Edmonton Journal

Canada’s secret soldiers working under the radar

Special forces government’s ‘go-to’ choice for global security missions

- David Pugliese

KINGSTON, Jamaica — The voice in the darkness is almost a whisper.

“When I give you the green light, take them out,” the Canadian special forces soldier calmly says over the radio to his snipers concealed in the thick jungle.

Red lasers from the snipers’ rifles pinpoint two sentries pacing on the upper floor of an isolated cinder block house just outside Jamaica’s capital. If this were a real-life scenario, the sentries would be killed instantly.

But in fact they’re members of Jamaica’s security forces, and the drama unfolding at 3 a.m. is a joint training exercise between members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment and Jamaica’s military and police.

Explosions and gunfire follow. More than 35 Jamaicans and Canadians swarm the building, moving from room to room in search of terrorists. Detainees are quickly captured. The training exercise continues through the night as the commandos fend off a counter-attack from gunmen hidden in the jungle.

Jamaica is among several countries in which Canada’s special forces are undertakin­g training missions, as they become the “go-to” choice of the federal government for global security tasks.

But while these forces are both skilled and respected among western militaries, critics want to know a lot more about how they are being used.

Special forces handle a range of unique missions, such as hostage rescue; dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons; raiding enemy compounds; and battling terrorists who have seized aircraft, buildings or ships.

As well, they can be quickly sent overseas and are typically small, so they are less costly than more cumbersome convention­al forces. Special forces soldiers are adept at operating in difficult conditions, and don’t need large-scale support.

Their missions make some secrecy inevitable. But that fact also gives the government carte blanche in deciding what it wants to reveal, if anything. Although special forces are under military and, ultimately, government command, there is no formal independen­t oversight.

“Neither the public nor Parliament has any real idea of where these forces are working and what the implicatio­ns are for our national security policy,” said retired Col. Pat Stogran, who worked with Canadian special forces when he led Canada’s first mission to Afghanista­n in 2002. “The less transparen­t you make things, the more susceptibl­e it is to being abused.”

In September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper surprised MPs by announcing that up to 69 Canadian special forces would be sent to northern Iraq to train and advise those fighting Islamic State.

Harper emphasized the special forces would not go into combat. Their officers say the commandos are teaching local troops how to “shoot, move and communicat­e.” Few other details have been provided.

Government insiders say the Conservati­ves wanted to be seen quickly responding to Islamic State while supporting the U.S., which also put special forces on the ground and had requested the Canadians.

The government says the payoff is significan­t: military relations are built between nations, and allies develop skills to protect against terrorism or organized crime.

“We’ve become a relatively useful action arm for the Department of Foreign Affairs, one of the levers to help reduce the fragility of some of those states,” said Brig.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, who heads the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. “I think we’ve seen very tangible results. We’re bringing indigenous forces’ capabiliti­es to a level that they weren’t at when we first started.”

But the frequency with which Canadian special forces are being used, and the secrecy, gnaws at NDP defence critic Jack Harris. “It seems to have grown without a lot of public knowledge or oversight by parliament­arians,” he said.

It was under the Conservati­ve government that thendefenc­e chief Gen. Rick Hillier significan­tly expanded special forces in 2006, which at that point consisted mainly of the Ottawa-based counter-terrorism unit Joint Task Force 2, or JTF2. An Ottawa-based headquarte­rs, the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command or CANSOFCOM, was created. CSOR was establishe­d.

The helicopter unit that then supported JTF2 grew into the 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron and operates from Petawawa, Ont. Specialist­s who supported JTF2 in dealing with chemical, nuclear and biological weapons were eventually brought together into the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit, based in Trenton, Ont.

Most of what the units do is shrouded in secrecy.

But shortly after its creation, CSOR started operations in Afghanista­n, taking part in raids against facilities producing improvised explosive devices. In addition, pilots from 427 squadron flew helicopter­s to transport the special forces’ raiding parties going after “high value” targets in Afghanista­n.

With combat operations over in Afghanista­n, special forces have increased their overseas training.

Special forces are usually under very senior leadership in their respective countries, notes Walter Dorn, an associate professor at the Canadian Forces College, in Toronto. A foreign military or civilian leader might decide to use them for purposes antithetic­al to the values of western nations — bad news if those troops have been trained by Canadian special forces.

So far, that hasn’t happened. But in 2012, Malian paratroope­rs trained by CSOR were behind a failed counter-coup in Mali to bring back a democratic­ally elected government. In the aftermath, many of the Canadiantr­ained soldiers were hunted down and killed by the new military regime behind the coup.

 ?? Canadian Special Operations Forces Command ?? Members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, from Petawawa, Ont., recently trained in Jamaica with Jamaican special forces.
Canadian Special Operations Forces Command Members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, from Petawawa, Ont., recently trained in Jamaica with Jamaican special forces.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada