by Flora Kwong
The mention of terrorists often invokes images of Islamic fundamentalists fighting in the Middle East. However, recent killings in Quebec and in Canada’s own capital, Ottawa, have ignited Canadian media outlets to suggest that the enemy is not so far away. While they may have a point, the “enemy” may also not be so simple to define or stop.
On October 22, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau opened fire at the National War Memorial and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, leaving two injured and one Canadian soldier dead. Just two days earlier, Martin Couture-Rouleau ran his car over two Canadian soldiers, killing one, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, near Montreal, Canada. Across the Atlantic on May 24, Belgium witnessed a similar attack when Mehdi Nemmouche opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Three people were killed and a fourth later died from his injuries. Attacks in these seemingly tranquil Western countries caught the world by surprise.
What followed was the frenzy to try to discern the enemy. Many media outlets, including The Globe and Mail and National Post, have featured profiles on the personal history of Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau, Couture-Rouleau, a young father and business owner, converted to Islam in 2013, while Zehaf-Bibeau, longtime drug addict and petty criminal, converted in 2011. However, only Couture-Rouleau was on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) terror watchlist, with his passport having been seized not long before his attack. Beyond their religious beliefs, the two men’s paths to committing murder share few other similarities.
With both attackers dead, the real reasons behind the assaults will largely be left to conjecture. Yet, the Canadian government and authorities have managed to paint a single picture of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists for both incidents. Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) alleged that Couture-Rouleau’s attack in Quebec “the violent expression of an extremist ideology.” The RCMP called Zehaf-Bibeau’s shootings on Parliament Hill “a terrorist attack,” further describing both attackers as radicalized individuals driven by Islamic ideology. In his address to the nation after the attacks, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper referred to both Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau as terrorists, associating the two incidents to ISIS and anti-terrorism rhetoric.
Understandably, with such discourse being bandied about by leadership and authorities, media have tended towards analyzing the two incidents together as cases of homegrown or lone-wolf terrorism. The subsequent question is then: how do we prevent lone-wolf terrorist attacks? Logical answers would involve counter-terrorism measures. Canadian domestic counter-terrorism measures are certainly in place, with relatively modest scale and frequency of terrorist attacks occurring in Canada.
Nevertheless, the atrocities occurred, in spite of Canada’s anti-terrorism efforts. Many experts, including Christian Leuprecht, a terrorism expert at Queen’s University in Canada, argue that this is evidence of the shortcomings in Canada’s counter-terrorism measures. Other experts, like Gerald Caplan, Canadian academic and public policy analyst, say that leaders need to use words like “terrorist” more carefully, suggesting that the shootings on Parliament Hill were not necessarily a terrorist attack.
Regardless of the definition of “lone wolf” or “terrorist,” it would be unwise to presume that, due to their religious affiliation, both men were organized terrorists affiliated with ISIS or other terrorist organizations, and were motivated purely by ideology. Instead, the issue of pathology has been pushed to the forefront in light of such attacks, including the 2012 mass killings in Norway by Anders Breivik. Often, such assailants struggle with mental illness, among other challenges. As terrorist expert Jeffrey Simon describes in his book Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat, the dividing line between ideology and pathology is rather fuzzy. In fact, Doug Saunders of The Globe and Mail notes that the roots of such violence are often an overlap of pathology and ideology, not one or the other.
Thus, without adequate evidence, it would be unjust – tending towards alarmist and xenophobic – to presume that all Muslim lone wolves are organized terrorists. But perhaps more relevant to the immediate security concerns of citizens, is that such presumptions are counterproductive to the efforts of intelligence agencies. In their pursuit of the ambiguous profile of “lone wolves,” they must “decide whether we are seeking out the damaged or the resolute, the troubled or the zealous,” as indicated by Saunders. Incorrect presumptions will lead to incorrect action.
Instead, suspected individuals should be treated on a case-by-case basis, in order to implement more suitable and responsive measures. For example, authorities already knew of Couture-Rouleau’s extremist behavior and support for ISIS ideology, having seized his passport in July. While Canada had successfully prevented him from joining a larger terrorist organization abroad, it was unable to track him or detain him beyond that, based on a lack of evidence and constitutional principles. In such cases, rather than insisting on typical counterterrorism measures, Saunders suggests we look to the Danish approach of working to remove the violent ideology from the troubled minds.
Some argue that the real issue is the lack of government focus and capabilities with regards to individual terrorists. There may be a tendency to focus on al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, eclipsing the threats posed by lone wolves. In an interview for The Times, Simon states that since lone wolves operate “outside the box,” they are able to think “outside the box” and catch their targets when they least expect it. Furthermore, individual terrorists require little to no network or resources, leave few traces of their plans, and are thus by nature more difficult to identify and to monitor. Along these lines, the government should develop more enhanced programs to counter lone wolves. It should also be accorded more power to trace, monitor and perhaps more easily detain individuals.
Others argue that it is the shrinking defense budgets that are crippling governments’ abilities to track homegrown extremists. Despite NATO’s obligation that Member States’ spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, countries like Canada and Germany are decreasing their defense budgets. In an interview for Polemics, Andrew Majoran, Security Analyst for Horizon Intelligence, noted the resulting greater challenges of combating the threat of homegrown extremism. He stated that, “Governments have the ability to strip known extremists of their passports and restrict their civil liberties to a certain degree, but the resources are not present to ensure that radicalized individuals are being observed.” Instead, increased resources would help to fund more programs, thus preventing radicalized individuals from carrying out an attack.
The lone wolf behind enemy lines indeed threatens a nation’s security. However, the greater threat may perhaps be the limited perspective on who the lone wolf is. Regardless of the measures taken, governments must keep in mind that each individual attacker presents a unique case of personal history, pathology, ideology, and ultimately, motives. The shock and alarm that such attacks have aroused thus highlights the need for leaders to be warier in their understanding and their countermeasures. Not every lone wolf is an ideological terrorist, let alone an ISIS-affiliated one. Therefore, not every lone wolf is looking to “intimidate” Canada, as suggested by Prime Minister Harper in his address to the nation after the attack in Ottawa. Yet, Harper vowed that Canada will “strengthen its resolve and redouble its efforts” in the fight against “terrorist organizations.” Someone will have to remind Prime Minister Harper that the recent attacks were carried out by independent individuals, not terrorist organizations.