Terrorism and the City of London…Ontario, that is

I am enjoying a relaxing weekend at my brother’s house in London, Ontario, a welcome respite after a number of speaking engagements in a variety of places recently.  This is where I was born, where I grew up, where I went to school – elementary, secondary and university – and where I will always consider myself ‘home’.  I guess that is a fairly common feeling, the ties between one’s birthplace and the sense of comfort.

London calls itself the ‘Forest City’ – with good reason given the stately old trees lining the streets, especially in the neighbourhoods north of the downtown – and is home to the London Life insurance company.  Aside from that – well, ok, they also have a very successful OHL Junior A hockey team (the London Knights) – it does suffer from a bit of an inferiority complex, partly due to being named after its slightly larger and more famous British counterpart.  It does crave attention: after all, the city did get all atwitter back in 1971 when it was named in an episode of the groundbreaking US sitcom All  in the Family (Archie Bunker did not get his Christmas bonus because he sent a shipment to London, England instead of London, Ontario, not knowing that the Canadian version existed: “Who the hell ever heard of London, Ontario?“).  That slight notwithstanding I recall that we in London celebrated our arrival on the world stage.

There are, of course, many differences between the two Londons besides size, reputation, importance…  The UK version is well known too as a terrorist target, whether we are talking about yesteryear’s IRA actions of those today of Islamist extremists.  There are so many plots, both successful and foiled, in London that it is hard to keep track. My London, on the other hand, is neither a haven nor a bulls-eye for Islamist extremism.

Or is it?

No, London, Ontario will never be at the top of any terrorist group’s radar but that does not mean that it is immune.  A decade ago a small cell of teens from London began their journey on the path to radicalisation that ended up in a major terrorist attack in Algeria a few years back. Xristos Katsiroubas, Ali Medlej and Aaron Yoon all attended South Secondary Collegiate in old London South (I remember playing the South team in football), adopted an Islamist extremist ideology somewhere along the way, traveled to North Africa and two of them (Katsiroubas and Medlej: Yoon was arrested and jailed in Mauritania and is now back in Canada) went on to take part in the siege of the In Imenas gas plant in southeastern Algeria on January 16, 2013 in which more than 80 people, including 39 foreign workers were killed (among the dead were 10 Japanese, 5 Norwegian and 5 British nationals).  The Canadians were part of an Al Qaeda-linked group in North Africa.  Terrorists of this bent are still active in the region.

So there you have it: two ‘kids’ from London helped slaughter dozens of innocent employees before being killed by security forces.  It must be pointed out that they did not travel to the Maghreb to get radicalised: that had already happened in London.  Where, exactly, that transpired is hard to say and I do not want to cast aspersions on London’s Muslim community or its leadership, with whom I have worked on CVE (countering violent extremism) in the past.  And yet it did occur here and somebody undoubtedly knew something but was either too afraid or too confused to say anything about it.

London thus joins a small number of Ontario towns and cities on the list of ‘terrorist locales’.  Timmins is the home of both Shania Twain and Andre Poulin.  Strathroy (not Stratford) had Aaron Driver.  And St. Thomas, the place where Jumbo the elephant died, was also where Khurram Sher practiced medicine (Sher was acquitted in the Samossa trial although the judge said he probably had ‘jihadist sympathies’).  It sure gives new meaning to small town Ontario.

The point is that terrorism is independent of time and space.  Plots and radicalisation can happen anywhere and at anytime.  For every Paris there is a Paris (Ontario) – not that I am aware of any case in that particular town near Brantford (which is an hour west of Toronto).  Terrorism is all about people and people are found in the least likely of places. It might be a good idea to remember that.

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.

Leave a Reply