A debate is forming around a recent article published on Saturday by Asia Times Online. In his article, "Al-Qaeda to Unleash Western Jihadis", Syed Saleem Shahzad (writing with Tahir Ali) offers details about a dozen Canadians who have purportedly travelled to North Waziristan, Pakistan to train with al Qaeda.
Citing a militant informant, Shahzad suggests the Canadians have been training since last February. And, as part of al Qaeda's broader strategy of attracting, recruiting, and training Westerners to conduct attacks back home, they will eventually "return to their country to execute al-Qaeda's plan of targeting big cities in Canada." The militant informant tells Asia Times that the Canadians are led by a 30-year old convert to Islam "who sports a golden beard" and even shares a few of their names – Jeam Paull, Leman Langlois, James Richard, Otto Paul, Thomas, and Paul Gall.
Reaction to the article has been mixed. Most of the ensuing debate hinges on whether or not Shahzad's militant source should be believed.
Ian MacLeod of the Ottawa Citizen was on the story early with a scoop that has since been republished across Canada. MacLeod reports that Shahzad, in a short email exchange, "bristled when the veracity of his report was questioned". The Globe and Mail writes that security officials in Ottawa are regarding "the report… with skepticism." And later in an interview with CTV (skip ahead to Brad Giffen's segment), Shahzad is again forced to defend his journalistic methodologies and sources.
And of course, the blogosphere wouldn't have any of it either. In a half-baked analysis, one blogger suggests that the informant likely gave Shahzad names he culled from Canada's academic establishment: Canadian militants "Leman Langlois" and "Jeam Paull" likely refer to Canadian terrorism experts Stéphane Leman-Langlois and (the late) Jean-Paul Brodeur, and militant "James Richard" is probably a reference to "James Richard Cross, the British diplomat kidnapped by the FLQ and mentioned" specifically on page 10 of a 2005 article co-authored by Leman-Langlois and Brodeur. Prof Leman-Langlois couldn't but wade into the fracas either: "J'apprenais hier matin que je suis un terroriste entraîné en Afghanistan. Ça doit être vrai, puisque c'est un membre des Talibans qui le dit et parce que tous les médias importants le rapportent…." [I learned yesterday morning that I am currently in Afghanistan, training as a terrorist. This must be true, because a member of the Taliban has said as much and because all of [Canada's] important newspapers are reporting it…]
You see? The Taliban took Shahzad for a ride. They're using Asian Times Online to propagandize Canadians by way of our own media establishment. Canadian journalists do their part by rehashing and redistributing the original sin. And we gullibly accept it all and terrorize ourselves silly.
But let me ask you:
Haven't there been enough reports of Americans and Europeans joining al Qaeda and others in the Af-Pak region (and elsewhere in Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa) in recent months to give some credence to this emerging story?
Haven't there been a number of recent terrorist attacks and plots that have involved Westerners who were purposefully dispatched by foreign terrorist organizations to conduct attacks back home? [See, for instance, the 2006 transatlantic aircraft/liquid bomb plot, various UK-based attacks, Najibullah Zazi's 2009 plan to bomb New York City's subway system, and Faisal Shahzad's 2010 car bombing in Times Square]
So while we should always read reports like Shahzad's with a grain of salt and Ottawa is right to probe these allegations carefully, we shouldn't doubt the very idea that Canadians might have travelled to Pakistan for terrorism training. Canadian and other Western citizens have already done so on numerous occasions and al Qaeda has been keen to put their services to good use.
Posted by Alex Wilner