Not all vehicular ramming attacks are terrorist incidents

Does anyone else remember the CBC Radio show Basic Black?  I loved that show, which used to run on Saturday mornings and did so from 1983 to 2002.  The show’s host, Arthur Black, would interview a number of guests, some of them quite eccentric, who came from all walks of life.  It was a truly worthwhile 90 minutes of one’s weekend.

One of the ‘quirkier’ regular guests was ‘George St. Jean (pronounced ‘sinjin’) Quimby’, who was apparently reporting from England.  In actuality he was a CBC London stringer named Nigel Lewis who also reported straight news for the CBC.  In this segment Quimby would deliver odd but genuine news stories involving British people, all pronounced in an upper crust accent.  These reports were definitely one of Basic Black‘s highlights for me.

Imagine my surprise when I read recently about an incident that had me believing Quimby was back!  This news item involved a man who drove a truck through a crowd of people in Belgium.  This of course is no laughing matter as nine passengers in cars and on a bus were injured (none seriously it appears: the fact that the truck driver hit cars and buses instead of pedestrians undoubtedly resulted in fewer injuries and no deaths).  The oddness of the story, and hence the allusion to Basic Black, was that the driver was naked.  I am not making this up and I am sure we could all make jokes about the nudity of the man.

Belgian police reported that the man is in custody and that no motive had yet been established.  Hence, there is a very important lesson to be learned here.  I, and I bet many others, upon reading the headline on this story immediately jumped to the conclusion that this was yet another terrorist attack like we saw in Edmonton, Barcelona, Stockholm, Berlin and London.  And yet it certainly seems to be nothing of the sort (when I posted this on Twitter someone who follows me wrote “I don’t think it was some naked mujahideen”).

We may learn more about why the driver elected to hit other cars and, more importantly, why he was naked behind the wheel.  Immediate concerns about possible mental health issues come to the fore, but we will have to wait and see.  What is critical here is that, at least at first blush, this act appears to have nothing to do with terrorism and hence all our first reactions – including my own – are wrong for the time being.

Just as all the assumptions about the vehicular rampage in Toronto last April were suspect.  The news that the alleged perpetrator was part of the ‘incel’ community did not lead inexorably to a terrorism conclusion, neither then nor now (and I don’t want to get caught up – again! – in the debate whether incel is a terrorist ideology or not).  Sometimes acts that are consistent with the modus operandi of terrorist groups, like the use of cars and trucks to cause panic, are nevertheless not acts of terrorism.

Which brings me to the press conference held by Toronto Police on Thursday in light of a heavily increased uniformed presence in the city’s core (and at Canada’s Wonderland apparently).  Officials spoke of a threat from an unconfirmed and uncorroborated source that led to the decision to bolster police presence but would not give any details on the nature of the threat.  A news story later that day referred to a possible ‘vehicular ramming’ threat (which authorities sought to dismiss).  In any event, nothing happened and so we have no idea whether the plot – if there was one – was real or whether it had anything to do with terrorism.  And we may never find out.  Maybe the alleged plan was the brainchild of a sick wanker or someone who engages in ‘copycat’ crimes.  I have no idea and I’d wager neither do you.

Sometimes just because it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck we cannot assume it is a duck.  Or a terrorist attack.


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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