Should the attack on the Quebec City mosque have been prevented?

In the wake of the tragic events in Quebec City Sunday evening there is much more that we don’t know than what we do know. We now know the identity of the one suspect as well as those who lost their lives.  We have some idea of what transpired and when.  But we have nothing on motivation, aside from speculation on the perpetrator’s FaceBook posts and it is for this reason that the incident is still a mass shooting and NOT a terrorist attack. Terrorism requires an act of serious violence, targeted at non-combatants/civilians, for ideological (political, religious) motives: we only have the first two so far.

More importantly, when things of this nature occur there is an immediate hue and cry about why officials didn’t prevent it from happening.  Where were the RCMP and CSIS?  What about the SQ?  Why did no one know that this young man, Alexandre Bissonnette, was planning to slaughter innocent people at prayer?  How safe are we?  Why didn’t the government raise the threat level?

Lots of questions, few answers so far.  Let me try to unpack these.

Beginning with the end, the threat level was not raised because there is no need to.  Levels are determined by ITAC – the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre – and are based on intelligence.  They do not vary just because something happened.  To up the threat level in the aftermath of an attack, with no justification, would be irresponsible and only magnify people’s fears.

Secondly, and somewhat paradoxically, we are very safe in Canada.  If this turns out to be an act of terrorism, it is the first here since October 2014.  Since 9/11 we have had three attacks – if this one counts – that have caused 8 deaths.  Three attacks in 15 years (average: 1 every 5 years) and eight deaths (1 every 2 years).  Does that sound like a country under terrorist siege?

Lastly, why didn’t the Feds know about Mr. Bissonnette?  Surely there is a profile or risk assessment tool that should have flagged him, isn’t there?  No, there is not.  If we examine what we know so far about this young man we see that:

  • he may have been introverted
  • he had a twin brother
  • he liked chess
  • he was a bit “awkward” and timid
  • he may have been bullied at school
  • he was a cadet once

Anyone care to develop a profile based on that?  I didn’t think so.  Even if we narrowly focus on his online postings we see that he had some anti-feminist and anti-immigrant views and liked French Front National leader Marine Le Pen and US President Donald Trump.  Does that get us anywhere?  Not really.  Taking it one step further, if he had made violent postings would that have tipped anyone off?  Do you know how many trolls make stupid comments online?  Probably tens of thousands, the vast, vast, vast majority of which are just talkers.  Very few ever act on their views.

We may learn over the coming days and weeks of changes in Mr. Bissonnette’s behaviour and attitudes that could, in hindsight, have been indicative that something more serious was afoot (in fact, there are always signs).  Yet even then, I would be surprised in any of this was enough of a red flag to urge someone to report him to authorities.  We are left, unfortunately, with a decision by a young man to enter a mosque with the intent of killing innocent people at prayer.  And we will never be in a position to predict that degree of granularity, let alone stop it.

In the end bad things happen.  We are very fortunate here in Canada that they happen relatively infrequently.  This act was no one’s fault – except that of Mr. Bissonnette.

My thoughts and prayers go 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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