Would Halifax’s Valentines Day massacre have been a terrorist act?

Way back in 1929, in the depths of the Great Depression, seven members of a Chicago gang were lined up and shot to death by members of another gang, probably tied to the infamous Al Capone.  The incident, now known as the Valentines Day Massacre, was probably part of Capone’s attempt to control organised crime activities during Prohibition.  It even gave rise to a really, really bad song by the UK band Paper Lace in 1974 (“The Night Chicago Died”).

A few years ago Halifax dodged a bullet (sorry for the comparison) when what could have become its own Valentines Day Massacre was prevented.  I was in Nova Scotia’s capital that day about to give a lecture on terrorism when I heard that a major arrest had been made in a bizarre plot to shoot up a local mall. Acting on a Crime Stoppers tip, the RCMP took into custody one Canadian and one American (a second Canadian killed himself in his parents’ home when police arrived to pick him up).  The trio had planned to go on a shooting spree at a Halifax mall, starting in the food court which would provide good cover for their desire to cause ‘mass panic’,  on Valentines Day 2015.  The two surviving wannabe killers have pleaded guilty and the second, Illinois resident Lindsay Souvannarath, is awaiting sentencing.

Why would three kids want to cause death and mayhem in a Halifax mall?  Simply stated, Ms Souvannarath had embraced a ‘school shooter chic’ aesthetic (is that really a thing?) and a fascination with Nazism and the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.  She met Halifax resident James Gamble (he is the one who killed himself) online and the two planned their attack, which Ms. Souvannarath had called ‘Der Untergang”.  They had access to firearms, knives and Molotov cocktails: it is hard to imagine the carnage they would have spawned had they not been stopped. Would anyone have thought that a mall in Halifax of all places would be the site of a massacre?

So if the attack had succeeded would we now talk of the deadliest terrorist attack in Canadian history (had the Toronto 18 not been heavily infiltrated by CSIS and RCMP sources and agents they would have perpetrated a much larger mass casualty attack)?  I really don’t know where to stand on this one.  Their act would certainly have satisfied two of the three criteria necessary: a serious act of violence and civilian targets.  But what about the third: ideological, political or religious motivation?  This is a tough one.

There is no question that Nazism is an ideology, and a particularly brutal one at that.  The Nazi regime in Germany not only started WWII but killed millions and was wholly responsible for the Holocaust.  And yet we do not normally call Hitler a terrorist nor the National Socialist Party a terrorist group.  Furthermore, if someone expresses fascination with Nazism does that make that person a Nazi?  I think there is little justification for calling the thwarted Halifax plot a terrorist plot.

Sometimes a mass killing is nothing more than a mass killing.  There are unfortunately some people in our world that take great pleasure in planning acts of mass violence and taking lives with glee.  The fact that these acts are terrifying and cause mass terror does not make them terrorist acts.  Is there really any need for the courts to insist on laying charges under section 83.01 of the Canadian Criminal Code?  Not really.  Proving motivation is really hard and in this case the intent was obvious: why complicate the case – and possibly lose – by introducing a terrorist angle?  My understanding is that the Crown hates to lose the cases it brings to court.

Halifax resident Randall Steven Shepherd has already been sentenced to ten years in jail for his role in the plot.  The Crown is recommending 20 years to life for Ms. Souvannarath.  I hope she spends a very long time behind bars.  These self-styled ‘heroes’ must get the message that their twisted desire to become famous by killing innocent people will not be tolerated.

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.

One reply on “Would Halifax’s Valentines Day massacre have been a terrorist act?”

Hi Phil
Thoughtful post. Here’s my tuppence worth…..
What acts count as acts of terror is vexing question; for instance need the target be civilian? But in this case, it seems that the individuals concerned, although fascinated by things Nazi, were not motivated to advance Nazi ideology – anti semitism, anti-democracy, anti-immigration, “racial purity” worries, nationalism, and so forth. What this thresome were planning was not ideologically motivated violence, (which is typically other regarding – aimed to procure some utopia and defend some imagined vision of a threatened culture) but self-centred desire to wreak havoc and inflict pain and suffering to assuage their own inadequacies and failures. That, to my mind, is why thier plot could not count as terrorism: in a nutshell: it was not advancing an ideology.

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