When you try to think of London and terrorism, what comes to mind? I’d wager the 7/7 attacks in 2005 and any number of similar incidents. Or that fact that the UK Security Service has identified 23,000 radicalised Britons they worry about. What I would be surprised at would be if your immediate thoughts turned to London, Ontario, which happens to be my hometown and where I lived up to my move to Ottawa in 1983 to start my career in intelligence.
And yet an interesting case is developing in what likes to bill itself as “The Forest City”. A 33-year old Londoner named Haris Masic, a Bosnian Canadian, has been charged with whole bunch of alleged crimes – 54 in total – including carjacking at gunpoint, robbery and home invasion. So far so normal, albeit of concern. What drew my attention, however, thanks to a request for an interview by a journalist at the London Free Press, was new information that suggests Mr. Masic had bombmaking material. Even more worrisome, it appears that he may have used material gained from matchsticks, and that this method is an idea put out there by Al Qaeda. It is important to stress that none of this has been proven in court and that the suspect has not been charged (yet?) with terrorism.
There are three aspects to this story I’d like to talk about. The first has to do with London (Ontario) as a terrorism hotspot. OK, perhaps ‘hotspot’ is a gross exaggeration but this case is not the first one that may have links to Islamist extremism (if, and that is a big if, it turns out that the suspect was in fact radicalised to violence). Way back in 2013 two London residents, Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej died during a terrorist attack on a gas plant in Algeria in which 40 workers were killed. They and a third member, Aaron Yoon, who was arrested and jailed in Mauritania before the attack, attended the same high school in London and were radicalised in that city. More recently, Aaron Driver, he of Strathroy (Ontario) fame – he posted an Islamic State martyrdom video while on a peace bond and was shot dead by police when he climbed into the back of a cab in August 2015 – lived in London as a teenager. So, yes, London has had its brush with Islamist extremism.
The second point relates to the finding of the explosive powder and the possible link to AQ. I have seen nothing to date to suggest Mr. Masic had access to an AQ bombmaking recipe. These instructions, sometimes published in magazines like Dabiq or Inspire, are put out by terrorist groups not only for their minions but for anyone else who may have an interest in such things. In other words, those who have no ties at all to terrorism can use these step-by-step guides to building an explosive. It remains to be seen what relationship, if any, the suspect has to AQ or any other extremist organisation.
Lastly, it is of note that to date police have not registered charges for terrorism in this case. Under our laws, terrorist activity is defined as an act that threatens others and is carried out for ideological, religious or political reasons. That is what we call the ‘motivation’ clause and, not surprisingly, it is hard to prove. Unless we have a manifesto or a video in which a suspect clearly speaks to why s/he is executing a certain act it may be best to refrain from laying such a charge. A decision to put a lot of emphasis on terrorism over other crimes would backfire if the Crown failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect was indeed motivated by the aforementioned causes. Why would we have to try to prove terrorism when the suspect already is subject to 54 charges? The public may call for terrorism to be the focus but they are not the ones tasked with finding evidence and going to court. Hence it is best to leave it up to the police to decide what and how many charges to enter into the record.
In the end I will be following this case to see what develops. The possibility that my home town may indeed be linked to yet another Islamist extremists is of great interest to me and shows, yet again, that terrorism can happen anywhere. Stay tuned for more information on this case.