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Terrorism at home: Firefighters key to preventing, identifying terrorist activities, say RCMP

The message Cpl. Ian Daniels brought to the Fire Chiefs Association of British Columbia conference in June was simple but blunt: There will be a terrorist attack in Canada and first responders need to be prepared to deal with it. Indeed, terrorist activity is well documented in Canada and may be happening at any given time in various regions of the country.

December 6, 2007  By Laura King

The message Cpl. Ian Daniels brought to the Fire Chiefs Association of British Columbia conference in June was simple but blunt: There will be a terrorist attack in Canada and first responders need to be prepared to deal with it. Indeed, terrorist activity is well documented in Canada and may be happening at any given time in various regions of the country.

Fortunately, many of these activities are interrupted by law enforcement before anything major happens.

The biggest and most familiar example of this type of activity was the June 2006 series of counter-terrorism raids in the Greater Toronto Area during which 17 alleged members of a purported Islamic terrorist cell were arrested. Canadian authorities and law-enforcement agencies alleged that the men had been planning a series of major terrorist assaults on targets in southern Ontario.

While the raid and arrests shocked many Canadians, the sweep was exactly what the RCMP's Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, or anti-terrorist unit, counts on – finding the bad guys before they carry out their planned attacks.


The 90-minute presentation at the B.C. chiefs' conference was chilling and, for many, enlightening.

"We cannot ignore the reality," Daniels told the room full of about 100 career and volunteer firefighters. "There is a threat out there. Canada has been named four times by Osama bin Laden as a potential target."

Daniels is with the Vancouver unit of the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team. His mission is not to shock or frighten, rather to educate, and his message is meant to alert first responders to the realities of terrorism in 2007.

"Thirty years ago terrorists used to phone you," he said, and demand ransom for kidnap victims. "Their goal was not to kill a lot of people – that would have hurt their cause. Their goal today is an Al Qaeda type of threat. Their goal is to kill as many people as possible. That's what has changed in the last 30 years."

The Integrated National Security Enforcement Team was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. There are four units – in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. The team works with agencies such as the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, Health Canada, Transport Canada and the CSIS-led Integrated Threat Assessment Centre to get information to the front-line people – police and firefighters – as quickly as possible.

Cpl. Steve Corcoran is the outreach officer for the team and works extensively with first responders.

"The biggest message we're trying to instil is that every emergency response agency has a role in national security," Corcoran said in an interview. "All first responders may come across things which, if they understand what they're looking at, they can recognize and then phone the appropriate agencies."

Corcoran says law enforcement is trying establish a national and global system to receive information as early as possible so that the infrastrcutre that terrorist organizations need to survive can be identified.

"The days of looking for the vehicle full of weapons or explosives, that's too late in the process," he says. "We have to look into their support systems, their financing, their pre-operation surveillence, when they are recruiting, when they're doing their training and when they're acquiring suppies."

Besides educating first responders, the RCMP cautions businesses to be on the lookout for people asking unusual questions about timing of shift changes, security, or numbers of employees, for example. And, they warn, terrorist activities – homemade bomb labs, for example – can be set up in small towns, big cities, hotels, apartment buildings, commercial buildings and suburban homes.

"We're wanting to try to engage firefighters, in particular," Corcoran said. "Incidents have happened around the world where there's a fire or an explosion and fire is the first on the scene, so we're hoping to let fire departments know that when they go to a call they should just be aware of what they're seeing."

Stephen Gamble, president of the Fire Chiefs Association of British Columbia, says it's comforting to know that the RCMP and other agencies are a phone call away should firefighters encounter any kind of possible terrorist activity.

"As an association, the B.C. fire chiefs are encouraged to know that the RCMP continue to take into consideration terrorist activities that have the potential to not only impact the Lower Mainland, but also smaller communities throughout the province, many of which have major highways, pipelines, rail lines, shipping centers, and marine traffic contained within their jurisdiction," Gamble said.

While Daniels and Corcoran believe spreading the word about terrorist activities, groups and potential targets to first responders and others makes a difference, the reality of 2007 remains key to their message.

Corcoran and Daniels urge first responders to be on the lookout for telltale signs of terrorist activities, or pre-incient indicators, including fundraising, equipment, recruiting, training, scouting and targeting.

Daniels stresses that terrorist attacks are planned months and years in advance so recognizing pre-incident indicators is crucial. "If we can recognize the indicators then we we can put them out of business," he said.

Other indicators include the theft of chemicals (which can be used as nerve agents), patterns of rentals and deliveries and unusual patterns of dead plants, which can indicate testing of chemical weapons or explosives.

While the fire service should be on alert for these kinds of indicators in the community, the RCMP team cautions that fire departments themselves can be targets with theft of uniforms, vehicles, keys and equipment such as radios and crisis-planning information on the list of things to watch for.

"I really can't stress enough that any act of terroritm is pre planned," Corcoran said. "We've got to alert all first responders that we want to get to these groups as soon as possible, not during the final attack. First responders are as likely to come across a precursor as we are."

High on the list of international groups to watch for are Sunni (Muslim) extremists, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, or LTTE, and Hezbola. More regionally, white supremicist groups and animal or environmental groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, which targets farms and farmers, or the Earth Liberation Front, which, according to several websites, is known to use "economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the natural environment." These groups target urban sprawl and protest development in cities and towns. More than US$100 million in damage – arson fires, primarily – has already been attributed to anti-sprawl groups in the United States, and in Langford, B.C., where an anti-sprawl group has targeted new construction, police and firefighters know to consider terrorism if the cause of a fire is not immediately apparent.

In Canada, a small faction within "warrior" societies that protect aboriginal causes have become hard core and militant and will even ‘work' with other aboriginal groups that have issues with government or corporate Canada.

Daniels warns that terrorists – even those connected with regional or local groups – are smart and patient, planning their activites well in advance and implementing practices used in other successful terrorist attacks. Indeed, he said, multiple incidents, such as simultaneous bombings in several key locations in a major city, are becoming more prevalent. Daniels cited the Bali bombings in October 2002, when two bombs went off in or near nightclubs and a third smaller device detonated outside the United States consulate in Denpasar – the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004, which killed 191 people and wounded 2,050, and the London attacks on July 7, 2005, when a series of bombs hit London's public transport system during the morning rush hour.

"We're looking at events in Canada where four to five things happen at the same time," Daniels warned. "It could be in Canada and the U.S. or in Canada and London. Or, we could be talking about incidents where a secondary detination explodes after original bom, blocking exits from subways – that kind of thing."

To put these kinds of events in perspective, Daniels described an experiment in which explosives experts watched a 200-gram plastic explosive – about the size of a can of tuna – rip apart a decommissioned airliner that had been pressurized to 30,0000 feet. Directions for creating these kinds of simple bombs bombs are available on the Internet.

And he warns first responders to pay particular attention to landmarks in their communities such as major corporations or structures such as dams or tourist attractions – potential targets of so-called "postcard" terrorism.

With the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver around the corner, Daniels presses first responders and other agencies to co-operate so they'll have a better chance of preventing terrorist acts.

"Agencies must work together," he said. "If we're not prepared at a high level right now we're going to miss those indicators."

Still, Daniels reiterates, his message is one of awareness, not alarm, noting, however, that the line between the two is thin.

Corcoran agrees.

"We will be successful, and identify and dismantle [terrorist groups] but it's a tall order for us to stop everyone," he said. "There's a quote that Yassar Arafat has said: ‘Intelligence services have to be right all the time and terrorists have to be right just once.' "

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