How do we determine when a terrorist act has taken place?

We are thankfully not inundated with terrorism in Canada. It would be nice, however, to call it what it is when it occurs.

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on November 4, 2019.


A man gets into a car and drives madly down the road. He swerves here and there, picking his targets. He strikes a person, sending them flying then jumps from the car. Knife in hand, he lunges at the prone figure, stabbing furiously as the victim puts up their hands to protect themselves. Foiled, he stops his attack, drives away only to repeat this sequence (except the stabbing part) in another part of town, injuring five. His melee ends with his arrest and charging.

You may think I am referring to the April 2018 killing spree on Yonge St. in Toronto by alleged ‘incel’ Alex Minassian: I am not. What I have just described is an act committed by Abdulahi Hasan Sharif on September 30, 2017 in Edmonton. After ramming and then stabbing a city police officer who was on traffic duty outside an Edmonton Eskimos football game, Mr. Sharif struck four other pedestrians on Jasper Avenue in a rented U-Haul. He represented himself and pleaded not guilty to 11 charges, including five counts of attempted murder. He was convicted on all counts by a jury on October 25.

But was this possibly something a little more than ‘just’ attempted murder? Is it possible that the motivation that underlay Mr. Sharif’s actions placed it, under the Canadian Criminal Code‘s provisions for terrorist activity?

Read on.

In section 83.01 of the Code terrorism is defined as a serious act of violence perpetrated “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause.”

Abdulahi Hasan Sharif was found guilty of all charges laid against him in the 2017 Edmonton attacks on a police officer who was stabbed and four pedestrians run down by a U-Haul van. But was this possibly something a little more than an attempted murder? Is it possible that the motivation that underlay Sharif’s actions placed it, under the Canadian Criminal Code’s provisions for terrorist activity, writes Phil Gurski.

So did Mr. Sharif’s acts fit the definition of terrorist activity?

Here is what we know based on information in the public domain:

  • He first came to the attention of Canadian law enforcement in 2015 for “espousing extremist ideologies,” although there was not enough evidence to continue the investigation;
  • An unnamed former co-worker of Sharif’s said that he had expressed support for violent extremists years before, including genocidal beliefs, “major issues” with polytheists, and hatred for Shia Muslims (this latter is a classic sign of Islamist extremism);
  • He expressed support for Islamic State and an IS flag was found in the van when he was arrested, and;
  • The case was at first treated as a terrorist incident by the Alberta INSET (the RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Team).

Despite all this I found no mention of any of it in the trial reporting. It was as if none of it had happened or was considered relevant. Perhaps it was not: the Crown may have believed it had enough evidence to gain a conviction on the charges laid and may see it unnecessary to muddy the waters by overlaying terrorism, and in the end that was enough to convince the jury. After all, proving motivation is much harder than proving an act was committed and I imagine the Crown did not want to risk acquittal if it could not demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Sharif’s actions were terrorist in nature.

Mr. Sharif was a Somali refugee to Canada and allegedly held in Somalia by the terrorist group Al Shabaab. 

There are also mitigating circumstances here. Mr. Sharif was a Somali refugee to Canada and allegedly held in Somalia by the terrorist group Al Shabaab. This was painted by his Somali partner as a reason for his trauma and mental health issues (he was nevertheless found capable of standing trial): apparently Al Shabaab killed several of his family members.

However, given his later acts, is it not possible that he was radicalised to violence in part by Al Shabaab? Or by someone else? These are all very good questions.

Call it what it is when it occurs

In the end it may not matter. Mr. Sharif was found guilty and will probably serve a long sentence and then be deported (depending on his status in Canada). A message will be sent and justice will be seen to be done. On the other hand, should we not entertain the possibility that what happened on September 30 two years ago as possibly a terrorist act?

We are thankfully not inundated with terrorism in Canada. It would be nice, however, to call it what it is when it occurs.

Phil Gurski is the President of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a former strategic terrorism analyst at CSIS.