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Terrorism in Canada: A Difficult and Tragic Week

On Monday October 20th, Canada experienced its first terrorist attack on home soil by an Islamist extremist. In Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, where the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School is located, a radicalized Canadian convert to Islam, “Ahmad” (formerly Martin) Couture-Rouleau, hit two soldiers with his car. Rouleau was known to Canadian law enforcement authorities: his passport had been revoked to prevent him from traveling overseas to join and fight for the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Monday’s incident followed a statement by ISIS on September 21st, calling for attacks against Canada and allied nations, using a knife, a rock, or a car to kill the victims. Rouleau’s attack also took place just days after the Government of Canada had announced changes to legislation that would give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) greater capacity to address the foreign fighter challenge. The day of the attack, CSIS Deputy Director of Operations Jeff Yaworsky appeared before the Canadian Senate’s Committee on National Security and Defence and conceded that it would be an overstatement to say that CSIS had “all the bases covered”, in terms of monitoring radicalized Canadians who had travelled abroad and returned home.

On Wednesday October 22nd, just two days after Rouleau’s attack, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a 32 year old Canadian convert to Islam with an arrest record, shot and killed the ceremonial guard on duty at Canada’s National War Memorial. Zehaf-Bibeau then crossed the street and entered the Parliament of Canada where dozens of shots were fired. Further tragedy was averted when Parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms brought down the gunman, shooting him fatally, just outside the rooms where both the Government caucus and that of the Official Opposition were meeting. Zehaf-Bibeau’s motive, the question of whether he was mentally ill, and if he acted alone, are still under investigation. So, too, the question of whether Monday and Wednesday’s incidents are somehow linked. We do know however that Zehaf-Bibeau’s passport had been revoked as he was determined to be “a high-risk traveller.” In response to yesterday’s events, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged resolve, emphasizing that Canada will not be “intimidated”; and today Parliament resumed its business. Such resilience is all the more notable in a city that had experienced only five murders this year, up until this week. Equally important, though, will be the details of how the country strikes a balance between security and openness, moving forward. Undoubtedly there will be much soul-searching on this front.

To help place and understand this week’s events in broader context, see the 2014 Public Report On The Terrorist Threat to Canada. Also see the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s description of the threat environment for Canada, as articulated earlier this year, which notes that “Canada, as a country, has not often been targeted specifically for attack.” As one commentator writes, though:

Wednesday’s attack, for one, partially fulfilled a scenario plotted in 2005 by a group of radicalized young men in southern Ontario said to be inspired by al-Qaeda. The so-called Toronto 18 had planned a coordinated, suicidal assault on the Hill involving truck bombs, shootings in public areas and the storming of Parliament by armed men.

Nor does the Toronto 18 case stand alone. Consider also, for example, the 2010 arrests (named Operation Samossa) of a trio “preparing to build improvised explosive devices for attacks within Canada….” Following these incidents, the country released its first-ever counterterrorism strategy in 2012, entitled Building Resilience Against Terrorism.

The potential for copycat attacks in the United States that mimic the tactics used this Monday and Wednesday in Canada will surely remain a subject of interest and concern to US law enforcement and the broader population; and officials in both countries continue to work closely together as they have long done, to mutual benefit.