Once in a while I come across (or, in this case, have someone point me in the right direction) a story related to terrorism that surprises even me, a 30-year grizzled veteran of intelligence and counter terrorism. I saw a lot in my time at CSIS and had the incredibly amazing opportunity to work on some terrorist cases in Canada, ranging from the ordinary (the Toronto 18 back in 2006) to the bizarre (the plot to derail a VIA passenger train in 2013). Most fell somewhere in the middle and involved guns (Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack on the National War Memorial and Parliament in October 2014), cars (when Martin Couture-Rouleau ran over two Canadian military officers – killing one – two days before the Zehaf-Bibeau rampage) and pressure cooker bombs (Victoria on Canada Day 2013).
And yet I was still taken aback by a story forwarded to me this morning by a contact at Toronto’s Zoomer Radio about an attack at a Canadian Tire in Scarborough (just east of Toronto) in the late afternoon last Saturday (June 3) in which a woman ‘wearing ISIS clothing’ lashed out at employees with a 19-inch (45 cm) knife. She lightly wounded one person before staff disarmed her and kept her for police to arrest. Apparently she had originally swung a golf club at people (how unCanadian: it should have been a composite hockey stick).
That was the first account I was sent as it appeared on Toronto’s CP24 website. To be honest I was unsure how to react. What did “ISIS clothing”mean? Could someone have misinterpreted Muslim raiment or Arabic writing? Was this a case of a mentally disturbed person? Could we label it terrorism from the outset? I for one was cautious in doing so: having long railed against ‘instant analysis’ it would have been hypocritical of me to do so myself.
We now have a little more information thanks to the woman’s first court appearance. Rehab Dughmosh, a 32-year old speaking through an Arabic interpreter, blurted out in an unsolicited manner before the hearing even began “I am pledged to the leaders of the believers, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
Wow. That’s different. The fact that she used a knife (we’ll set aside the golf club although Tiger Woods’ ex did find a nine iron came in handy once) is not new. Assailants in France, the UK, the US and here in Canada (on two occasions: Couture-Rouleau ran at police with a knife after he had struck the two officers, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Ayanle Hassan Ali is accused of stabbing two Canadian forces recruiting officers in north Toronto in March 2016) have used knives. No, what is odd is the immediate pledge of allegiance to IS and to its pseudo Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. What are we to make of this?
The first thing, in keeping with not jumping to instant analysis, is NOT to assume that the attack was directed or coordinated by IS. We do not know whether the alleged attacker had any contact with anyone associated with the terrorist group, either in the virtual or the real worlds. She may have been inspired by IS but that is a broad term that can mean just about anything.
Secondly, even if IS issues a claim of responsibility and calls the attacker a ‘soldier of Islam’ we must be careful in taking that at face value. People a lot smarter than me have studied when IS makes these statements and when they don’t, but we have to acknowledge the propaganda value of getting its name out there, especially at a time where the group is losing territory in Iraq and Syria. Besides, on some occasions their boasting is a lie: they claimed the Manila attack on a casino which Philippine authorities are pretty sure was carried out by a disgruntled gambler.
In the end Scarborough – and by extension Canadian – residents should not panic that IS is now in your local mall. They are not. We need to learn more about this case: who she is, how she got radicalised, whom she knew, who may have helped her, what her online and social media accounts say, all questions that I am confident the Toronto INSET (the RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Team) is actively doing.
It may be a quasi-terrorist case and it may not. Let the investigation determine that. And, as former US President George W. Bush called on Americans to do in the aftermath of 9/11, “go shopping”. While he was ridiculed he was bang on. In the face of potential terrorism we must strive for normalcy If going to the Cedarbrae Mall is your normal, go for it.