What we know about the attack in Edmonton and what questions remain

It has now been almost 24 hours since a man in a Chevy Malibu drove up to an Edmonton police officer doing traffic duty outside a CFL game, struck him at some speed, knocking him in the air, and proceeded to stab him several times before fleeing.  The suspect later was stopped in what appeared to be a rented U-Haul van only to drive away, strewing pedestrians in downtown Edmonton before police action caused his vehicle to overturn and neutralised him after being forced to Taser him once he resisted arrest.  The police officer was thankfully not killed and the four civilians are also still alive.  Thank God for small mercies.

Now that a joint press conference has been held by Edmonton’s Chief of Police and the head of the Alberta INSET (an RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Team) we know a little more about the perpetrator.  We will undoubtedly learn more in the days to come as this investigation is not even a day old.  And yet a number of people of various backgrounds have already weighed in on what this means.  For what it is worth, here are my thoughts at this point:

a) the suspect is a 30-year old Somali refugee to Canada.  This fact is not that interesting and should not be used to tarnish all Somalis or all refugees.  Yes, he appears to be Muslim but this has no bearing on Canada’s one million plus Muslims.

b) he was known to the RCMP back in 2015 when a public complaint was registered that he was ‘displaying signs of extremism’.  At the time he was interviewed and, based on what was learned and the assessment made given that knowledge, no charges were laid and the investigation went no further.  This is NOT an ‘intelligence failure’ or a ‘failure to connect the dots’ as so many so-called ‘experts’ will say but rather a very real consequence of having X amount of resources, many times X number of priorities and people of interest and the very important need to respect the difference between believing something and acting on something.  We generally don’t arrest people for what is in their heads and that is indeed a good thing.

c) reaction from the Prime Minister on down has been very good and all the right things are being underscored about tolerance and ‘Canadianness’ and diversity.  What we do NOT need now is a Trumpian outburst.

d) the threat level remains at Medium and that is the correct decision.  In the absence of intelligence to the contrary there is no reason to raise the barometer.

And here are some outstanding issues:

  • what happened to this man between 2015 and last night and will we be able to get those answers?
  • was there a tipping point?  Why last night?  Why that place?
  • did the suspect learn from earlier attacks?  I find it interesting that he combined two vectors – vehicle and knife – as some others have. After all, it is significantly easier to stab a man after you have struck him with your car.  Running at a cop with a knife held high is a good way to get killed.
  • did he truly act alone?  That is what we are being told now.  Did he have accomplices in terms of finance, logistics, information?  I can guarantee you that the alleged terrorist did not arrive at yesterday’s decision in a vacuum.  We know that a number of Albertans have radicalised to violence and gone off to join Islamic State among other things.  No one radicalises alone.  Was he part of that crowd?
  •  will the RCMP be able to gather enough evidence to prove motive?  He has been charged with both terrorism and non-terrorism offences (attempted murder for instance).  The latter are much easier to show than the former as the Crown has to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that a particular mindset drove the crimes.
  • was the mowing down of pedestrians planned or the consequence of a high-speed police chase?  The alleged rental of a U-Haul truck suggests prior motive but we need to learn more still.  How far in advance was this act planned?
  • how cooperative will the suspect be?  What will we gather from warranted collection and computer analysis?  What do others know about him and his act?

There are clearly more questions and still more will arise in the days to come.  We in Canada have suffered another terrorist attack.  Like many earlier ones the death toll is small (in fact zero so far) and the injury tally is similarly limited.  For whatever reason we have not been hit by a mass casualty incident.  We should thank our lucky stars for that but also recognise that terrorism remains a very, very,very infrequent scourge in our land.  And that is something we must constantly remind ourselves of.  In addition our protectors are good at what they do and the actions of the wounded officer are a testimony to his training and dedication to duty.

I know that Canadians are frustrated at the lack of info given out by police.  We must, however, let them do their jobs so that the case against this man is as strong as possible and a guilty verdict is obtained.  That is the least we can do for the victims.

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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