Days before the so-called Freedom Convoy reached Ottawa, starting a weeks-long occupation of Canada’s capital and triggering a string of copy-cat blockades, the federal government was warned that violent extremist groups were deeply involved in the protest movement.
Intelligence assessments – prepared by Canada’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (Itac) and seen by the Guardian – warned in late January that it was “likely” that extremists were involved and said that the scale of the protests could yet pose a “trigger point and opportunity for potential lone actor attackers to conduct a terrorism attack”.
The assessments offer the first real glimpse into how federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies have assessed the threat of Canada’s anti-vaccine and conspiracy theory movement.
“We knew these people were coming,” said a federal government source, who indicated that the Security Intelligence Service Canada – Canada’s main intelligence service, of which Itac is a part – had flagged the involvement of extremist groups and individuals in official briefings.
The intelligence reports also show that clear warnings were sent to Ottawa police ahead of the convoy’s arrival in the capital. The city’s police has become the focus of a fierce debate over whether they should have done more to prepare for, or prevent, the occupation.
Itac reported that supporters of the convoy have “advocated civil war”, called for violence against prime minister Justin Trudeau, and said the protest should be “used as Canada’s ‘January 6’”, in a reference to the storming of the US Capitol.
An early report, dated 27 January, Itac concluded that “a coordinated, complex terrorist attack or planned storming Parliament or other federal locations is unlikely”.
But it concludes that the potential for violence remained very real.
“While the organizers have declared that this is an act of peaceful protest, some ideologically motivated violent extremism followers in Canada have seized upon this rally to advocate for their own ideological objectives,” the January document reads. “Extremists and other individuals supporting Covid-19 conspiracy theories and violent anti-authority/anti-government views have expressed intent to participate in the convoy and to attend the accompanying protest in Ottawa.”
The assessment warns that protesters, and possible extremists, “could use rudimentary capabilities, such as trucks, cargo and fuel, to cause disruptions to infrastructure”.
Presciently, the report warned that the 31 January return of Parliament “could motivate a dedicated group of protesters to prolong their protest in Ottawa”.
A meme, which was shared widely in the early days of the convoy, that reads: ‘Permanent gridlock zone, until freedom restored.’ Photograph: twitter
Included in the report is a meme, which was shared widely in the early days of the convoy, which shows a map with a circle surrounding Ottawa and reads “permanent gridlock zone until freedom restored”.
As the occupation dragged into its second week, Itac issued another report on 8 February.
“All events remained relatively peaceful, with limited low-level conflict,” it reads. “However, violent online rhetoric and the physical presence of ideological extremists at some gatherings remain a factor of concern.”
The report makes particular mention of the QAnon figure Romana Didulo, the self-styled “Queen of Canada”, who has instructed her followers to kill healthcare workers and politicians. She and some of her followers appeared in Ottawa for the occupation, waving flags representing her supposed kingdom.
Itac also drew attention to a constellation of other demonstrations across the country, including in Quebec City where “the QAnon flag was observed, and the extremist group La Meute stated that approximately 100 members participated in the protest.” La Meute, or The Pack is one of the most visible and influential far-right, anti-Islam organizations in Quebec. It also claimed to have sent supporters to the Ottawa protests, the report said.
In the second report, Itac continued to assess the likelihood of a January 6-style insurrection as unlikely, but began warning that “the most likely ideologically motivated violent extremism-related scenario involves an individual or small group using readily available weapons and resources such as knives, firearms, homemade explosives and vehicles in public areas against soft targets, including opposition groups or members of the general public.”
Earlier this week at a blockade at the Coutts border crossing in Alberta, police arrested four men and charged them with conspiring to kill police officers and civilians.
On Wednesday, the public safety minister, Marco Medicino confirmed that some of those arrested had ties to some extremist elements in Ottawa. Some of the men arrested are believed to belong to a loose-knit group known as Diagolon.
Itac reports are largely based on open source intelligence, meaning information already available in the public domain, and law enforcement sources – the centre does not actively monitor individuals or conduct its own investigations.
The purpose of Itac is to provide various levels of local law enforcement with reliable information on emerging threats, said Stephanie Carvin, a former intelligence analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service who now teaches at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“They seem to recognize the nature of the event, and who’s coming to the event,” she said. But, the analysts appear to have missed some of the extreme elements of the leadership of the convoy, Carvin said. “It was a movement led by extremists to begin with, and we should not be surprised they turned to extremist tactics.”
Itac’s warning that only a dogmatic few would brave the Ottawa cold for parliament’s return on 31 January proved to be a significant underestimation. Yet, even that warning wasn’t heeded. The deputy chief of the Ottawa police service said in early February that they planned for “a potentially weekend-long demonstration”, and were caught off guard when the convoy parked in front of Parliament.
“Was the problem that he didn’t have the information?” Carvin said. “Or was the problem that they just don’t take white supremacy seriously?”
Carvin said intelligence agencies had been briefing the Canadian government as far back as late December on the possible threat posed by the convoy.
“[The protest leaders] were exceptionally clear on what they wanted to do, and how they were going to go about doing it,” she said.