Threats to the security of Canada and Canadian Interests

Terminology – Words Matter

The terminology used when discussing threats to our national security is important. It matters not only to understand the impact various violent extremist movements have on their adherents, but it also helps ensure that language used does not unintentionally or unfairly stigmatize any given community.

In pursuit of this objective, CSIS sought to develop comprehensive terminology which is linked not only to the CSIS Act, but also to Section 83 of the Criminal Code of Canada. Moving forward, CSIS will use the following terminology in its discussions of the violent extremist terrorist threat landscape:

Violent Extremists and Terrorists

Terrorism and Violent Extremism

The threat landscape surrounding religiously, politically or ideologically motivated violent extremism continues to evolve in Canada and is increasingly changing in a borderless online space. Violent extremist propaganda continues to flourish in this global landscape and cannot be defined by a single coordinated narrative. While no single group has a monopoly on this threat, listed terrorist entities such as Daesh and al-Qaida are well known for leveraging their elaborate online presence to inspire, enable and direct threat actors in support of their activities. Their success has provided a playbook for threat actors in other extremist milieus and the impact has been far reaching — influencing those who support these ideologies to travel, train, fundraise, recruit or plan attacks either within Canada or abroad.

CSIS is mandated to investigate these threats and in certain cases, take measures to reduce them. In doing so, CSIS is charged with providing advice to the Government of Canada regarding the threat landscape, identifying Canadian connections to international groups and identifying potentially violent religiously, politically or ideologically motivated individuals or cells.


Internationally, security threats impacting Canadians and Canadian interests have largely come from listed terrorist entities and aligned groups such as Daesh. Despite the loss of physical territory in Iraq and Syria, the group continues to dominate the extremist landscape in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Al-Qaida and al-Qaida-aligned groups also remain present in these regions. In Yemen, both al-Qaida and Daesh have continued to take advantage of the ongoing civil conflict to effectively use vast uncontrolled areas to expand their ranks and enhance their capabilities.

Both Daesh and al-Qaida affiliate Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam Wal Muslimin (JNIM) have conducted frequent and complex attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso and continue to pose a threat to stability in the region. In November 2019, suspected violent extremists attacked a convoy of buses transporting local employees of a Canadian mining company in eastern Burkina Faso. 38 people were killed and dozens more were injured.

Al-Qaida-aligned al-Shabaab remains the dominant terrorist group in the Horn of Africa. Military activities against al‑Shabaab by the United States and other foreign militaries have not hampered its expansion into new areas or diminished the lethalness of its attacks.

The growth of networks sympathetic to al-Shabaab and their form of extremism laid the groundwork for the eventual spread of Daesh affiliates into Somalia and the development of Daesh affiliates in East Africa. In April 2019, Daesh formally recognized the wilayat Central Africa, further expanding the official footprint of Daesh to include the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique. Canadians in this region continue to face an elevated risk of being targeted in terrorist attacks. On July 12, 2019, a Canadian journalist was killed in an al-Shabaab attack on a hotel in Kismayo, Somalia.

The global reach of al-Qaida and Daesh makes both groups an ongoing threat to Canada’s national security.


Recent acts of serious violence in the West have been typically characterized by low-resource, high-impact events. While previously seen as the hallmark of religiously motivated violent extremist groups such as al-Qaida or Daesh, these strategies are being employed across the violent extremist spectrum. Examples include repeated use of firearms, vehicles and knives in attacks throughout Europe and North America. Despite the decrease in sophistication, the impact and lethality of attacks remain high, as perpetrators often strike soft targets.

Ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE)

Ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE) is often driven by a range of grievances and ideas from across the traditional ideological spectrum. The resulting worldview consists of a personalized narrative which centres on an extremist’s willingness to incite, enable and or mobilize to violence. Extremists draw inspiration from a variety of sources including books, images, lectures, music, online discussions, videos and conversations.

Given the diverse combination of motivations and personalized worldviews of recent mass-casualty attackers, the use of such terms as “right-wing” and “left-wing” is not only subjective, but inaccurate in describing the complexity of motivations of IMVE attacks in Canada and abroad.

Example of IMVE

On January 13, 2020, an individual pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted murder and one count of breach of probation. The individual stabbed a woman multiple times and injured her baby on June 3, 2019. He self-identified as an Incel (involuntarily celibate) and took some inspiration from the 2018 Toronto van attack in which 10 people were killed and 16 wounded.

Four Categories of IMVE

Canadian Extremist Travellers

The Government of Canada has continued to monitor and respond to the threat of Canadian Extremist Travellers (CETs). CETs, in other words, are people who hold Canadian citizenship, permanent residency or a valid visa for Canada and who are suspected of having travelled abroad to engage in terrorism-related activities. CETs, including those abroad and those who return, pose a wide range of security concerns for Canada. While Canada’s share of this problem is small, we are not immune to these threats.

There are approximately 250 CETs, both abroad and who have returned. Of the estimated 190 CETs currently abroad, nearly half have travelled to Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The remaining CETs are located in Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of North and East Africa. These individuals have travelled to support and facilitate extremist activities and, in some cases, directly participate in violence. Some 60 individuals with a nexus to Canada who were engaged in extremist activities abroad have returned to Canada.

The conflict in Syria and Iraq has attracted a large number of extremists to fight overseas since it began in 2011. Several factors—including foreign authorities preventing entry at their borders, enhanced legislation in Canada deterring individuals from leaving and Daesh’s loss of territory—have all contributed to the declining number of individuals travelling to join extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. Given the risk of death or capture by other armed groups and possible lack of valid travel documents and funds with which to travel, only a limited number of CETs from this conflict zone have successfully returned to Canada. Despite significant challenges CETs face in the conflict zone, many—both male and female—remain committed to extremist ideologies and may desire to leave the region if circumstances on the ground permit.

CSIS is aware of the serious threat posed by returning fighters who have not only shown the resolve to travel and join a terrorist group, but have often received training or gained operational experience while abroad. CSIS and other Government of Canada departments and agencies are well organized as a community to manage the threat posed by returning fighters.

Navigating the Online Space

Increased use of the Internet and social media by threat actors represents a unique challenge for the security and intelligence community, including CSIS.

Threat actors have access to a wealth of information on the internet and online guides offer strategies, provide encouragement and incite and idolize perpetrators of successful violent acts. This information can empower those who would otherwise be incapable of conducting a more complex terrorist attack. Through media and social media outlets, there has been a surge in violent extremist and terrorist media production, as groups continue to spread their extremist messaging while attempting to recruit like-minded individuals to their cause.

Propaganda is disseminated using new methods and alternative platforms, many of which do not require identification in order to share links. This helps threat actors enhance the security of their activities, posing additional challenges for the security and intelligence community. Most notably, the increased use of encryption technologies allows terrorists to conceal the content of their communications and operate with anonymity while online. They can evade detection by police and intelligence officials, which often presents a significant challenge when governments investigate and seek to prosecute threat actors.

Social media platforms, Darknet libraries and encrypted messaging applications continue to represent an important aspect of terrorist messaging and recruitment to solicit attention to the cause and incite violence. Despite Daesh’s loss of territory and leadership in recent years, their media production is ongoing—albeit in a diminished capacity—as it continues to spread its message by disseminating material across a variety of online platforms. Terrorist entities use cyberspace to enhance the security of their activities. CSIS assesses that Daesh will continue to inspire and or encourage operations abroad. Attacks undertaken by individuals whose radicalization is facilitated by learned tactics and online and emerging technologies are the direct result of aggressive terrorist media campaigns that aim to inspire more violence. Radicalization, both offline and online, remains a significant concern to Canada and its allies.

Espionage and Foreign-Influenced Activities

As a core part of its mandate, CSIS investigates and advises the Government of Canada on threats posed by espionage and foreign-influenced activities. These activities are almost always conducted to further the interests of a foreign state, using both state and non-state entities. Espionage and foreign-influenced activities are directed at Canadian entities both inside and outside of Canada, and directly threaten Canada’s national security and strategic interests.

These threats continue to persist and, in some areas, are increasing. Canada’s advanced and competitive economy, as well as its close economic and strategic partnership with the United States, makes it an ongoing target of hostile foreign state activities. Canada’s status as a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its participation in a number of multilateral and bilateral defence and trade agreements has made it an attractive target for espionage and foreign interference.

Canadian interests can be damaged by espionage activities through the loss of sensitive and or proprietary information or leading-edge technologies, and through the unauthorized disclosure of classified and sensitive government information. A number of foreign states continue their attempts to covertly gather political, economic and military information in Canada. Multiple foreign states also target non-government organizations in Canada—including academic institutions, other levels of government, the private sector and civil society—to achieve these goals.

Foreign governments also continue to use their state resources and their relationships with private entities to attempt foreign interference activities in Canada. These activities are carried out in a clandestine or deceptive manner and can target communities or democratic processes across multiple levels throughout the country. Foreign powers have attempted to covertly monitor and intimidate Canadian communities in order to fulfil their own strategic and economic objectives. In many cases, clandestine influence operations are meant to support foreign political agendas—a cause linked to a conflict abroad—or to deceptively influence Government of Canada policies, officials or democratic processes.

Economic Security

Economic espionage activities in Canada continue to increase in breadth, depth and potential economic impact. Hostile foreign intelligence services or people who are working with the tacit or explicit support of foreign states attempt to gather political, economic, commercial, academic, scientific or military information through clandestine means in Canada.

In order to fulfil their economic and security development priorities, some foreign states engage in espionage activities. Foreign espionage has significant ramifications for Canada, including lost jobs, corporate and tax revenues, as well as diminished competitive and national advantages. Canadian commercial interests abroad are also potential targets of espionage, and Canadian entities in some foreign jurisdictions can be beholden to intrusive and extensive security requirements.

With our economic wealth, open business and scientific environments, and advanced workforce and infrastructure, Canada offers attractive prospects to foreign investors. While the vast majority of the foreign investment in Canada is carried out in an open and transparent manner, a number of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private firms with close ties to their government and or intelligence services can pursue corporate acquisition bids in Canada or other economic activities. Corporate acquisitions by these entities pose potential risks related to vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure, control over strategic sectors, espionage and foreign influenced activities, and illegal transfer of technology and expertise. CSIS expects that national security concerns related to foreign investments or other economic activities in Canada will continue.

As difficult as it is to measure, this damage to our collective prosperity is very real. This reality has led to more and more governments openly discussing the changing security landscape with their businesses, their universities and the general public. The national security community and the business community have a shared interest in raising public awareness regarding the scope and nature of state-sponsored espionage against Canada and its potential effect on our economic growth and ability to innovate.

CSIS continues to investigate and identify the threats that espionage and foreign influenced activities pose to Canada’s national interests, and is working closely with domestic and international partners to address these threats.

Protecting Democratic Institutions

Democratic institutions and processes around the world—including elections—are vulnerable and have become targets for international actors. Foreign threat actors—most notably hostile states and state-sponsored actors—are targeting Canada’s democratic institutions and processes. While Canada’s democratic institutions are strong, threat actors maintain a range of targets in order to try to manipulate the Canadian public and interfere with Canada’s democracy. Certain states seek to manipulate and misuse Canada’s electoral system to further their own national interests, while others may seek to discredit key facets of Canada’s democratic institutions to reduce public confidence in the democratic system.

Among the safeguards put in place to protect Canada’s democracy and the 2019 Federal Election was the creation of the Security and Intelligence Threats to Election (SITE) Task Force. As an active partner in SITE, CSIS worked closely with the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and the Privy Council Office (PCO) to share information on election security. Through SITE, CSIS investigated possible foreign interference threats in the lead-up to and during the 2019 Federal Election. SITE proved to be a remarkable example of effective intelligence collaboration through increased intelligence and strengthening communications.

Cyber Threats

Cyber-espionage, cyber-sabotage, cyber-foreign-influence, and cyber-terrorism pose significant threats to Canada’s national security, its interests, as well as its economic stability.

Cyber threat actors conduct malicious activities in order to advance their geopolitical and ideological interests. They seek to compromise both government and private sector computer systems by using new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Cloud technologies or by exploiting security vulnerabilities or users of computer systems. Such activities are collectively referred to as “Computer Network Operations”, or CNOs. State-sponsored entities and terrorists alike are using CNOs directed against Canadians and Canadian interests, both domestically and abroad. Canada remains both a target for malicious cyber activities, and a platform from which hostile actors conduct CNOs against entities in other countries.

State-sponsored cyber threat-actors use CNOs for a wide variety of purposes. These include theft of intellectual property or trade secrets, disruption of critical infrastructure and vital services, interference with elections, or conducting disinformation campaigns. In addition, non-state actors such as terrorist groups also conduct CNOs in order to further their ideological objectives such as recruitment and distribution of propaganda.

Canada’s National Cyber Security Strategy views cyber security as an essential element of Canadian innovation and prosperity. CSIS, along with partners, particularly the Communications Security Establishment’s Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, plays an active role in shaping and sustaining our nation’s cyber resilience through collaborative action in responding to evolving threats of malicious cyber activity. While the CSE and CSIS have distinct and separate mandates, the two agencies share a common goal of keeping Canada, Canadians and Canadian interests safe and secure. In today’s global threat environment, national security must be a collaborative effort. In responding to cyber threats, CSIS carries out investigations into cyber threats to national security as outlined in the CSIS Act. By investigating malicious CNOs, CSIS can uncover clues that help profile cyber threat actors, understand their methods and techniques, identify their targets of interest, and advise the Government of Canada accordingly.

Security Screening

Through its Government Security Screening and Immigration and Citizenship Screening programs, CSIS serves as the first line of defence against terrorism, extremism, espionage and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The Government Security Screening (GSS) program conducts investigations and provides security assessments to address threats to national security. The security assessments are a part of an overall evaluation and assist Government departments and agencies when deciding to grant, deny or revoke security clearances. Decisions related to the granting, denying or revoking of a security clearance lies with the department or agency, not with CSIS.

GSS also conducts screening to protect sensitive sites from national security threats, including airports, marine and nuclear facilities. It assists the RCMP by vetting Canadians and foreign nationals who seek to participate in major events in Canada, such as G7 meetings and royal visits. It provides security assessments to provincial, foreign governments and international organizations when Canadians seek employment requiring access to sensitive information or sites in another country. All individuals subject to government security screening must provide consent prior to being screened.

The Immigration and Citizenship Screening (ICS) program conducts investigations and provides security advice to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) regarding persons who might represent a threat to national security. Through this program, CSIS provides security advice on permanent residence and citizenship applicants; persons applying for temporary resident visas; and persons applying for refugee status in Canada. Decisions related to admissibility into Canada, the granting of visas or the acceptance of applications for refugee status, permanent residence and citizenship rest with IRCC.

Immigration and Citizenship Screening Programs
Requests received* 2018-2019
Permanent Resident Inside and Outside Canada 41,900
Refugees (Front-End Screening**) 41,100
Citizenship 217,400
Temporary resident 55,800
Total 356,200


Government Screening Programs
Requests received* 2018-2019
Federal government departments 74,900
Free and Secure Trade (FAST) 17,900
Transport Canada (Marine and Airport) 46,100
Parliamentary precinct 2,900
Nuclear facilities 10,000
Provinces 280
Others 3,300
Foreign screening 490
Special events accreditation 12,500
Total 168,370

*Note: Figures have been rounded
** Individuals claiming refugee status in Canada or at ports of entry

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