PETAWAWA, ONT.—They deployed to Vancouver in 2010, ready to intervene if terrorists took aim at the Winter Olympics.
When a gunman murdered a soldier at the National War Memorial and stormed Parliament Hill in 2014, these soldiers readied their gear and helicopters prepared to move the team into action.
They are Canada’s insurance policy against the worst-case scenario when a terror strike proves more than local police forces can handle.
|At Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, members of the Canadian Special Forces go through a variety of training exercises, including a live-fire drill. (RICHARD LAUTENS / TORONTO STAR)|
In April, the Toronto Star and CTV News were given exclusive access to Canada’s special forces mission in northern Iraq, where Canadians are training Kurdish peshmerga soldiers, and later to their training facilities at Garrison Petawawa.
With its counterterrorism mandate, JTF2 is at the heart of what Maj.-Gen. Mike Rouleau calls the “home game” for the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, which he heads.
JTF2, along with the unit trained to handle chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, make up the “national mission force,” to respond to a domestic terror incident.
“JTF2 is always on a pretty coiled spring to be able to respond,” said Rouleau, himself a former JTF2 member.
“We can see the nature of crises, the Paris attacks, what happened in Brussels. These things happen very quickly. The modus operandi of the terrorist is actually to kill as many people in as short a time as possible,” Rouleau said.
Yet Rouleau cautions that JTF2’s involvement in any crisis would come only after consultations with cabinet ministers and it was clear that the incident was beyond the ability of local law enforcement to manage.
“We’re not first responders,” he said.
“You don’t use military force of that description unless you’ve exhausted what’s available in the law enforcement portfolio. Clearly, using JTF2 in a counterterrorism sense means that the situation has gotten to the point where you need that level of tool for the problem,” Rouleau said.
He offered the example of a hijacked aircraft at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport as one scenario that might call for an intervention by JTF2.
“That is a very, very complex problem to go and rescue hostages in a structure like that. . . We train for that rigorously,” Rouleau said.
“We are capable of assaulting what we call any stronghold in Canada, whether it’s a train, an airplane, a ship, a building, moving vehicles,” Rouleau said.
“That’s the domestic counterterrorism mandate for that worst-case scenario, should it ever happen,” he said.
Even as Rouleau took the wraps off some elements of special forces capabilities and personnel, JTF2 was kept firmly in the shadows. But in an interview, he offered some details about the unit, which he calls the “jewel in the crown” of the special forces command.
“It is the one that has the most highly specialized and precise skill sets in CANSOFCOM (the acronym for Canadian Special Operations Forces Command). Precision shooting, moving, communicating, intelligence support, sustainment. All of it is extremely precise. It has enormous value added in a non-lethal sense as much as a lethal sense,” Rouleau said.
“It’s a unit that can be deployed against a wide spectrum of issues or crises. It can be very low signature. It can be very clandestine in the way that it is used,” he said.
One source familiar with JTF2 said the skills of the unit’s members come from the time devoted to training.
“What makes JTF2 good is the training. The missions are demanding and the intensity in planning is much more demanding,” the source said. “When you’re not on mission, you train.”
Operating from their base in Dwyer Hill, just outside Ottawa, JTF2 dates back to the early 1990s, when the military took over the role that had been done by the RCMP’s special emergency response team.
In those early days, JTF2 had fewer than 100 people. By 2006, its capabilities and manpower had significantly expanded, primarily as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States.
Today, Rouleau describes it as a “very big unit” though he doesn’t disclose numbers. It’s organized into squadrons — several of them assault squadrons — while others provide support in areas such as technology.
From its original domestic mission, JTF2 has done missions abroad in places such as the Balkans and Rwanda. Its members protect the prime minister and other high-level VIPs when they visit hot spots such as Iraq.
JTF2 soldiers have also readied for potential rescue missions when Canadian citizens have been taken hostage abroad. Yet JTF2’s role, if any, in the release of kidnapped Canadians has never been publicly disclosed. Nor will the military discuss whether JTF2 troops were in the Philippines, where two Canadians were recently killed by their captors.
Rouleau says it was in Afghanistan that JTF2 proved its mettle and earned the respect of allies. JTF2 first deployed there in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks and remained for almost a year. During that first tour, the unit was largely unknown among other allied soldiers. “At the beginning, people said, ‘Who the f--- is JTF2?’ ” one soldier recounted to the Star’s Allan Woods in a 2010 interview.
JTF2 returned to Afghanistan in 2005. Their task was often what Rouleau describes as “kill and capture” missions.
“We would work essentially only at night, basically doing raiding on specific targets of interest, bomb makers, commander and control facilitators, key commanders with a view to capturing them so that they could be exploited for their intelligence value,” Rouleau said.
Similar raids by American special forces soldiers proved controversial at times when Afghan leaders complained that innocent civilians were being caught in the crosshairs.
Rouleau, who commanded Canadian missions in Afghanistan, said the work of special forces troops saved many Canadian lives by “chipping away at the IED networks and the command and control structure of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.”
“There’s no question about it that JTF2 really earned its international bona fides after 9/11,” Rouleau said.