Why it is important to reserve judgment on the Toronto ‘attack’

It is a little past 7 PM on Monday, April 23 as I pen this op-ed in Ottawa.  A little more than 5 hours ago a rented van appeared to jump a curb and run down pedestrians near the corner of Finch and Yonge streets in North Toronto.  A man is in custody following an incredibly professional arrest by a Toronto Police Services officer who acted with amazing coolness given the situation.  There are at least nine dead and 16 wounded: those figures could of course change.

When the incident occurred I was on Twitter, sharing news stories about terrorism with likeminded people because that is what I have chosen to do after a three decade-long career with Canada’s security intelligence services.  As soon as I read a tweet from a friend and trusted source, a real Canadian terrorism expert, I felt a knot in my stomach.  We know a little more now than five hours ago but even at that early juncture it showed some hallmarks of a terrorist attack.  We certainly have seen analogous events around the world far too often of late: Nice, Barcelona, London, Edmonton, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu.  All terrible attacks and all terrorist in nature.  Not again was my first thought.

And yet I did not jump up and yell “this is terrorism!”right away, and I don’t now.  The simple reason for that is I have no idea why the driver, who is apparently a Caucasian Seneca College student, did what he did and I do not think anyone else knows.  That did not stop people on Twitter from drawing that conclusion.

I learned a long time ago that to be accurate and to do true analysis you need intelligence and/or information to make a judgment and we do not have that yet.  We may learn more about the suspect if he cooperates with police. We may learn more from his social media postings or emails, if a warrant is obtained.  We may learn more from family, friends, workmates, etc.  Until then we cannot make that call.

There is an old saying ‘if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it must be a duck’.  Not necessarily.  While the obvious MO shares a lot in common with the attacks cited earlier in this piece, similarity does not equate to definitive identification.  For anyone to say this is yet another terrorist act by an Islamist extremist, as I am sure many did, where is the proof?  The suspect shows no outward sign of ties to Islamist extremism and am at least initially skeptical. Besides, didn’t a rightwing extremist carry out a similar crime in Charlottesville last August?

Maybe the suspect had issues.  Maybe was on some kind of substance.  Maybe he had just been fired.  Maybe his marriage just broke up.  Maybe he is mentally disturbed.  I have no idea, do you?

When Anders Breivik slaughtered those young people in Norway back in 2011, I labelled it an act of Islamist terrorism when I was pressured to write something in the absence of any real info. I will never make that mistake again and neither should you.

We will learn more in the days and weeks to follow. Once our law enforcement agencies do their work and get help from their partners and international allies we will know more.  It is that time we can have the debate whether this was ‘just’ a heinous act of violence or an act of terrorism.  Let’s not jump the gun on this.

My condolences to the victims and their loved ones.

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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