Can a lone actor be a terrorist? Of course he can!

In all the articles, radio show talks, television coverage and social media posts about the massacre of innocent Muslims at prayer in Quebec City on a Sunday evening in late January the issue of whether or not this heinous crime qualifies as an act of terrorism is predominant.  I have certainly devoted enough blog posts and enough interviews on this debate, but I ask the reader’s indulgence yet again, for another wrinkle has come up.

According to some legal experts in Canada, one of the obstacles preventing the Crown from laying terrorism charges against Alexandre Bissonnette is the fact that it is currently not obvious that he carried out his actions as part of a group.  This is the opinion of well-known legal scholar Kent Roach, and his view is worth repeating here:

“A truly lone wolf attack cannot result in most terrorism offences which require participation or support of a group or commission of an offence for a group…It would be strange to say that a lone wolf was committing a terrorist offence for the benefit of a group confined to one person.”

Mr. Roach did go on to say, however, that someone acting on his or her own could still be charged with terrorism.

I find this statement to be curious, inaccurate and, most importantly, a dangerous misunderstanding of what terrorism is.  It is important to realise and underscore, yet again, that terrorism is, in accordance with the Canadian Criminal Code, an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with the intention of intimidating the public…”  Nowhere in that definition is any reference to a group, an organisation or a larger entity.  Just ideology, religion or politics.

One could argue that ideology is generally a group phenomenon: after all, how many individuals can come up with their own ideology completely by themselves?  Actually, there are two recent examples where individuals did exactly that, created an elaborate world and explained what was wrong with it.  I am referring to Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and Anders Breivik (the Norwegian who slaughtered all those kids five years ago).  So it is possible, albeit rare.

But even if individuals act on ideologies developed by others they can still be lone actor terrorists despite having no links to larger groups.  If Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau, the two men who killed military personnel two days apart back in October 2014, had not been killed by police does anyone doubt that they would have been charged with terrorism?  Of course not.

Why is this misunderstanding dangerous?  Because it leads to the erroneous opinion that terrorism is only a group phenomenon.  At its most fundamental level, terrorism is ideologically-motivated serious violence.  Period.  That is all that is necessary to show.  I am not dismissing the difficulty in proving that a person like Mr. Bissonnette did what he did for ideological reasons: that will indeed be a big challenge.  This does not take away from the fact that ideological motives do not require the support of a larger outside group.  Terrorism is terrorism after all, whether it is executed by a lone actor or an entire “state” like Islamic State.  We must recognise that.

In the end there may be no need to find Mr. Bissonnette guilty of terrorism.  I have learned that he would actually get a longer sentence for murder than for terrorism.  So, aside from the perhaps emotional desire to see him as a terrorist, is it not better to convict him of first degree murder?  He would get an automatic life sentence for that crime and I would hope we all agree that a person who did what he did deserves to be put away for a very, very long time.


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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