Two deadly attacks in one week have shocked Canada. A debate about domestic jihadists has suddenly gained urgency. But many are reluctant to jump to conclusions. “We are a country that is very free and open, and I think we feel strongly that should not change.”
By Frank Kuin in Ottawa
Together with two fellow members of Parliament, MP Peggy Nash is walking from the House of Commons in the Canadian capital Ottawa to the National War Memorial, a few hundred meters away. They join a crowd that has gathered to lay flowers in honour of the Canadian soldier who was killed there this week in a bloody attack that has shaken Canada.
A series of shootings in Ottawa cost the life of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was standing guard at the Memorial. The gunman, 32-year-old Canadian Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, then stormed into Parliament with a hunting rifle. He fired more shots before he was shot and killed by authorities.
It was the second attack in three days on Canadian men in military uniform by domestic perpetrators, possibly with jihadist motives. Earlier this week, a soldier died when a radicalized Muslim ran him over with a car in the province of Quebec.
Parliament Hill is still closed to the public, and police cruisers are standing on street corners in the immediate vicinity. But the security perimeter established by police around a wider section of downtown Ottawa during a 10-hour lockdown operation has been removed. The streets of downtown are crowded during lunch hour; people are talking about Wednesday’s attack, but there is also a palpable desire to return to normalcy.
“We’re not going to allow ourselves to be defined by an act of violence”
“We are very glad to get back to work in the House of Commons,” said Nash, an MP with the NDP, the official opposition. “We all feel very proud of our democracy and our freedoms here, and we’re not going to allow ourselves to be defined by an act of violence. We’re a country that is very free and open, our parliament is very open. And I think we feel strongly that should not change.”
Nash, who wants to wait for the results of the full police investigation into the gunman and his motives before talking about any potential policy responses, articulates an often-heard reaction of Canadians to the two attacks: let’s not generalize or jump to conclusions. Canadians cherish their peaceful and diverse society. They instinctively refuse to point fingers in a panic.
Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, expressed her assumption yesterday during a morning session of the House of Commons, which was characterized by a rare sense of harmony: unless proven otherwise, the 32-year-old perpetrator, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was a lone gunman who was not acting on behalf of a “vast network”. The cause of his actions may have little to do with radicalization and jihad, but more with crime and mental illness.
That is consistent to some extent with the image that has emerged of Zehaf-Bibeau as a suspect who may have shown signs of radicalization, but also of mental instability similar to that of lone gunmen who target schools or shopping malls. The Canadian, with a Libyan father and a Canadian mother, has a record of petty crimes in Montreal and Vancouver, including possession of drugs. He had been staying at the Ottawa Mission, a homeless shelter, where he is said to have told other residents to pray because “the world is ending.”
Ottawa gunman “was lost and did not fit in”
Zehaf-Bibeau was in Ottawa in connection with a passport application, which was still pending, police said yesterday. He was thought to have planned to go to Libya, but after the attack, the authorities learned from his mother that he wanted to go to Syria. His name is not on a watch list of about 90 people in Canada who are on the radar of intelligence agencies for jihadist sympathies – although his e-mail was found on the hard drive of one of those individuals, police said. He did not have a license to own a gun.
Although no direct link has been found between Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau, a radicalized man who killed a military officer in Quebec on Monday by running him over with a car, there are similarities between the two men. Both grew up in the middle class, had converted to Islam, and were socially isolated. Wednesday’s attack in Ottawa may have been an impulsive copycat action.
Zehaf-Bibeau’s parents, who are divorced, issued a statement yesterday in which they express their regret for the “pain, fright and chaos” their son has caused. He “was lost and did not fit in,” they wrote.
A debate on jihadists in Canada, which until this week was not at the top of the political agenda, has suddenly come into focus. According to the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), about 130 Canadian men have left the country in recent years to join suspected terrorist groups in Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria, among other countries. Only a few of them are known by name, including John Maguire, a 23-year-old from Ottawa who went to Syria last year to fight with the Islamic State (IS).
The strategy to prevent radicalized men to travel by seizing their passports or rejecting a passport application is raising questions. That happened in the case of Couture-Rouleau, and may have played a part in the attack by Zehaf-Bibeau. Observers say it can be an incentive to prompt offenders into action.
“Things are going to change in Ottawa, probably not for the better”
“We are looking at that aspect of the situation,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said yesterday during Question Period in the House of Commons. “We are very concerned that there are Canadians here who want to train to commit terrorist acts throughout the world.”
It is questionable if Ottawa will remain unchanged after this week’s attacks, described as acts of terrorism by Harper. His Conservative government wants to adopt tougher measures to tackle domestic terrorists and jihadists – including greater powers for police and intelligence agencies to keep an eye on suspects. There is no doubt that security at the Parliament buildings will be scrutinized.
Residents of Ottawa are concerned about the potential impact of the two attacks. “Things are happening here and I really don’t know what to expect,” said Devon Sendler, after he laid flowers at the War Memorial. “There are rumours going around that maybe it’s ISIS. I think regardless of who it is, things are going to change here in Ottawa, and probably not for the better.”
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