Here we go again. Another terrorist attack by someone ‘known to police’, this time in southwestern France. A Moroccan hijacked a car after shooting the driver and a passenger, followed some police officers jogging nearby, shot and wounded one, went to a local supermarket where he took hostages and shot several before a tactical squad took him out. At the time of writing, three are dead and at least a dozen wounded (not to mention the obvious trauma suffered by those held by the terrorist). The dead terrorist was named Redouan Lakdim and he said his act was to punish those who were part of the anti-Islamic State coalition (IS later claimed the attacker was one of their soldiers). There are conflicting reports as to whether Mr. Lakdim was on the police radar because of his criminal activity or because he was radicalised.
Whatever the reason, there will be the inevitable demands as to why a man who was a ‘known known’ was not under closer surveillance and why he was successful in his attack planning. French officials clearly ‘dropped the ball’, right? Not so fast.
There are at least two aspects of this story that deserve comment. Firstly, French intelligence has identified at least 18,000 citizens who are radicalised (by comparison we have a few hundred here in Canada): it is completely impossible to monitor 18,000 people. Secondly, there is no paradigm or predictive system that allows you to identify those who move from talk to action and will likely never be. So no, it wasn’t necessarily obvious and it is not clear that the French flics dropped the ball. In the end they acted quickly and probably saved many lives (one officer wounded by the terrorist offered to stay behind as the other hostages were released and is now seen, rightfully, as a hero).
Something similar is unfolding here in Canada. The cab driver who was present when Aaron Driver detonated an explosive device in the back of his vehicle in a town in southwestern Ontario on August 10, 2016 has filed a $1 million lawsuit alleging that the RCMP should have known Mr. Driver was up to no good and was therefore negligent in his duties. Does the driver, Terry Duffield, have a case?
Readers know that I am loath to criticise security intelligence and law enforcement agencies when things go wrong, having worked in security intelligence for three decades, but in the interests of getting a discussion going I will try to present both sides of this argument. On the police side, despite the fact that Mr. Driver was known to the RCMP (he was on a peace bond after all), as noted above there was no way to determine that he would be any different than the 99% of wannabe jihadis who never get off the couch and do anything. He was deemed a minor threat – at least I assume so – based on what was known about him at the time and hence it was decided (due to lack of resources?) not to ensure that the conditions of that peace bond were followed. So no, it was not a given that he was planning to make a bomb.
There are, it seems, however several aspects of this case that do call for a deeper dive. Among those are:
- 10 days before the incident that claimed his life, Mr. Driver may have engaged in some kind of explosives test and this ‘noise’ was called in by a neighbour: it is unclear whether it was followed up by the municipal police.
- Mr. Driver had apparently regularly used a local taxi company to get around and police did not warn that company once they figured out the man in the martyrdom video provided by the FBI was in fact Mr. Driver (then again, if the police were not actively monitoring Mr. Driver how would they know which cab company he used?).
- Police were present on August 10 when Mr. Duffield’s taxi pulled up but they did not stop him from entering the driveway or stop Mr Driver from entering the vehicle. Mr. Duffield understandably feels his life was put unnecessarily in danger.
These are all legitimate questions and ones begging for answers. Nonetheless, these gaps do not necessarily imply that the RCMP dropped the ball: we will need a lot more information before we can make that call.
We have this love-hate relationship with police: we want them to be there for us when things go wrong but we are quick to criticise when those things don’t come off swimmingly as they do in Hollywood films. I for one hope we learn more about what happened that day in Strathroy, Ontario and I expect details to be made public. Only then will we have a much better idea of what was known and what wasn’t, as well as whether the response was as professional as we demand it to be. In the meantime, I can attest that counter terrorism investigations like the one in France and the one here in Canada are very complex. We really could do without the armchair quarterbacking.