January 16, 2013 | In Amenas gas plant terrorist attack, Algeria

Three young men from a non-descript southern Ontario city ended up fighting for AQ in Africa. What are the chances of that happening?

The never-ending search for a terrorist ‘profile’ is a futile one: terrorists can come from anywhere, even one’s home town.

Big cities have a lot going for them. Lots of neat things to do. Lots of things to see. Great restaurants. Wide-ranging cultural opportunities. Sports teams. The list goes on and on.

Big cities also provide opportunities for terrorism, as targets of terrorist groups and sources of new foot soldiers.

As there is no such thing as ‘self-radicalisation’, terrorists need each other. Terrorists need reinforcement from others. They need ideological support, economic support, logistic support. True, one can make contacts online but nothing beats face to face meeting. It is that important most of the time.

Terrorism can also happen in small cities

In larger cities there are more actors and likeminded individuals who can aid in both the radicalisation to violence process and the planning of attacks. Sometimes critical masses count for something.

So what if I told you that terrorism can also happen in small cities?

I grew up in the city of London, Ontario, located halfway between Toronto and Detroit, Michigan. It used to be an industrial town surrounded by farming communities but has fallen on hard times of late. When I was born (in 1960) the population was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 180,000: it is now at 400,000. Still a small-ish city.

My late mother used to complain a lot about how ‘provincial’ London was (NB she was born in Montreal). ‘Nothing ever happens in LONDON’ she would tell me regularly.

Well, on this one occasion she was wrong (sorry mom!): a Sunni Islamist terrorism cell took shape in London in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

2013 In Amenas gas plant terrorist attack

From January 16 to 19, 2013 an Al Qaeda (AQ) terrorist affiliate in North Africa called AQ in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) launched an attack on a gas plant in In Amenas in eastern Algeria. By the time the siege ended with an operation by Algerian special forces 39 foreign gas workers and a local security guard had been killed.

29 terrorists were also killed, including two from London, Ontario. Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej were among the terrorists who stormed the gas plant. They had gone to school together and radicalised together. A third member, Aaron Yoon, would have also been there but Mauritanian officials had picked him up when the trio was in that country. Katsiroubas and Medlej died in the attack, possibly in a suicide act.

Let me repeat this: three young men from a non-descript southern Ontario city ended up fighting for AQ in Africa. What are the chances of that happening?

The lesson here is that terrorism can indeed happen anywhere. While we may more often see Paris and London (UK) and New York serve equally as targets and incubators for terrorism we cannot rule out those places we would not normally give a second thought to.

After all, terrorism is terrorism, regardless of where it starts – or ends.

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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