JUST weeks before Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot dead an unarmed soldier with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in front of Ottawa’s National War Memorial, he moved into a homeless hostel a couple of blocks from Parliament Hill. Originally from Quebec, the unemployed 32-year-old, with a record for drugs-related offences and, his friends say, deteriorating mental health, had come to the city to apply for a passport so he could travel to Syria and go to war.
When the passport failed to materialise, he changed tack and hatched a plan for a war at home, using a car bought for a few hundred pounds and an illegally-owned Winchester rifle. At 9.52am on Wednesday, he parked the beige Toyota Corolla behind the Cenotaph, got out and shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo twice at close range (he also shot and missed a second ceremonial guard) before getting back in the car and driving off.
Shocking CCTV footage reveals what happened next: seconds later, his face half-covered by a scarf, Zehaf-Bibeau stopped the Toyota outside one of the buildings on Parliament Hill and jumped out, sending people scattering. After hijacking a ministerial car, he drove to Centre Block, where the House of Commons and Senate are located, entering by a door under the Peace Tower, where he shot an unarmed security guard in the foot.
As gunfire rang out in the Hall of Honour, Conservative MPs in an unlocked room on the left-hand side barricaded the doors with ornate chairs and armed themselves with flagpoles. They didn’t have to use them; within minutes, Zehaf-Bibeau had been shot dead by sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers.
“If the gunman had headed straight for that unlocked room, he would have found the prime minister, Stephen Harper, at the podium with the Conservative caucus; he could have taken out half of the government,” says John Ivison, former deputy business editor for Scotland on Sunday and now political columnist at the National Post, who arrived at the war memorial shortly after the shots were fired. “Thankfully, he didn’t know what he was doing or where he was going.”
Coming in the wake of the government’s announcement that Canada would join US-led air strikes on Islamic State (IS) and less than 48 hours after a soldier was deliberately run over in a similar lone wolf attack in Quebec, the attack has had a profound impact on a country which prides itself on the accessibility of its public buildings.
“People in Ottawa are used to seeing yoga on the front lawn of the parliament buildings – I don’t think they really believed terror would come here. This really has shaken people up,” says Ivison.
The repercussions of the attack are already being felt within the country. Within hours, Harper had put military bases on lock-down and pledged to speed up new anti-terrorism legislation, prompting critics to accuse him of spinning the tragedy to further his own right-wing agenda.
But the Canadian incidents have a significance for other western countries too; they underline the pernicious threat of radicalisation and the challenge of producing effective strategies to combat both the flow of western Muslims travelling to Syria and the sudden spike in IS-inspired lone wolf attacks on those in uniform.
The murders of Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent (the soldier killed in the hit and run) are not acts of terrorism in the traditional sense; there is no evidence Zehaf-Bibeau or Vincent’s killer, Martin Couture-Rouleau – both of whom were converts to Islam – belonged to any extremist group. Although his father is thought to have fought in Libya, Zehaf-Bibeau was not one of 93 extremists identified by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and they knew nothing of his alleged plans. Couture-Rouleau, whose website features a black IS flag, was on the list and had his passport revoked, but was not found to be engaging in any activities which could justify his detention.
These, however, are exactly the kind of socially isolated individuals IS is now inciting to carry out ad hoc attacks like the one on Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May last year. Last month, the group’s spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, called on supporters in Australia, Canada, France, the US and the UK, to kill any soldier or civilian they could by any means at their disposal. Soon after, 18-year-old Numan Haider was shot dead after stabbing two officers outside a police station in Victoria, Australia, and on Friday, Zale Thompson, 32, was shot dead after attacking four police officers with a machete in New York. Regardless of their mental state or their lack of formal links to IS, it seems clear all four men were influenced by its ideology and its call to arms.
With IS proving irresistible to a small proportion of western Muslims, the need to find effective ways of tackling radicalisation is becoming more urgent.
In both Canada and the UK, right-wing governments appear to see tougher laws to crack down as hard as possible on would-be jihadis as the answer. After pledging to speed up plans to bolster powers of surveillance, detention and arrest, on Thursday, Harper mooted the idea of a new law making the public condoning of acts of terrorism a criminal offence.
In the UK, there are similar moves afoot. At the Tory party conference, Home Secretary Theresa May talked of the need to “defeat the ideology behind the threat” and confirmed the government would introduce a counter-terrorism bill to confiscate the passports of those who travel to Syria and Iraq and to strengthen terrorism prevention and investigation measures. Boris Johnson’s call for Britons returning from Syria and Iraq to be “presumed guilty until proven innocent” was dismissed by the government, but Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has suggested they could be prosecuted for “high treason”.
The government and police, of course, are worried that those who fight jihad will return radicalised, battle-hardened and equipped to carry out acts of violence on home soil. But anti-terrorism experts warn that meting out harsh punishments to those suspected of extremism and those returning from Syria and Iraq could serve to further radicalise them and their friends.
Last week, the government met Google, Facebook, Microsoft and YouTube executives to ask them to automatically hand over information about suspected extremists to the authorities, but critics say most of those involved moved long ago to less regulated sites such as Russia’s Vkontakte and Diaspora or to the deep web via Tor, which hides IP addresses.
Others have pointed out that targeting those who espouse unpalatable or undemocratic ideologies without threatening or condoning violence is an erosion of freedom of speech.
The most controversial aspect of the government’s proposals, however, is the demand to revoke passports and punish Britons returning from Syria and Iraq. So far, around 500 people are estimated to have gone out to fight jihad and 250 have returned.
Dr Doug Weeks, of the centre for terrorism studies at St Andrews University says the most up-to-date research suggests around 11 per cent of those who travel abroad to fight go on to cause problems in their country of origin. While it is important for governments to tackle that 11 per cent, he says, criminalising the remaining 89 per cent could prove counterproductive.
There is growing evidence that a significant proportion of western Muslims who travel to Syria and Iraq are disillusioned by what they find there. A few days ago, a British mother told how she had travelled to the most dangerous part of the Turkish/Syrian border to rescue her son – a white convert who had joined the jihad – after he was injured. Other jihadis have spoken of their dismay at finding they were not fighting Assad’s regime but rival rebel factions.
The prospect of harsh punishments could dissuade them from coming home and mean the country is deprived of potent anti-jihad propaganda.
“Some of those who went out to fight have stepped out of that arena because they didn’t like what they saw; it wasn’t the environment they thought they were participating in with regards to their religious obligations or beliefs,” says Weeks. “To have those individuals back in the UK sends a very powerful message to others within their community. They can say: ‘Look, I went, but when I got there, this is what I found and it was not what I wanted to take part in.’
“The government could not buy a better counter-terrorism narrative, yet they want to criminalise these individuals. It is a very shallow plan in terms of strategic vision.”
Professor Peter Neumann, director of the international centre for the study of radicalisation, at King’s College, London, has suggested returnees could be placed in one of three categories: the dangerous, disturbed or the disillusioned. The dangerous would be prosecuted, the disturbed given psychological support and the disillusioned encouraged to speak out against IS.
Though some extra powers may be useful, anti-radicalisation experts seem to agree the solution to Islamic terrorism lies in providing an alternative vision to that peddled by IS. Dr Suraj Lakhani, lecturer of sociology and criminology at the University of Sussex, says the IS narrative should by challenged at grassroots level, using people who have fought abroad in the past, with a particular emphasis on British youth culture.
In the past, perhaps, there has been a focus on the religious aspect of radicalisation, with imams and other leaders emphasising the theological wrongness of fighting jihad abroad. But while religion does play a part in the process, many of those who go to Syria and Iraq have a history of alcohol or drug use, criminality or gang membership and are not practising Muslims, as was demonstrated by would-be jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who bought Islam For Dummies before setting off from Birmingham for Syria.
“The factors which lead to radicalisation are a complex mix and may include a sense of disintegration and disenfranchisement,” says Lakhani, who finished his doctorate, A Social Analysis Of Radicalisation In The UK, earlier this year. But there is also a cultural element of radicalisation; the romantic idea of going abroad to fight with your brothers, and handling powerful military hardware and the excitement and adrenaline.
“When we have grassroots workers who may be immigrants from Southeast Asia, they may not understand the British culture, but those who have been through it themselves are able to understand and say, ‘It may seem cool and it may seem exciting, but it’s very different when you get out there and you see destruction and dead bodies.’ I think that’s a very important counter-narrative rather than just saying ‘it’s not religiously correct to do this’.”
Last week, two more Canadian families were counting the cost of radicalisation; as Corporal Cirillo’s mother Linda wept behind her son’s coffin, Zehaf-Bibeau’s mother Susan – who works for the Immigrant and Refugee Board in Montreal – struggled to explain how her privately educated son could have carried out such a heinous act.
With its potent iconography, mastery of social media and lust for power, IS continues to attract a steady stream of young Muslims from a wide variety of backgrounds: gawky teenagers like 17-year-old Australian jihadi Abdullah Elmir; middle-class girls like Aqsa Mahmood from Glasgow; and petty criminals like Aine Davis, from London. Yet, despite its apparent attraction, Weeks believes IS has made significant strategic blunders by alienating mainstream Muslims with its excessive brutality. “Muslims and non-Muslims alike are en masse rejecting IS. Had they been more moderate or more measured in their march across Iraq there might have been significant support for the establishment of a caliphate.”
Instead it’s gone the other way, yet politicians in both Canada and the UK are failing to capitalise on its weaknesses. “You have large swathes of communities that are rejecting what is going on and that should be manipulated to the government’s advantage,” Weeks says. “But rather than doing that, the government is talking about cracking down on free speech and removing passports and doing all kinds of things that ultimately run the risk of alienating the very communities that could be their best partners.”