Lones Wolves, Radicalization & the Threat to Canada

Posted By November 3, 2014 No Comments
As Canadian CF 18 aircrafts headed off to their base in the Middle East to partake in the American-led coalition air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as the Islamic State or IS), two back-to-back incidents occurred in Canada that brought home the reality of religious extremism and the threat to Canada. On October 20, 2014, Martin Couture-Rouleau waited in a car in a parking lot in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Québec. Rouleau then suddenly drove his car into two military men walking across the lot, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and wounding his colleague. A subsequent police chase ended when Couture-Rouleau crashed into a ditch, emerged from the vehicle with a knife and was shot and killed by police.[1] Couture-Rouleau had been radicalized, and had a personal life that indicated a troubled state of mind and family issues.[2] For many police and security organizations this incident epitomizes what has been described as a “lone wolf” attack.[3]

Two days later, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo who was on sentry duty at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Zehaf-Bibeau then stormed the entrance to the Parliament’s Centre Block where he was killed in an ensuing shoot out. Zehaf-Bibeau was also a troubled character, known as a drifter with a history of drug use and petty criminal activity. He prepared a video prior to his attack that shows him “lucid and purposeful,” according to RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson.[4] Questions still abound as to whether Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was ideologically motivated or acting on behalf of the Islamic State (IS). The ongoing RCMP investigation has uncovered evidence that Zehaf-Bibeau’s “attack was driven by ideological and political motives.” [5]

In the wake of both of these tragedies, questions continue to be asked about whether these deadly incidents were preventable. However, both of these lone wolf attacks demonstrate that it is impossible to predict if and when a radicalized individual will turn to violence. [6]

A Lone Wolf Attack in New York

In the same days as these Canadian attacks, an axe-wielding man launched an attack against four New York City Police Department officers, critically injuring one and wounding another. The assailant, shot dead at the scene, was Zale Thompson, who was described as a “loner”[7] and a “self-radicalized convert to Islam.”[8] Investigations of Thompson’s writings on social media noted that he was “anti-government, anti-Western, anti-white.”[9] A search of his computers showed that he spent time reading about the recent beheadings of American and British citizens by the IS, as well as the recent attacks on Canadian military personnel in Canada. To date there are no known links between the three attacks.

Canada’s Foreign Fighters

This spate of attacks by homegrown lone wolves continues to be the key topic of conversation among the media, security experts, and the public. However, this was not the topic of concern for the House of Commons Public Safety and National Security Committee when it met on October 8, 2014. Rather, the focus was on the 130 Canadian foreign fighters[10] (the number fluctuates) who have departed Canada to undertake a range of terrorist activities abroad. According to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director, Michel Coulombe, there are 80 returnees[11] back in Canada who were involved in terrorist-related activities abroad. To underline that there is no evidence of an imminent attack, Coulombe said that, “we’re telling people that they should go about their daily life, but we have to be vigilant.”[12] This call for vigilance by CSIS was buttressed by the release of an elevated threat level in Canada in the same week, wherein an Islamic State spokesman called for, “attacks on Canadians, civilian or military.” He noted, “rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be. Do not ask for it anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict.’”[13]

Many of these Canadian foreign fighters, both those born in Canada and those who immigrated here, are young, radicalized, and seeking a purpose in life. They are also apparently seeking fulfillment by waging jihad with religiously-inspired terrorist groups, including the notoriously violent IS, whose modus operandi includes beheadings, mass summary executions, rape, and the enslavement of young women and girls.[14]

During the past summer, the Islamic State produced a recruitment video calling on young aspiring jihadists to leave their families and their countries to travel to Syria for training in the “holy war.”[15] Such calls seem to have resonated among a segment of our youth. The Islamic State’s tactics to recruit idealistic or disenfranchised youth are both romantic and powerful. The narrative espoused in these recruitment videos is one that is well-worn—but still highly persuasive—and resonates among the targeted audience and, particularly, new converts: the West is at war with Islam.[16]

Spurred on by a perceived call of duty, an attempt to fill a void, or to escape a mundane existence, substantial numbers of young men, and, in some cases, young women,[17] have heeded the call. Recruits drawn from Canada, the United States, Great

Britain, Australia, and Europe are signing up to a spectrum of terrorist organizations, including the IS and Al Qaeda affiliates. The aims of these terrorist organizations may vary, but the more extreme have the common goals to reject democracy, pluralism, gender equality, and human rights.[18]

To date, a number of Canadians fighters have been killed in various conflicts. Two Canadian jihadists, Xris Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej,[19] were killed in the assault of an Algerian gas facility in 2013, and a number of young Canadian foreign fighters from Calgary have been killed in Syria or Iraq. Interestingly, the Canadian, Ali Dirie, who was reportedly killed in Syria had been convicted, jailed and released for his role in the 2006 “Toronto 18” terrorist plot that was dismantled in the midst of planning terrorist attacks in Canada.[20]

One Canadian foreign fighter surfaced in an IS recruitment video prior to his death in Syria in 2013. The 10 minute video incorporated footage of an individual identified as “Abu Muslim”[21] from northern Ontario. The video depicts a young man moving forward into a firefight for control of a military airport in Syria during the summer 2013. In the final frames the video shows his crumpled body. A subsequent report identified him as Andre Richard Omer Poulin of Timmins, Ontario.[22]

A recent report on a foreign fighter noted that he was adept at using social media and is a fluent English speaker, employing the nom de guerre “Abu Turaab,”[23] and has been identified as 22-year-old Canadian citizen Mohammed Ali.[24] He employs his Twitter account to coax others to join him in Syria while he eulogizes dead jihadists. Ali, a former resident of Mississauga, left Canada in April 2014 for Turkey, crossing the border into northern Syria. His communications via Twitter provide an insight into his motivation to be with the IS. Some of it appears to be bravado wrapped in religious fervor, “‘Mr. Aly’s response to the threat of an anti-ISIS military operation (the American-led coalition air campaign) has been, in effect, bring it on. You’ll never kill the desire, nor the love of the believers have for jihad and fighting to raise the word Allah the highest,’ he wrote last month, ,‘And that you will fail time and time again.’”[25] Some of his posts were disturbing, having shown Islamic State fighters holding the severed heads of their victims. One problematic post included photos of a young child re-enacting the beheading using a doll.[26]

In June 2014, it came to light that another Canadian had been killed in a jihadist conflict in Tarmiya, Iraq. From Calgary, Salman Ashrafi, known also as Abu Abdullah Al Khorasani,[27] reportedly undertook a double suicide bombing for the terrorist organization then known as ISIS.[28] His actions reportedly killed 46 people.

These Canadian fighters pose a threat to both Canada and those abroad. The Canadian government has a responsibility to mitigate this threat from Canadian citizens or landed immigrants who subscribe or ascribe to violence in any way shape or form. Moreover, intelligence and the security communities must do everything in their power to prevent acts of terrorism orchestrated by Canadians at home or abroad.

What Can Be Done?

In an ominous indication of what may happen in the future, Farah Mohamed Shirdon advised journalist Michael Shepherd that, “The only thing I have to say to any reporter is tell your government its civilians will pay the price the war your government is waging against the Islamic State.”[29] Shirdon, a former Calgary resident, is one of a number of Canadians undertaking terrorist activities abroad. For many in the intelligence and security communities, the difficulty of simply identifying foreign fighters is overwhelming. Many of these potential foreign fighters have been described as, “disenfranchised, disaffected people seeking attention.”[30] However, homegrown fighters and now “lone wolf” Muslim converts, like Martin Couture-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau who recognize and act on opportunity spontaneously, are difficult for security officials to identify and pre-empt or control.

Duty to Remain Vigilant

As any intelligence or security professional would acknowledge, national security is a shared responsibility among the intelligence and law enforcement communities. Notwithstanding, Canadian citizens also have a serious part to play: for each of us to have a responsibility to be vigilant and assist in the security of our respective communities. Parents, teachers, and community and religious leaders have a responsibility if they believe that someone is being radicalized towards violence or travel to areas that provide access to conflict zones. This ground-up awareness is an important contributor to our collective security and community safety. Past activities and events in Canada, such as the “Toronto 18,” the recruitment of Canadian fighters, as well as a number of disrupted planned attacks provide ample evidence of the threat we face. More recently, however, these threats have been compounded by the sudden surfacing of deadly lone wolf attacks on Canadian forces personnel. Such examples of micro-terrorism, or spontaneous terrorism, has renewed the concern of many in Canadian society, as well as the police and intelligence apparat.

Enhancing Intelligence Capability

The government plans to boost the ability of Canada’s intelligence service—CSIS—to monitor Canadians of concern. Pending legislation will enable CSIS to obtain information on Canadian foreign fighters through “Five Eyes” partners, which include the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain.[31] This legislation will likely enable CSIS to track Canadians engaged in terrorist activities abroad, while assisting our partners to track their nationals.[32] This pending legislation will also enable the same protection now accorded to police informants for CSIS sources.[33]

In concert with these legislative initiatives, Canada must do more in addressing radicalization through police intervention, education, and religious interdiction by influential religious leaders who are educated and trained to undertake the appropriate de-radicalization steps. There must be a national counter radicalization program, supported with a well thought out strategy. In recent years a number of Canada’s allies have undertaken similar programs. Great Britain introduced  “Prevent” in 2003[34] and re-evaluated the program in 2011. In 2010, Australia brought forth its own counter radicalization program.[35] The United States introduced in 2011 a program entitled, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.”[36]

Focus On Community Engagement and Awareness

Recently, the Canadian Council of Imams warned Muslims about the “deviant nature” of the Islamic State.[37] As well, the Muslim community has programs aimed at providing support and a counter narrative to those who might be susceptible to the persuasive efforts of foreign recruiters. The Islamic State has put forth persuasive and well-crafted pitches to garner new converts among Muslim youth, including pressure that they have an Islamic obligation to join the fight.[38] It is vital for religious and community leaders to counter this, and to promote the message both in and outside of their Muslim community that there is nothing Islamic in extremism, that terrorist organizations purporting to be Islamic do not represent Islam, and that these organizations are manipulating the religion for political or personal agenda.[39] A Toronto based authority on the radicalization, Muhammad Robert Heft, has noted that, “simply connecting people with moderate religious leaders and social services can make a big difference, particularly for some new converts who may be more rigid in their views.”[40]

Along with a well-formulated counter radicalization program, Canadians must be proactive by identifying and discouraging those who seek to radicalize Canadian youth. A number of countries have been extremely successful in identifying those individuals who act as recruiters, or intermediaries who seek to radicalize impressionable individuals for nefarious purposes. It is important to identify, remove and detain those individuals who seek to radicalize with the intent to incite violence or hate within our Canadian communities. Intelligence and law enforcement authorities must be able to identify those individuals who are thought to be in the process of radicalization or who pose a violent threat. This should be aided by a comprehensive liaison program with various religious and ethnic communities across this nation. Combined with a community interview program aimed at monitoring issues of concern with respective community leaders and the community at large, this would contribute to disrupting radicalization before it takes hold.


Canadians must recognize that a real threat is posed only when someone has both the intent and capability to carry out, in this case, a terrorist act, in a group or individually. Recent events in Canada and New York underline the re-emergence of the lone wolf typology of terrorism. It is incumbent on all citizens to remain vigilant to the threat posed by radicalization, returning foreign fighters, and potential lone wolf acts. Granting the low risk level, it is necessary for all Canadians to report security concerns to the local police authorities. If we can assimilate a lesson from the British government and its citizenry—who had to carry on their daily life and work routine with the constant threat of a bombing, shooting or some other nefarious Irish Republican Army terror threat from 1969 until the Good Friday Accords of April 10, 1998—public awareness is key to addressing the threat posed by religious extremists, be they a homegrown fighter or a lone wolf.