The gunman who wreaked havoc in the nation’s capital had recently applied for a passport and was hoping to leave for Syria, the country’s top cop said in the wake of a chilling day that saw one soldier killed at a war memorial and a flurry of gunfire ring out on Parliament Hill.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who acted alone and may have had Libyan-Canadian citizenship, had been in Ottawa since at least Oct. 2 and was here to “deal with a passport issue.” Commissioner Paulson told reporters Thursday that Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau, who was killed in Centre Block’s hallway outside the Library of Parliament, was not one of the 93 “high-risk travellers” currently being investigated and tracked by Canadian authorities.
Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau, however, was on the radar of the federal force, which had uncorroborated information that he was associated with an individual “known to us,” Commissioner Paulson said. He said Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s “e-mail was found on the hard-drive” of someone that the RCMP had charged with a terrorist-related offence, though he added the force needs to understand what, exactly, that means.
Commissioner Paulson said that after Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau applied for a passport, the RCMP was contacted to conduct a background check. “The RCMP did not possess information at that time that would reveal any national-security-related criminality,” he said, adding that his criminal record indicated infractions related to drugs, violence and “other criminal activities.”
The Montreal-man’s passport application wasn’t rejected, but rather that it hadn’t yet been approved because the investigation was ongoing to determine whether he should receive one. Commissioner Paulson said the impetus for the shootings are not yet known, but authorities believe the passport is “part” of the man’s motivation. He revealed that it was Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s mother, Susan Bibeau, who told police on Wednesday that her son was looking to travel to Syria.
Commissioner Paulson, who fielded questions about whether authorities have the powers and resources they need to find and track radicalized individuals, said the force will continue to exercise “increased vigilance” until the full threat to Canadians is determined – including by ramping up surveillance of the 93 high-risk travellers currently under investigation across the country.
“We’re sitting down with CSIS and re-evaluating all of our individuals to make sure that those that present the greatest risk are assessed and have resources attributed to them,” he said, adding that the force has no imminent intention of making any arrests.
The commissioner said Mr. Zehab-Bibeau purchased a beige vehicle on Oct. 21, the day before the deadly attack, and then used the car to get from the cenotaph, where he killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, to the foot of the parliamentary precinct.
Commissioner Paulson said that according to some accounts, the gunman was “an individual who may have held extremist beliefs.” He said that while authorities are convinced there was only one shooter, the investigation will reveal whether he had any support in the planning or execution of the shootings.
The commissioner went on to say the force has no information linking Wednesday’s shooting to the incident earlier this week, in which a warrant officer was killed and another Canadian Forces member was injured after a Quebec man hit the pair with his car.
The press conference, which lasted nearly an hour and provided the clearest picture yet of the unprecedented attack Wednesday, featured a video and witness-based reconstruction of what unfolded.
The commissioner said bystanders saw the shooter approach the war memorial from behind, on the west side, at around 9:50 a.m. on Wednesday. The shooter fired twice. Neither Cpl. Cirillo nor the second guard, who was also shot at but was uninjured, could see the gunman because they were facing south. The first 9-11 calls came in at 9:52 a.m.
The shooter, who was prohibited from carrying firearms but somehow obtained a 30-30 Winchester rifle, then drove his vehicle to the foot of the parliamentary precinct. Mr. Zehab-Bibeau entered the grounds and hijacked a second vehicle and drove to Centre Block. The hijacked car was assigned to a Conservative minister, Michelle Rempel, who at the time was in the government building and later tweeted a message to her mom saying she was okay but “in hiding.”
Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau drove toward Centre Block and got out on foot at 9:53 a.m., at which point his presence became known by RCMP officers. The officers pursued the gunman, who rushed through the front doors, traded gunfire with House of Commons security and then ran down the Hall of Honour. What happened inside remains under investigation, but the commissioner said his understanding is that an exchange erupted between various officers, including Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, who took cover behind a pillar and is credited with killing Mr. Zehab-Bibeau. “But for the grace of God,” no one else died, he said.
Both he and Ottawa Police Chief Bordeleau, who is overseeing the cenotaph killing and was at the commissioner’s side during the press conference, expressed condolences to Cpl. Cirillo’s family.
Chief Bordeleau worked to reassure the city’s frightened residents, saying “Ottawa is a safe city.” He warned, however, that citizens must remain vigilant as the investigation continues. “Yesterday, we saw the reality of the threats that cities across this country face,” he said.
The city’s top cop said he had reached out to multifaith community leaders to communicate a message of support. He said the heightened police presence will remain in the coming days, including around the war memorial, which is cordoned off but will be reopened soon, he said.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail earlier in the day, Chief Bordeleau said the force is now trying to determine how well Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau knew the cenotaph and if he mapped out his attack in advance.
Ms. Bibeau, the shooter’s mother, apologized Thursday for the “pain, fright and chaos” her son brought to the nation’s capital, though she had no explanation for his actions.
“I am mad at our son,” she said in a statement, released on behalf of her and her husband, Bulgasem Zehaf. “I am mad at our son, I don’t understand and part of me wants to hate him at this time.”
Ms. Bibeau, who is the deputy chairperson of a division of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board, said she hadn’t seen her son for five years, until last week when she spoke with him over lunch. She said she had “very little insight to offer,” instead extending her condolences to Cpl. Cirillo’s family, “although words seem pretty useless.”
Police have concluded only one individual was responsible for the shooting, though the force took every precaution Wednesday amid “conflicting accounts of what people were seeing,” Chief Bordeleau said of the lockdown, evacuations and heightened police presence.
The Globe has learned that Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau checked into the Ottawa Mission, a shelter about a kilometre from the Hill, on Oct. 2 and had kept a mostly low profile. But in recent days, residents overheard him yelling angrily into the lobby telephone after several rental car outlets declined his business because he didn’t have the required identification. One man at the shelter, David Duschene, said he heard Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau explaining that “they” had taken away his passport.
Chief Bordeleau said police had seized some of his property from the shelter, though he declined to provide details. He added that police have interviewed people at the shelter and so far have no information that they contributed to, or knew about, the attack.
The chief also said there’s an opportunity to review the “laws on the books” to ensure that authorities have the “proper tools” to ensure that those being radicalized are properly monitored.
The Prime Minister, who was briefed by the National Security Adviser, the RCMP Commissioner and the CSIS director on Wednesday’s shooting, noted in his address to the Commons that the government has already proposed new national security legislation and indicated that action in this area will be a priority.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said in a press conference that the breach in security has driven Mounties to take a more pre-eminent role in protecting Mr. Harper in Centre Block. Normally, Hill security officers are at the forefront in Parliament even where the Prime Minister is concerned. RCMP Prime Minister's Protective Detail officers escorted Mr. Harper into Parliament's Centre Block Thursday, and at least one member of the detail stood in the Commons gallery looking down at Mr. Harper during Question Period.
“I can tell you that now we’ve adopted a condition where we will stay with the Prime Minister in the Prime Minister’s protective detail, 24/7, no matter where he is,” said Mr. Paulson.
With reports from Robyn Doolittle, Patrick White, Jane Taber, Bill Curry, and Steven Chase and The Associated PressReport Typo/Error