2 cities, 2 attacks, 2 terrorist incidents?: the need to be careful of jumping to conclusions

Whenever we experience a mass shooting event like the one on Danforth Ave in Toronto’s Greektown on Sunday evening we go through several emotions: fear, shock, anger…and a need to understand why.  Why did a man shoot people enjoying a beautiful summer’s night in a part of Hogtown known for its restaurants and ambiance?  Was this shooting random?  Related to gang violence?  Was the shooter mentally ill?  Was he – gasp! – a terrorist?

We still have a lot to learn as information is coming out in dribs and drabs.  Many were very frustrated with the lack of details provided yesterday by Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders.  Why didn’t he say more? WE WANT TO KNOW AND WE WANT TO KNOW NOW!  Alas, what we have to understand and accept is that law enforcement agencies in the midst of an investigation need to keep their cards close to their chests to avoid compromising those investigations.  Criminal charges and later convictions may hinge on the propriety of the  investigation and no one wants to lose as a a result of ‘loose lips sink ships’.  I know this is maddening and as someone who no longer has access to classified info I feel it too but please try to understand the police perspective.

What then do we know about the incident on Sunday?  Well, we have an identity for the shooter: 29-year old Faisal Hussain of Toronto described as a ‘quiet man’ but whom family said suffered from ‘serious mental illness’.   In a slightly different take in a slightly different newspaper (Toronto Star vs. Toronto Sun) Joe Warmington of the latter wrote “Hussain expressed “support” for a website that was seen as “pro-ISIL (e.g. Islamic State – IS),” adding that both CSIS and the RCMP were looking into his past including time in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I also learned yesterday and today from a trusted source that IS ‘fanboys’ were praising the attack on-line and sharing links to news stories (NB this is NOT the same as IS claiming the shooting nor confirmation that Hussain was IS: the terrorist group will lay dibs on anything that moves sometimes and which they think bolsters their image and spreads fear).  Lastly a former student of mine who has firearms experience and who watched the video of the shooting told me it seemed that Hussain knew what he was doing: even I, who knows nothing about guns, felt it looked as if he had training of some kind.

Wow!  What do we make of all this?  At this point, it is hard to say.  It is vitally important to underscore that NONE of this has been confirmed: while I trust my sources I have no idea who Mr. Warmington is speaking to and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that someone has an axe to grind (he was Muslim?  He was a terrorist!).

Nevertheless, it is helpful to unpack some of this.  Yes, some shooters are mentally ill and yes some terrorists are mentally ill but no there is not a one-to-one relationship, let alone an explanatory one, between the two.  Hussain may well have been seriously ill and also posted (or liked) IS Web sites but we cannot conclude from this – at least not yet – that he is IS, or supports IS , or was helped or even acknowledged by IS.   The attack may have been a result of a psychotic episode or a desire to carry out a terrorist attack or a combination of both or neither.  We simply do not have enough data at this juncture to reach any conclusion.  Hence ‘he was ill and this is not terrorism’  and ‘he obviously was an Islamist extremist’ are mutually unsupportable for now.

Compounding all this was a ‘knife attack’ a scant twelve hours later on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.  A 24-year old man, Jesse Mooney, was arrested after he breached a security barrier during the much-loved changing of the guard ceremony on Monday.  As for the ‘knife’?  A ‘pocket knife’ was found near where he was standing: he did not have it on him when he was taken down.  So much for a ‘knife attack’.  Initial panic turned out to be somewhat less than advertised.

Lessons here?  Wait. Wait for people who know what they are doing to weigh in.  Check your sources for reliability (as an ex spy it was drummed into me that you are only as good as the quality of your sources).  Don’t jump on bandwagons.  Check your own biases (full disclosure: when I hear of these kinds of events I immediately consider terrorism as a motive.  After all, I have been writing and learning about it for two decades.  But I keep my powder – and my analysis – dry until I know a lot more).

Let’s hope we get further illumination on both events in the coming days.  My heart goes out  to the families of the victims.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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