Ottawa Attacks: 'Terrorists' not who we think

Recent events raise the spectre of a globalized militancy requiring increased security measures. That belief could be damaging, says Kjell Anderson.
By: /
October 24, 2014
ottawa
Tourists stand in the Hall of Honour outside the doors to the Library of Parliament on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 27, 2014. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was shot and killed in the library's doorway on October 22, 2014 after shooting Corporal Nathan Cirillo nearby at the National War Memorial. REUTERS/Blair Gable
Researcher at the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies (NIOD)

Wednesday’s tragic shootings in Ottawa have made the issue of Canada’s policy towards ISIS all the more pressing. They have raised the spectre of an incomprehensible, globalized militant Islam, which could strike Canada at any time and any place. To counter such a threat, we are told, military action and more strident security measures are essential.

Such a perspective is not only misleading, it could also be counter-productive. Adopting such a policy stance, without careful consideration, could actually reduce Canada’s security.

As my recent article for this site argued, the motivations of many ISIS foreign fighters and sympathizers may not be what we suspect. They may be recent converts to Islam, as it appears to be the case with both of the perpetrators of this week’s attacks in Canada (Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau). These attacks may have been ‘ISIS-inspired’, although no information has come out thus far indicating that the attacks were organised by ISIS.

Many foreign recruits and supporters are also self-taught and motivated more by a kind of religious nationalism than religious belief per se. The radicalization of such individuals over the internet appears to have more to do with counter-culture and romanticised notions of heroic resistance against overwhelming power than it does with any real religious stridency or experience of persecution. However, such individuals may, in some cases, feel as though they do not fit in; they may feel righteous anger over the apparent victimization of their (Muslim) ‘brothers and sisters’ at the hands of (non-Muslim) ‘oppressors.’

How we do we prevent such individuals from taking up arms in Canada or abroad?

The answer is anything but simple. The RCMP maintains a “watch list” of individuals who have become radicalized, including 63 active security investigations on 90 suspected extremists (some of whom have returned to Canada after already fighting with groups like ISIS overseas).

In the case of Martin Couture-Rouleau, the 25-year-old accused of hitting two soldiers with a car Monday in Quebec, the RCMP met repeatedly with him in an attempt to both monitor and de-radicalise him. Zehaf-Bibeau also had his passport confiscated on suspicion that he might travel overseas to join a militant Islamist group.

What immediately seems clear is that the security paradigm is not enough. We must consider that there are individuals who would slip through such an approach. Beyond former ISIS foreign fighters, there may also be people who act completely independently in copycat attacks. Zehaf-Bibeau was one such individual who was not on an RCMP watch list.

Justin Bourque, who carried out the fatal Moncton shootings in June was not an Islamic militant but he also acted out of extreme political convictions after self-radicalizing through the internet.

We must ask whether extremist ideologies might be partly interchangeable for individuals who wish to strike out against the perceived tyranny of the mainstream. For example, Morten Storm, a former Danish Islamic extremist, went from committing armed robberies in a biker gang to converting to Islam and joining al-Qaeda. In a study involving thousands of Jihadists, the Saudi Interior Ministry found that only five percent had formal religious roles while more than 25 percent had prior criminal records for drug-related offenses. We might recall that Wednesday’s attacker Michael Zehaf-Bibeau himself had a prior criminal record for possession of marijuana and PCP, as well as reportedly being a crack addict.

Beyond security measures, a more balanced approach to preventing radicalization might resemble approaches to preventing young men from joining gangs. The Canadian authorities must work with communities to ensure that at-risk individuals are identified at an early stage. Moreover, they must present a positive, inclusive message that undermines extremists.

In some sense the rhetoric of war that we have heard from some corners provides fuel for radicalization. By presenting the struggle against ISIS as a civilizational war of Western values against barbarism they are also creating the market for a countervailing ideology of resistance. Militant groups such as ISIS are thirsty for precisely this kind of struggle which legitimates their own mission.

There is no terrorist group that poses an existential threat to Canada. Indeed, one could even argue that Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack was more indicative of individual mental illness than a global terror threat.  Zehaf-Bibeau was reportedly preoccupied by a fear of demonic forces and Martin Couture-Rouleau also had apparent psychological issues. While all the facts have yet to be established, it seems unlikely that he was an ISIS operative; ISIS has yet to attack targets outside of the Middle East (although they have recently called for such attacks, in countries including Canada). One could ask whether Zehaf-Bibeau was, like Morten Storm or Justin Bourque, someone for whom one extremist outburst could be exchanged for another. Indeed, Bourque, by targeting police for ostensibly political reasons, could also be said to have committed a terrorist attack.

Going beyond the domestic picture, ISIS and Islamic militancy do represent a foreign policy problem for Canada. Yet in approaching this problem we must go beyond the rhetoric of destruction to consider how best to assist the people of Syria and Iraq, who after all are the greatest victims of extremist ideology.

More than 200,000 people have been killed thus far in the Syrian Civil War and there are also indications that ISIS is committing genocide against the Yazidi minority in Iraq. ISIS has also engaged in extensive sexual violence including sexual slavery. Most of the victims of ISIS are, of course, Muslim. ISIS views Shias as being apostates, thus deserving of no mercy.

Our foreign policy stance towards ISIS should prioritize:


  1. The responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities.

  2. The achievement of comprehensive peace and stability in Syria and Iraq.


If we are able to achieve these two goals, the attractiveness and effectiveness of Islamic radicalism should substantially decrease. Groups such as ISIS draw much of their legitimacy from committing and suffering acts of violence.   Canadians have an ethical and legal obligation to protect populations where we believe that there is a substantial risk of mass atrocities occurring. Indeed, such atrocities may already be ongoing.

While aerial bombardment can serve the purpose of helping to protect vulnerable populations in the short term, it will provide no long-term solutions to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, such bombardment could actually turn elements of the population towards groups like ISIS as civilians inevitably become collateral damage. We must go beyond bombing to support legitimate local actors seeking to establish peace, security, and human rights in the region. We must ensure Canada remains free, open, and inclusive.

We must above all avoid feeding the politics of fear.