Hometown terrorists?

The actual place of incubation does not matter. What does is having a bevy of like-minded co-conspirators and access to relevant material, and that can happen anywhere.

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on December 09, 2019.


We tend to associate terrorism with large urban centres: the reality is quite different.

Canadian actor and comedian Jonny Harris hosts a show on CBC called ‘Still Standing’ in which he travels across the country seeking to “find humour in the unlikeliest of places — small towns on the ropes.” It is quaint, in my view, and very Canadian. After all, this great land is built on thousands of such towns: the sun does not set on Toronto as some may think.

I love visiting these places for the charm and unexpected treasures each inevitably has. In a very different vein some towns turn out to be the home of terrorists – how unexpected is that?

Many would assume that terrorist gravitate to larger urban centres for a whole host of reasons. Cities provide the environment for a critical mass of individuals who are necessary to contribute to the radicalisation process. They also are good places to obtain weapons (automatic rifles, explosives, etc.) with which to carry out an attack. Linked to that, they are the logical venues to execute a terrorist act to achieve the greatest number of casualties: who is watching if a bomb goes off in a cow pasture?

While it is true that the plots we have seen in Canada in recent years all (or nearly all) were planned or took place in cities (Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Victoria) it is interesting to note that many terrorists come from Jonny Harris’ type of town.

Aftermath of the 2017 Edmonton terrorist attack (Photo: Globe and Mail)
Do you need examples?
  • Aaron Driver, the 2016 Islamic State wannabe, tried to explode a bomb in the back of a cab in Strathroy (ON) – population 21,000
  • Andre Poulin‘s journey to terrorism in Syria began in Timmins (ON) – population 42,000
  • Othman Hamdan was arrested on terrorism charges in 2015 (acquitted but later scheduled to be deported) in Fort St. John (BC) – population 20,000

And now we have Ikar Mao, a resident of Guelph (ON) – population 135,000 (OK, OK, NOT a small town) – who was arrested last week and charged with participating in the activities of a terrorist group and for leaving Canada to participate in such activities. He is of course presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The Crown alleges that Mr. Mao traveled to Turkey with his wife to join ISIS. His defence that the couple went to the region to ‘live in an Islamic country’ and his contention that ISIS videos on his phone were ‘downloaded inadvertently’ do strain credulity to my mind.

Whether or not Mr. Mao is found guilty of terrorism this case does illustrate that it is entirely possible for an individual (or group of individuals) to radicalise to violence anywhere. Whether this is due to the influence of the Internet and social media is an interesting question.

What all this says to me is that the actual place of incubation does not matter.

What all this says to me is that the actual place of incubation does not matter. What does is having a bevy of likeminded co-conspirators and access to relevant material, and that can happen anywhere.

I recall a case from my time at CSIS where a quartet of students who attended a high school not far from my own found Islamist extremism, left Canada and carried out a terrorist attack in Algeria in 2013 (two of the four were involved in that incident). This all happened in London – Ontario, not England which is far more often tied to terrorism.

The In Amenas gas plant where the Canadian-led attack occurred (Photo: AFP)
The bottom line: terrorism is terrorism regardless of where it happens

We must all make ourselves aware of the signs of violent radicalisation and share our concerns with the relevant authorities, be those CSIS, the RCMP, or others in a position to look into these issues.

After all, don’t we all want to follow Jonny Harris’ lead and make sure we are all ‘still standing’ at the end of the day?

Phil Gurski is a former senior strategic analyst at CSIS and the Director of the Security, Economics and Technology program at the University of Ottawa.