Jessica Davis is the president of Insight Threat Intelligence, a former senior strategic intelligence analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the author of Women in Modern Terrorism.
The news of the attack on a Muslim family in London, Ont., has left Canadians grappling with many troubling questions. There is much we don’t yet know about the incident and how the judicial process will unfold, but London Police Chief Steve Williams told a news conference that he believed it was an intentional act and the victims were targeted because they were Muslim. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the incident “a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred.” While information about the suspect’s motive is thus far limited, the seriousness of the act, and information about the targeted nature of the attack, suggest that a terrorism charge is possible.
On Sunday night, a black pickup truck drove into a family out for a walk, killing four people and seriously injuring a fifth. The suspect was wearing a vest that appeared like body armour and police say they found evidence of premeditation and planning. While charged with four counts of first degree murder and one count of attempted murder, at the time of writing, no terrorism charges have been laid against the alleged perpetrator.
In Canada, for something to be considered an act of terrorism, it needs to fit the definition in the Criminal Code. Broadly speaking, it requires serious bodily harm or death (or the threat or possibility of that), a motivation that can be religious, ideological or political, and an intent to intimidate the public or a segment of the public. This legal definition is a relatively high criminal threshold.
At the same time, many acts that are widely considered to be terrorism are never prosecuted as such. For instance, the 2014 Parliament Hill attack was never prosecuted as terrorism because the perpetrator was killed in the act, but we still talk about this as an act of terrorism. The Quebec City mosque shooting is also widely considered to be an act of terrorism, despite a lack of terrorism charges. Canadians should not consider charges the only arbiter of what constitutes terrorism in this country – to do so unnecessarily limits the conversation around hate-motivated acts of violence and our application of counter-terrorism tools.
In this case, it’s too soon to say if the act meets the definition of terrorist activity in Canada – either legally or analytically. We have too little information to go on, although the Prime Minister’s willingness to call it such (presumably based on a more thorough briefing of the matter than has been available to the public) signals that there might be more information that speaks to the alleged perpetrator’s motivation than the police statement has revealed.
Regardless of whether this incident meets the definition of terrorism, the outcome is the same: four people have died in an act of anti-Muslim violence.
While our counter-terrorism tools (such as terrorist listings and terrorism investigations) are no public safety panacea, they do unlock options for detecting and disrupting serious acts of violence, ideally before it occurs. These tools also allow the government to signal its seriousness in terms of tackling ideologically motivated violence. And while we don’t know if the suspect was involved with any extremist groups, either online or offline, we do know that anti-Muslim sentiment is a feature of many neo-Nazi and other extremist groups and has been the motivation for a number of acts of violence in Canada.
The Canadian government has started to take initial steps to counter extreme right groups and movements, many of which hold anti-Muslim views, like the listed terrorist entity Proud Boys. The government should continue this process, listing groups that have undertaken ideologically motivated acts of violence against racial, ethnic and religious minorities. The government should also conduct a thorough and public review of this incident, and other recent attacks (including the Quebec City mosque attack). Public reviews can point to areas in Canadian counter-terrorism policies that can be strengthened, and address potential or perceived bias in our application of terrorism laws. Finally, Canadians should demand transparency from the government and the Public Prosecution Service of Canada about charging decisions in potential terrorism cases. The Canadian public has a right to know how, and why, terrorism charges are, or are not laid. The lack of transparency to date has many of us scratching our heads and wondering how our counter-terrorism laws are applied, if that’s done equally, and if it’s really making us safer.
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