A Canadian may have had a role in this week’s Al Shabaab terrorist attack in Nairobi – no surprise there

According to breaking news a Canadian, Guleid Abdihakim, has been arrested by Kenyan police in connection with the attack on a hotel/office complex in Nairobi that killed at least 21 people and was claimed by the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab. It is vitally important to stress that Mr. Abdihakim has been arrested and is being investigated, not tried and convicted so the presumption of innocence prevails.

I have also seen some disgusting remarks on Twitter about the status of Mr. Abdihakim and whether he is a ‘real’ Canadian that I will neither dignify by repeating nor even bother to respond to.

While the name means nothing to me – meaning he is not one of the people with whom I became familiar while working on Islamist extremist investigations when I was at CSIS (not that I could have shared anything classified on what I knew had I been aware of him anyway) – I cannot say I am that surprised to hear that a Canadian of Somali origin may have had a role in the attack. We may learn that he was ‘on the radar’: then again we may not.

You see, there is a history here.

In the mid 2000s we (i.e. CSIS and other government partners) were learning that a few Canadians who were part of the Somali diaspora were becoming radicalised and were developing an interest in the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group Al Shabaab. It was an investigative priority at the time and may still be for all I know (I no longer work there so I have no insight into current operations). In the end, a few did leave Canada (maybe as many as 20-25) to join the extremist outfit and at least one, Mahad Dhore, died in a suicide attack in Mogadishu in 2013 in which at least 29 people were killed.

You may well ask: if CSIS knew about these guys why the hell were they allowed to leave the country? The answer is complicated and what I will tell you is neither an abdication of responsibility nor passing the buck. First, intelligence is not evidence and cannot be used as such. Second, aspiring terrorists can hide the real reasons for their travel (e.g. family ties), making it hard to legally stop them from doing so. And third, back in the mid-2000s the Canadian government was not as obsessed with stopping this travel from happening, unlike now where passport revocations and peace bonds are all the rage. Furthermore, there were some in government who were of the mindset “Just let them go so they don’t blow shit up here”, as hard as that may be to believe.

So yes a handful of Canadians have left our fair land to commit atrocities abroad. Most of the ones I worked on were either born in Canada or came here as children, meaning that their journey to violent radicalisation occurred in our country (ergo deporting them or revoking citizenship does nothing to address that issue). It is important to learn more about Mr. Abdihakim: where he lived, what he did, who he hung around, who were his mentors (if he had any), what poison he consumed online and whether we can uncover why he returned to Africa and whether that was tied to attack planning. Only then will we have a better idea of what role – if any – he had in this horrific attack.

Most importantly, it is paramount that we as Canadians not use this incident to slag the large Canadian Somali community because of the actions of one man. Yes the diaspora has its problems – there are a disproportionate number of young Somali men in gangs and drug networks – but the vast, vast majority of our Somali neighbours came to Canada for a better life and are part of the great mosaic that is Canada. Trumpian rhetoric about immigration and terrorism is inaccurate and unhelpful and is not needed thank you very much.

My heart goes out to the victims and families of those who suffered in this week’s terrorist attack.

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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