Al-Qaida remains Canada’s biggest terrorist threat even though the group has weakened in recent years, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Thursday.
In releasing the 2013 report on the terrorist threat to Canada, Toews also warned that some Canadians have travelled to Syria to join the anti-government forces and could return home radicalized.
“Global violent extremist groups, such as al-Qaida, have been the leading terrorist threat to Canada for many years; this has not changed,” Toews said.
“Canada is still a priority target.”
Statistics cited in the report show more than 7,000 terrorist incidents occurred last year — a decline of about 40 per cent — in 75 countries, costing more than 11,000 lives. Most of the attacks occurred in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In total, 36 Canadians have died in terrorist attacks since 2001, all in other countries, according to the report
While there were no terrorist attacks in Canada last year, the report identifies homegrown extremism as a key threat to Canadian security.
It notes three people have been charged in Canada in the past year for alleged terror-related activities, including two men accused of plotting to attack a Via Rail train.
Toews said al-Qaida still provides guidance to regional affiliates and other terror groups and poses a “persistent threat” to Canada.
Michael Zekulin, a political science instructor at the University of Calgary who studies terrorism, said the annual report is a reminder that Canada is not immune to terrorism and the government is working to neutralize the threat.
“Part of the challenge really is what is real and what is perceived,” Zekulin said.
“Of course, there’s a political dimension to that.”
Zekulin said Canada was on a list al-Qaida published several years ago naming several western democracies such as the U.S., the U.K., and France as enemy targets.
Striking at the United States or Britain would offer al-Qaida a greater “symbolic” value than hitting at Canada, he said.
“If you are unable to attack those two states, then Canada is as good as any,” Zekulin said.
“It is just as readily a western democratic state as any of the other ones.”
The report states the recent bombing of the Boston Marathon shows North America remains vulnerable to terrorist violence.
Toews noted that Canadians are alleged to have been involved in recent attacks in Algeria, Somalia and Bulgaria. The incidents have drawn attention to the reality of Canadian involvement in violence overseas.
“Several dozen Canadians are believed to have travelled, or attempted to travel, abroad to become involved in conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere,” Toews said.
In particular, the minister said Canadians are suspected of having gone to the Middle East to take part in the Syrian civil war and some are believed to have joined extremist groups in the region.
The fear is they could return home to promote terrorist or conduct attacks.
Canada has made it a criminal offence to leave the country with the aim of getting involved in terror-related activity.
He singled out Iran along with Syria as countries that provide state support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
“Syria has become a major centre for terrorist activity,” Toews said.