Canada: The End of Exceptionalism

The shootings in Ottawa confirm that Canada is no longer the exception on the terrorists’ map. The relatively benign security environment of the past has given way to a much more uncertain present

The shootings and murder of a soldier in Ottawa have shocked the Canadian public. The shootings follow the hit-and-run incident near Montreal on Sunday, in which a radical Islamic convert, Martin Couture-Rouleau, killed one soldier and injured another. Once seen as a distant threat, terrorism has come home.

Canada prides itself on its openness, tolerance and diversity. Over the past decade Canadian government officials have justifiably described the threat level as low in comparison to European nations and the United States.

Foreign Threats

Recently though, the situation has changed. In 2013, Canadian citizens were implicated in a succession of terrorist plots overseas. Two Canadians were part of the group that attacked the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January 2013 which killed 67 people; and in April 2013, a Canadian was involved in an al-Shabaab directed attack against the Supreme Court in Mogadishu that led to 29 deaths. 

The ongoing conflict in Syria is also significant and one of the first theories that emerged on the motivation of the Ottawa shooter was that it was linked to Islamic State fighters.

Canada is not alone in having seen its citizens travel to the region, and it is estimated that there are in the region of 100 Canadian ‘foreign fighters’ in Syria.

Islamic State fighters have also specifically called for attacks on westerners - including Canadians. On Sunday, an Islamic State spokesman urged its supporters to kill Canadians and other westerners ’in any manner or way however it may be. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military’.

While the progression from foreign fighter to domestic terrorist is not inevitable in every case, these individuals’ countries of origin of have expressed significant concern that they may use the knowledge, skills and training acquired during their time in Syria to launch a terrorist attack upon their return. As a result of the potential threat posed by foreign fighters, Canada and many other countries have taken steps to prevent individuals from travelling to fight in Syria the first place.

Domestic and International threats

In Canada, the likelihood of a domestic attack has been seen as low, particularly in comparison to many other nations. The Canadian intelligence service CSIS has nevertheless been conscious of the considerable recent evolution in both the domestic and international terrorist threat facing Canada. The 2011-2013 CSIS Public Report noted the threat posed by ’high-profile incidents of Canadians travelling abroad to engage in terrorist activities, as well as the notable arrests for an alleged terrorist plot to be carried out on Canadian soil’.

Two notable cases have been those of Jamal Mohammed Abd al-Kader and Hasibullah Yusufzai. In February 2013 reports emerged that al-Kader was the first reported Canadian to die on the battlefield in Syria and, within a matter of months, the government made it a crime to leave or attempt to leave Canada for the purpose of committing terrorist acts abroad. Yusufzai, meanwhile, became the first person to be charged under this new law in July of this year for allegedly leaving the country to fight with an Islamist terrorist group in Syria.

Partly as a result of the attention that such events have received, the public consciousness in Canada has largely continued to perceive terrorism with tragic and violent events that occur overseas, rather than on Canadian soil.

While there may not have been a successfully-executed attack until now, reports have emerged over the last couple of years of significant plots that were prevented by law enforcement agencies long before they could reach fruition.

The first occurred September 2012. Following a joint operation between the RCMP and the FBI, two men, Chiheb Esseghaier, a Tunisian PhD student living in Montreal, and Raed Jaser, a Palestinian refugee working as a New York van driver, were arrested. The pair were charged with terrorism offences, having plotted to derail a train between New York and Toronto.

Then in July 2013, officers in British Columbia arrested a couple, John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, who are accused of planning a bombing campaign using pressure cookers at Canada Day celebrations. Having become radicalised after accessing extremist material online, the couple appeared to be an archetypal “lone actor cell”, unconnected to any known terrorist groups or networks. Even in 2011, former assistant director of CSIS Andrew Ellis had warned that ‘We must keep in mind the lone-wolf or stray-dog threat [...] These lone actors are some of the hardest to detect and investigate’.

Shock and Uncertainty

The events in Ottawa have come as a significant shock because the likelihood of the terrorist threat manifesting itself on Canadian soil was considered low. It has become evident within the last two years, however, that Canada faces the same range of terrorist threats as many other western nations, and the murders of the soldiers in the last week should be understood within this context. Canada is no longer the exception on the terrorists’ map. The relatively benign security environment of the past has given way to a much more uncertain present.


Calum Jeffray

Research Fellow

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