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.

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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