When do we call an act of mass violence terrorism?

In the immediate aftermath of the incident in Edmonton Saturday evening I quickly found myself caught up in a battle of words on social media (Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn) over my use of the word ‘terrorism’ to discuss what had happened.  The truth be told I was in one way merely following the lead of Edmonton Police and the RCMP in Alberta, both of which had stately quite early and quite clearly that they believed the attack to be terrorist in nature and that terrorism charges would be laid against the 30-year old suspect.  In addition, as someone who worked as an intelligence analyst for more than 30 years I am used to processing lots of data quickly and arriving at conclusions fairly rapidly (that is, after all, what one does in intelligence).  I’d like to see myself as a measured, careful person who does not leap to those conclusions too fast but instead relies on data and facts to do so.

So what was the problem here and why were people unhappy with me (this time: it happens a lot)?  Simply stated, I was taken to task for calling what transpired in the Alberta capital an act of terrorism while still holding off on doing likewise with the shooting at a Quebec City mosque back in late January.  Some seem to be convinced that guys like me only use the ‘t’ word when the perpetrator is a Muslim while sloughing off similar acts when the shooter is a white guy.

Nothing could be more inaccurate.  Terrorism is terrorism, irrespective of who is behind it. But terrorism is a specific offence under the Criminal Code and is tied crucially to motivation (political, religious or ideological).  In other words, we cannot call a crime terrorism unless we have sufficient grounds to assess the underlying motivation.

What are the grounds, then, that I used to call Edmonton terrorism and Quebec City not?  Well, here is a list:

  • the Edmonton suspect had a known history of espousing support for violent extremism as far back as 2015.
  • an Islamic State flag was found in the front seat of one of his vehicles.
  • the attack shares several similar characteristics to recent attacks carried out by Islamist extremists (Nice, Barcelona, Woolich, London) where vehicles and knives were used.
  • Police have stated that they will lay charges under the terrorism section of the Criminal Code.  That suggests they already have enough evidence that points to motivation.

What about Quebec City?

  • Alexandre Bissonnette is still a bit of an enigma.  He was not known to police and never investigated.
  • He appears to have dabbled in some far right stuff but also played chess and collected rocks.
  • He may have cased the mosque before his attack which points to premeditation and planning.
  • He has NOT yet been charged with terrorism under section 83.1 of the Criminal Code, suggesting that authorities do NOT have enough evidence that points to motivation.
  • Mr. Bissonnette may be guilty of a hate crime, which is not necessarily the same as a terrorism offence.

In this light I am very comfortable with my analysis.  Should more information come to light about Mr. Bissonnette’s reasons for shooting innocent Muslims at prayer I will adjust my views accordingly.  That is of course what a good analyst does: gather facts, assess them, come up with a hypothesis based on those facts and previous experience, and re-analyse once more facts come in. Notice that I wrote ‘facts’ and not ‘conjecture’, ’emotion’ or ‘pseudo-expertise’ (of which there is, alas, far too much out there).

There is no question that bias, discrimination, and _____-phobia (fill in the blank with your word of choice) is all too real, even in a country as highly regarded as Canada.  And there is no question that a (mercifully) tiny number of Canadians go from discrimination and hate to murder or attempted murder.  And yet we have to remain disciplined and label things what they are based on facts, and facts alone.  Not every hate crime is an act of terrorism, but every act of terrorism reflects some kind of hatred.  We need to keep this important distinction in mind.  We can still mourn the victims and offer our assistance: there is no need to descend to name-calling and violent arguments over whether to call something an act of terrorism or not.

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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