Takeaways so far from the terrorist attack in Edmonton

It has been a little more than a week and a half since Canada suffered its latest, and thankfully still rare, terrorist attack.  A 30-year old Somali refugee named Abdulahi Sharif hit and stabbed an Edmonton police officer before leading authorities on a race through the city’s streets where he struck four pedestrians before he was apprehended.  Not surprisingly this story got a lot of media attention, not just in this country, and we will undoubtedly learn more in the months to come as the case wends its way through our court system. In the meantime we have a bit of information which has already been subject to some debate.  Here is my take on what we know.

  1. There are issues with the Canadian immigration system.  Mr. Abdulahi, as a failed refugee from the US, should probably not have been granted status in Canada.  We do not know why the Americans rejected his claim but the US is a so-called safe third country from which refugee applications to Canada are normally not accepted (unless you cross an an unofficial entry point like so many Haitians have lately in Quebec).  The government might want to review its border and  immigration policies and practices.
  2. Despite a lot of criticism of the RCMP (here is an example) for not acting further once they had learned of Mr. Abdulahi’s ‘extreme views’, our security forces can only do so much with what they know. If there was not enough evidence to charge him their options were limited at that time.  They could have monitored or investigated him but let’s put this in context.  Back in 2015 the RCMP was seized with dozens of cases of ‘foreign fighters’ across Canada who had elected to join Islamic State.  That was the Force’s priority then and was consuming most investigative resources.  Besides, if the RCMP and CSIS were to investigate every Canadian who expressed an extremist view the national security apparatus would collapse (in truth, they could not remotely contemplate doing so given current manpower: besides, do we want our protectors to become the ‘thought police’?).  In fact the system worked in that a colleague of Mr. Abdulahi was concerned enough about his statements to call someone in authority.  That is exactly what we want Canadians to do.
  3. As of today the Crown has not yet laid terrorism charges and that has some people upset.  Yet again, the government’s hands are tied.  The prosecutors decide to go after offences where there is a reasonable expectation of conviction.  Is it really necessary to add terrorism to five counts of attempted murder?  Besides, if more evidence surfaces on the accused’s motivation, more charges,   including terrorism, can be added.
  4. The attack fits a recent pattern seen in many Western cities – low tech attempts at mass casualties using vehicles.  It appears that a lot of terrorists are finally cluing in to what groups like Islamic State have been advocating for years: do what you can to sow terror and fear with what you have (I call this Nike terrorism: Just do it).  We also have to accept that attacks of this nature are probably unstoppable (unless authorities are already following someone – see point 2 above).  This is not defeatist – it is realist.
  5. This terrorist incident could have been a lot worse in that more people could have been struck by the runaway van and died.  So far no one has succumbed to his or her injuries (no, I am not dismissing what they went through) and the relatively low casualty numbers are thanks to the responses of Edmonton police, particularly the officer that was struck by the assailant’s car AND stabbed (if he does not deserve a medal for his actions – watch the video – no one does).  Once again a law enforcement agency responded well and professionally and  I for one tip my hat to them.

All in all we can collectively breathe a sigh of relief.  Canada remains well-placed when it comes to terrorism and while we must remain vigilant and ensure that our protectors are adequately resourced we must acknowledge that we are in a much better position than many of our closest allies.  There are all kinds of reasons for this that cannot be analysed in a blog post.  Suffice to say that we continue to live in a very safe land.  Now it is up to the justice system to deal with this individual and ensure that he gets the punishment he merits.

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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