Protecting democracy from terrorism

Canada recently added Somalia’s al Shabaab to its list of banned terrorist groups. While this is good news for Somalis and Canadians alike, the ban exposes unresolved dilemmas associated with proscribing terrorist organizations.

Banning al Shabaab makes perfect sense. Since 2006/2007 it has been the vanguard of Somalia’s festering Islamist insurgency. The group is credited with having introduced suicide bombings to East Africa and targets Somalia’s UN-backed Transitional Federal Government, African Union (AU) peacekeepers and anybody who gets in its way. Al Shabaab’s goal is to establish a Taliban-esque Islamic emirate that stretches into Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. It also has global aspirations. Last year it pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and foreign fighters are currently running al Shabaab training camps.

Terrorism is al Shabaab’s modus operandi. Its bloodiest attacks include a 2009 suicide bombing at a graduation ceremony for medical students (22 killed); a 2009 car bombing of a peacekeeping compound (11 killed); a 2008 triple car bombing attack against the United Nations Development Program, Ethiopia’s Consulate and the President’s palace (30 killed); and the March 2007 missile attack on an AU cargo aircraft (11 killed).

But it’s al Shabaab’s influence over the Somali diaspora that is truly unnerving.

The organization has a proven track record of recruiting Europeans, Australians, Americans and Canadians of Somali origin. Since 2007, some 30 Americans have joined al Shabaab. Six have died fighting, including Shirwa Ahmed, the first American to carry out a suicide attack in Africa. The bomber who struck the graduation ceremony was a European recruit, as was the axe-wielding attacker who tried to kill Danish political cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in January. Of the Australians arrested in 2009 for planning homegrown attacks, two are thought to have had links with the group. And in Canada, reports suggest half a dozen Canadians have gone “missing” in Somalia and that one may have been killed in action last week.

The overwhelming evidence suggests that al Shabaab willingly plans acts of indiscriminate violence in East Africa, purposely associates with international terrorist groups and actively facilitates terrorism in the West. By making it a crime to join or assist the organization, we’ve made it harder for Canadians to easily support its efforts. We also subject the group’s assets to seizure, give security officials a free hand to track recruiters, realign Canadian policy with those of our allies and signal our continued interest in combating terrorism. Most importantly, by outlawing al Shabaab we help Somalia’s government survive another day.

Despite these successes, flaws continue to hamper the manner in which Canada proscribes groups.

First, our list must reflect global trends. The murky world of international terrorism evolves rapidly. Before 2007, nobody had heard of al Shabaab; today it is an al Qaeda ally. We need to streamline the blacklisting process to ensure that changes in terrorism threats are reflected in changes in policy. Our terrorist list should be a preventive tool. That it took Ottawa years to ban al Shabaab, despite its role in global terrorism and notwithstanding our allies’ earlier banning of the group, suggests we were behind the curve on this one.

Second, other groups known to facilitate terrorism are missing from Canada’s list. With respect to the checks and balances involved in banning organizations, our list needs some serious updating. Currently, 42 groups are banned. While al Qaeda is listed, its franchises in Iraq, the Islamic Maghreb and Yemen are not. The Taliban is also missing, though it is singled out as an ally of other blacklisted groups, like Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. Does this mean supporting the Taliban is only partially illegal? Likewise, groups that have effectively been eliminated clutter the list. For instance, Aum Shinrikyo and Abu Nidal are both defunct organizations. Neither has been active for decades but both remain listed. Steps should be taken to ensure Canada’s list is reflective of actual and emerging threats.

Finally, we should use the list strategically. Banning a group punishes it for facilitating terrorism and restricts its capabilities. What is rarely explored is the effect of taking groups off the list. There might be room to encourage the rejection of violence by promising to remove groups from the list if and when they turn their backs on terrorism. As David Romano explains, “if no amount of sincere change in tactics can get a group off international terrorist lists … they’ll have less incentive to eschew terrorism” in the long-term. The idea is to go beyond using the list only to punish; it should be used to reward behaviour that is in Canada’s interests.

Banning al Shabaab was a solid start. But there is a great deal more to be done.