Rumoured al-Qaida link rattles Ottawa
OTTAWA — The Foreign Affairs Department has called in Algeria’s ambassador to Canada to get more information on why the country’s prime minister labelled some of the hostage-takers in last week’s gas-plant siege as Canadian.
The diplomatic discussion was part of Ottawa’s ongoing efforts to either confirm or debunk reports that there were two Canadians among the terrorists involved in the attack on the remote plant in the Algerian desert.
The federal government is trying to determine whether any key papers that might point to Canadian involvement are valid or fake, and they’re growing frustrated with the lack of detailed information coming from Algerian officials.
Canadian diplomats in Algeria are also requesting access to the information the Algerians are using to identify any of the militants as “Canadian,” a government official said.
Some 37 hostages and 29 militants were killed when Algerian forces stormed the complex; five other foreign workers remain unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, U.S. observers played down any concerns Tuesday that the reports could undermine confidence in Canada south of the border.
Even if Canadians are indeed found to be among the militants in Algeria, it’s not likely to cause any lingering security concerns south of the border, say U.S. observers.
That’s because the two North American neighbours — the world’s two largest trading partners — are already seeing the benefits of more than 10 years of efforts to deepen co-operation on security and trade.
The perimeter security pact, signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper some 13 months ago, has deepened intelligence sharing and debunked U.S. perceptions that Canada was a haven for terrorists.
Debunking that view became a major preoccupation for Canadian diplomats following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., when erroneous reports initially emerged that some of the 9-11 hijackers had gained entry through Canada.
“I don’t think it will be a rift, but it’s a reminder certainly for the Obama administration that some of these problems have an impact close to home,” said Chris Sands, a veteran expert on Canada-U.S. relations with Washington’s Hudson Institute.
More problematic, though, was the 1999 arrest of Algerian-born, Montreal-based al-Qaida member Ahmed Ressam, who was caught trying to enter the U.S. in a plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve.
“In some ways, the United States was always a little more worried about the Algerian community that settled in Montreal and what they were up to,” said Sands.
“After Ressam, the Americans were saying this community is a problem a and Canada was in some sort of denial, saying these are legitimate Canadians, we can’t single them out, this is unfair, we’re casting aspersions.”
Over the last 10 years, “Canada started to take the challenge more seriously as well — not accusing the whole community of being a problem, but trying to do a better job of gathering intelligence.”
Even if Canadian documents were used by terrorists in North Africa, it won’t be enough to undermine confidence among U.S. government officials, added David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington.
“If we looked at any bad thing that someone carrying a Canadian passport did anywhere in the world, to have it affect bilateral relations, I think we’d be wasting our time,” said Biette.
“The security services that protect North America are good. They watch people going into Canada, they watch people going into the United States, and the effort is to keep the bad guys out and let the commerce go through.”
The perimeter security deal, which will be phased in over several years, aims to smooth the passage of goods and people across the 49th parallel while bolstering defences along the continental border.
Citizenship and Immigration is the lead department on 10 perimeter initiatives. The most controversial may be a plan to keep track of everyone entering and leaving the country, with the help of information from the U.S.
Ottawa will help Washington do the same thing by systematically providing information on all travellers entering Canada from the U.S.
The plans entail greater exchange of both simple biographic and biometric data, and will be covered by a forthcoming Immigration Information Sharing Treaty.
That deeper co-operation, said Biette, is helping lay to rest any past concerns in the U.S. about Canada.
“Some of that means we’re going to have to share information with each other,” he said. “I am very aware and I think most Americans working on this are sensitive to the issue of privacy in Canada, which is different from Europe, different from the Americans.”
The Canadian Press also obtained documents last month that showed Canada and the U.S. plan to join forces in order to better deal with “irregular flows” of refugees that turn up in North America or migrate within the continent.