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Michael Zehaf Bibeau

After last Wednesday's shooting in Ottawa, a little tug-of-war over the nature of the event emerged. Some said it was terrorism. Others said it was crime, swayed by mental illness or drugs. It was probably in some measure both.

The RCMP's weekend statement that it has a video of shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau that showed his ideological motivation won't completely shake the view that he was troubled, or evidence of his crack addiction. But it is clear that there are lone wolves, plural, citing ideological inspiration to attack. They're acting alone, but there's more than one.

Now politicians are thinking about how to make national policy to deal with loners on the fringe.

That's a difficult problem to confront, but there's still an urge to do something – something. The Conservative government so keen to tell people they're acting that they're accidentally telling Canadians that till now, they were doing too little in their eight years in power.

"We will not over-react," Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said in the Commons on Monday, "but it is also time that we stop under-reacting to the great threats against us."

You'd almost think the government is flailing. Luckily, they have done some valuable things even before last week's attacks that are likely to be more effective than the new measures Mr. Blaney is touting.

The government will make at least two new laws, Mr. Blaney said – although the first one, planned before the attacks, doesn't have much to do with lone wolf attacks in Canada.

It's a response to court decisions that concluded CSIS was overstepping its legal powers, especially its powers to spy outside of Canada. It might help deal with "homegrown terrorists" who leave to fight abroad, but won't do much about lone wolves here. Neither will the bill's measures to protect the identity of undercover spies in court hearings.

In testimony before a Senate committee on Monday, senior RCMP officers suggested there are some law-enforcement tools that might be useful, like a lower legal threshold on so-called peace bonds. But they also noted these are hard crimes to foil, and no tool provides much of a guarantee. Commissioner Bob Paulson drew attention to the simple fact that it's hard to detect an attack planned by one person alone.

Charlie Edwards, director of national security and resilience at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence and security think tank in London, puts it more bluntly. Police have a hard time foiling a planned attack by lone actors – who carry out attacks by themselves, but might have some support who helped them with some kind of logistics. With a solo actor, who really acts alone, the chance is slim to none.

There's no single path or profile for a radicalized lone actor, which makes it difficult to identify them, he said. But there are characteristics, by themselves ordinary traits, that can be meaningful when clustered. A number of radicalized individuals have been converts to Islam, for example, but obviously, most converts are not radicals, Mr. Edwards said. They may suddenly become much more conservative in their views, and change their style of dress. He said other factors fill out the picture: "Was he a loner? Had he been isolating himself from his previous friends?"

Why does that matter? Because those are the kinds of questions police are learning to ask. They might find signs of potential radicalization, and they're learning to make contact with community organizations who are more likely to see them, and who also might help them intervene with someone who seems on the road to radicalization.

Commissioner Paulson stressed those kinds of efforts when he testified before that Senate committee. There's a simple reason: just about every expert believes preventing violent radicalization is more successful than trying to foil the violent attack itself. And there's a need to prioritize people who come to police attention: the commissioner noted there are thousands of reports that range from someone who doesn't like the look of someone else, to someone who has evidence of a plot.

Luckily, the Canadian government hasn't been asleep. They put $10-million into the Kanishka Project to study terrorism, including Mr. Edwards' work on lone-actor terrorism. The RCMP are trying to come to grips with identifying and preventing radicalized lone actors.

But any quick move to enact new laws is likely to be more emotional reflex than useful response. "This is not about sweeping legislative reform," said Mr. Edwards. "This is about a careful, sober assessment of a threat."