Recent Attacks in Canada Highlight Need for More Openness on National Security

While frustrating, we have to allow time for investigations to establish motive for attacks before jumping to conclusions: why don’t politicians get this?

This piece appeared in The Epoch Times Canada on February 6, 2024.

There is an old adage associated with spy agencies when asked a simple question: “I can neither confirm nor deny what you have just told me.” There is also the less serious, “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you,” but we will set that one aside, as it is silly.

Organizations such as those tasked with national security or law enforcement are placed in an awkward position. They are involved in looking into people and groups that pose a threat to us, whether this be ISIS terrorists or organized criminal gangs—and everything in between. They carry out investigations to determine the precise level of the threat and do their utmost to ensure that nothing bad happens. In this vein they are usually successful, but not always.

In the event something violent and lethal does occur, such as a terrorist attack or a murder, they still have to do their due diligence to figure out what transpired, why it was not stopped, and what the implications are. These could include ultimately a decision by the government in conjunction with the cops (spies do not collect evidence, at least not in Canada) to lay criminal charges and proceed to court.

Even while all this is in motion, investigative bodies tend to clam up for fear of compromising potential cases and undermining the chances of successful prosecutions. Hence the fallback position of saying less rather than more.

On occasion, however, the paltry information released does raise questions and may even seem to contradict the desire to not say too much that could appear prejudicial. Two recent cases, one in Alberta and one in Lyon, France, are illustrative of this.

On Jan. 23, a man walked into Edmonton City Hall with a gun and some explosives and shot up the place a bit, but thankfully hurt no one. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, reports surfaced of an online “video manifesto”—quickly removed from social media—in which the suspect railed against a laundry list of grievances, ranging from inflation to immigration to housing prices to the war in Gaza and even “wokeism.” It was a weird ramble to say the least and led some to label this an act of “salad bar” (or “cafeteria”) terrorism. It should be noted that no terrorism charges have been laid to date (NB terrorism charges WERE laid on March 4)

What was curious, however, was the alacrity with which some wanted to eschew the possibility that this may indeed have been a terrorist incident with Islamist overtones (the references to the war in Gaza and some Islamic phrases thrown into the mix). Edmonton’s mayor went to extraordinary lengths to warn the public against jumping to conclusions for fear of fomenting “racism.” Shouldn’t he have waited until law enforcement professionals had time to draw their own picture during an investigation? The event attracted a lot of immediate attention but, as is typical of the media, has since gone the way of the dodo.

Similarly, a hammer and knife attack at the Gare de Lyon station in Paris on Feb. 3  was followed by a precipitous statement by police that it was not terrorist in nature. Authorities pointed immediately to the suspect’s mental health issues as the likely underlying cause. And yet, it also came out that the attacker, originally from Mali, had travelled from Italy a few days earlier to carry out his spree.

I am all in favour of giving competent authorities the necessary time to effect a comprehensive investigation to collect relevant facts. I also understand the nervousness of local authorities when faced with incidents of this nature—which happen not too frequently but often enough to point to some kind of pattern—as they want to prevent public panic and not feed that part of the population which will state that the assailants are part of a greater problem (often linked to immigration which certain parties want to stop). At the same time, by reacting so quickly and denying the merest possibility that the violence could have terrorism links seems to me to go against the maxim that proper examination and fact collecting takes time. Is it not best to say “we are not sure what just occurred and why: please stand by and give our protectors time to gather all relevant data”?

I do not want to ascribe these reactions to the bin of cancel culture and wokeism (ironically given the Edmonton suspect’s reference to the latter to justify his act) but I wonder what would happen if the main actor was a white guy sporting a shaved head. Would local dignitaries be as careful in saying ‘nothing to see here folks, move on”?

The attacks in Edmonton and Paris may indeed turn out to be nothing more than random acts of violence with no ideological links. On the other hand, the modus operandi is consistent with similar acts which were clearly terrorist in nature (especially the one in Paris; a lot of attacks of this nature have taken place in Europe).

I for one will wait to see what the real pros have to say on this and not take a politician’s word for it.

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.