast will look at the phenomenon of Jewish terrorism.

Be featured in August podcast

QuestionsforPhil - An intelligent look at terrorism podcastWe hope you are enjoying the content of the podcast. Now it is your turn to suggest topics or ask questions.

Follow us on Twitter @LookatTerrorism and tweet us your question with the hashtag #QuestionsforPhil. We will adress all questions in the August podcast.

Let us know what you want to hear!

Is it that important to lay terrorism charges for acts of terrorism?

After all, if we stopped spending so much time talking about it, wouldn’t that put me out of a job and undermine my regular column in The Hill Times? Would I have anything meaningful to say or write anymore? Perhaps not. Then again, as a ‘glass-half-full’ kinda guy I also recognise that were this to happen I could actually retire and spend more time staring at the lake up at my Madawaska Highlands cottage!

And yet I have been thinking for some time now that perhaps we in Canada can get to a point where terrorism no longer dominates certain conversations when the topics of national security and/or public safety come up. After all, the actual incidence of terrorism is low here at least as measured by attacks, real or planned. We have the good fortune in the Great White North of having witnessed a grand total of two deaths at the hands of terrorists since 9/11.

The actual incidence of terrorism is low here at least as measured by attacks, real or planned

When this figure is compared to the numbers of victims of drug overdoses, domestic abuse or even throughout the MMIW tragedy it is hard not to conclude that terrorism is an insignificant blip in our country and suggests that we need to focus resources elsewhere to deal with vastly larger social ills and threats.

Note that the total number of ‘terrorism’ deaths stems from two actual terrorist attacks which occurred, as a matter of fact, two days apart in October 2014 (Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was run down by Martin Couture-Rouleau in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu on October 20 and Corporal Nathan Cirillo was shot dead by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau on the 22nd).

Double standard?

What I elected not to include were the deaths of six worshipers in a Quebec City mosque in January 2017 by Alexandre Bissonnette. Recall that the shooter was charged with (and eventually pleaded guilty to) first degree murder and not a terrorism offence, a decision that in itself was offensive to some who felt that a double standard was applied when it comes to terrorism.

Recall that the shooter was charged with (and eventually pleaded guilty to) first degree murder and not a terrorism offence
Alexandre Bissonnette was charged with (and eventually pleaded guilty to) first degree murder and not a terrorism offence

But the Bissonnette case supports my view that we may not need to have terrorism offences on the books in any case. What was clear in this massacre was the culprit’s intent to kill and maim, hence the first degree murder charges. Recall also that the motivation behind this crime was not evident at first (murder pure and simple, a hate crime, terrorism?) which probably led to the initial decision not to lay terrorism charges.

The Bissonnette case supports my view that we may not need to have terrorism offences on the books in any case

In the end, the Crown elected to go with the obvious: six innocent Muslims were dead and several more wounded by a man with a gun who invaded their prayers one cold January evening. It was a classic ‘open and shut’ case which would have failed only if the defence had demonstrated that Mr. Bissonnette was not criminally responsible for his actions for mental reasons.

All terrorism is equivalent to other non-terrorist crimes already well-established in legal codices: murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, hostage taking, acquisition of firearms or explosives, etc. Hence all terrorists are subject to charges we are more familiar with and ones we have vastly more experience with adjudicating. Does labeling these incidents as terrorism actually get us something?

Two reasons not to invoke terrorism

To my mind there are at least two reasons not to invoke terrorism when arrests of this nature are carried out. Firstly, it removes the requirement that the Crown prove underlying terrorist motivation (described as political, ideological or religious under the Canadian Criminal Code), a task that can be devilishly hard to do. What happens if the decision to go with terrorism fails due to an inability to prove motivation beyond a reasonable doubt: acquittal? Secondly, it denies the propaganda and attention that terrorists so desperately crave (US terrorism guru Brian Jenkins once described terrorism as ‘theatre’). Terrorism invokes fear and by calling all kinds of acts terrorism – unnecessarily in my view – we feed that fear.

One area that may still necessitate the use of the terrorist activity provisions of the Code is that of traveling to join a listed terrorist entity. We have seen hundreds of Canadians deliberately and voluntarily leave our shores to hook up with foreign terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, Islamic State and Al Shabaab, among others. I suppose it is important to state this intent in terrorist terms in order to get enough evidence to go to court, although even here proving intent is not always so straightforward. In these cases there is also the challenge of proving ‘membership’ in a terrorist organisation. Are alternatives available?

Obsession with terrorism

We live in a world obsessed with terrorism, mostly of the Islamist variety although the ‘rise’ of the far right is garnering a lot of attention these days. This addiction should surprise no one who has even a cursory knowledge of what transpires with alarming frequency in lands such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria and other countries blighted by terrorism.

Canada is none of the aforementioned countries, however. Terrorism here is a blessedly tiny problem and one that will most likely remain insignificant. Furthermore, moving to underemphasise or even eliminate terrorism offences would not have that much of an impact on the agencies tasked with investigating – and thwarting – it: they could continue to collect intelligence (CSIS) and evidence (RCMP) to the same degree. The only real difference is what to do with the evidence when it comes time to lay criminal charges.

I am not naive. A government which chose to minimise terrorist offences in 2019 would face a great deal of opposition, most notably the dreaded ‘soft on terrorism’ accusation. So do not expect these recommendations to be embraced any time soon. In this light I guess I’ll have to keep penning thoughts on terrorism for the foreseeable future. Hmmm, maybe I can do so while staring at that Madawaska Highlands lake after all….

Episode 12 – No Buddhist extremism is not an oxymoron

In this episode, former Canadian intelligence analyst Phil Gurski focuses on Buddhist extremist violence in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

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