Wesley Wark is an executive-in-residence at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a professor emeritus of the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto
Canadians like to pride themselves on living in a safe country, far from the worst violence the world has to offer, in fact a refuge. That is a good and reasonable thought. The first response in the aftermath of the alleged terror attack Saturday night in Edmonton has to be to hold on to that thought. What is needed is a clear perspective on the terror threat and a demonstration of public calm. All democracies must embrace a "carry on" spirit and solidarity in the wake of terrorist violence – the best way to defeat terrorism's desire to terrify.
We have our own long history of terrorist violence stretching back before the 9/11 era, most gruesomely in the destruction of Air India Flight 182 by Sikh terrorists in 1985. More recently, the arrests of the "Toronto 18" plotters in 2006, which foiled an ambitious terror conspiracy, was our rude awakening to the ideology of jihadist terrorism.
Until 2014, we could still say that Canada had never suffered a direct terror attack from jihadists, but then came the shooting on Parliament Hill and the car assault in Quebec, which claimed the lives of two military personnel. A vocal and unabashed supporter of the Islamic State group, Aaron Driver, was intercepted in the midst of his own terror plotting in quiet Strathroy, Ont., in August, 2016, and killed by armed officers in his driveway, with an improvised explosive device on his person. So we have our own list of both foiled and real terror plots.
We also have, let us remember, good capacity to deal with such attacks. We have strong and effective laws, and steady public support for counterterrorism initiatives. The past year saw an unprecedented public consultation on national security, following the publication of a government green paper. We have a Muslim community that rejects the hateful ideology of terrorist jihad, and effective security and intelligence agencies that are well-connected to allied partners and have ramped up their efforts over the past 16 years.
Having a perspective on the terrorist threat to Canada means knowing our history – including the fact that the threat may be persistent but is low – knowing that occasional spasms of terrorist violence may occur despite the best efforts at prevention, and having faith in our capacity to respond well.
Edmonton is the site of one of the country's Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSETs), a multiagency group led by the RCMP, which is meant to ensure the effective pooling of intelligence and co-ordinated responses. The Edmonton police chief, Rod Knecht, is no stranger to counterterrorism investigations. Prior to joining the Edmonton police in 2011, Mr. Knecht was a senior RCMP deputy commissioner. So the Edmonton police should be able to hit the ground running in their investigation.
As the investigation into the attack unfolds, there will be much more to be learned about its background. The alleged attacker is in custody, appears to have acted alone, but was known to police. The media reports that there was no prior warning of this alleged terrorist incident, although an Islamic State flag was found in the alleged attacker's possession. It is crucially important that any lessons available from this incident be learned, and be learned in public, so that Canadians can be granted a better picture of how counterterrorism works and where it can fail or be unable to prevent attacks. This will be a major test of the Liberal government's commitment to transparency around national security.
In its modus operandi, the Edmonton vehicular and knife assault is sickeningly familiar after recent attacks across Europe, including in London, Munich, Paris, Nice and the latest, Marseille on Sunday. It is also suggestive of the death throes of the Islamic State group, which is fast losing its dream of establishing a physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but has repeatedly encouraged its fellow travellers in the West to engage in individual attacks using whatever weapons come to hand. Knives and vehicles, particularly in countries where access to guns is restricted, are the weapons of choice.
The Islamic State's caliphate will be choked off. Its message will, unfortunately, take longer to die out, and may never do so entirely. A safe country like Canada can help destroy the Islamic State on the ground, even if Canadians may be divided about the means used in such a campaign. Harder is the business of confronting the ideology and the message, carried over the unstoppable medium of the Internet. Our best investment there is in helping ensure Muslim communities continue to remain impervious to such an ideology. The good news is that they will.