The terrorist next door

Following up on yesterday’s blog about a possible Canadian who knifed a police officer at Flint Airport in Michigan, we now know that yes indeed he is Canadian.  Thankfully, the wounded officer’s condition has gone from critical to stable after he underwent surgery yesterday.  The assailant, Amor Ftouhi, has been taken into custody and charged.

So far the reaction from the US government has been outstandingly positive.  US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions is quoted as saying: “I am proud of the swift response from the FBI and our federal prosecutors and their partnership with local police and the Canadian authorities.” This is indeed the right approach as I noted yesterday.

What do we know so far about the suspect?  Well, a few things:

  • he is 50 years old (significantly older than most terrorists, assuming that this was a terrorist attack, which I think it was).
  • he is from Tunisia (the spelling of his surname gave that away) and lives in Montreal.
  • he graduated from College Sullivan in 2009.
  • he entered the US legally at Lake Champlain, NY, just south of Montreal, on June 16 and somehow made his way to Flint.  Why Flint?  Who knows.  It is about 700 km west of his entry point and not exactly a household name as far as airports go.
  • he pulled out a 30-cm blade and yelled Allahu Akbar as he stabbed the officer.  Once in custody he apparently said “You have killed people in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and we are all going to die“.

This is all pretty standard stuff, except for the age and the choice of attack venue.  Equally standard are the initial reactions by those in Mr. Ftouhi’s environs:

  • According to his landlord “He’s a good person, very quiet. I’ve never had any problems with him.  They’re really good people.”
  • According to a neighbour “That’s not us.  No religion calls for violence and terrorism. It’s ridiculous.”
  • He has been described as a ‘quiet family man’.

How many times have we seen this?  A terrorist carries out an attack and everyone says he was ‘the nicest guy’.  Then someone says that religion has nothing to do with this.

Unfortunately these accounts are probably inaccurate.  Firstly, while terrorists may be ‘good people’ they never get to the point of planning attacks without leaving clues, bread crumbs as it were à la Hansel and Gretel.  This is what US psychologist Reid Meloy calls ‘leakage’: hints that not all is well and that a person is radicalising to violence.  It’s just that people don’t pick up on the signs.  As the joint FBI/RCMP investigation proceeds we will undoubtedly learn more about that radicalisation process.

Secondly, Mr. Ftouhi’s words ‘you have killed people in Syria…’ are prescient.  A lot of the Islamist terrorist narrative revolves around what they see as our crimes against Muslims.  They frame the world as a war of us vs. them, a war we started and a war they are responding to.  The fact that Mr. Ftouhi is Tunisian, and thus has nothing to do with Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, is irrelevant. Terrorist groups have succeeded in creating what I call the ‘ummahfication of conflict’ (from the Arabic word ‘ummah‘ – the global Muslim community: you can read a lot more about this in my forthcoming book The Lesser Jihads (hint: already available for pre-order on Amazon)).  Any attack against any Muslim demands a response by all Muslims.

Thirdly, of course religion has a lot to do with this.  No, it is not the only factor, but to ignore it is intellectually dishonest. The rub here is that  Mr. Ftouhi’s likely interpretation of Islam is not likely to be normative.  It is more likely to be informed by the aberrant version promulgated by Islamic State, Al Qaeda and others. They claim that Islam demands violence and that those who do not subscribe to this demand are the ‘enemies of Islam’ including, by the way, the vast majority of Muslims who still constitute the vast majority of the terrorists’ victims.

Then again maybe Mr. Ftouhi just ‘snapped’ one day.  We don’t know enough at this point.  We need to allow the investigation to unfold.  The RCMP has started a search and seize operation on the Montreal apartment where the attacker lived.  We will learn more as the days pass.

We should see this incident neither as a complete surprise nor as a terrifying harbinger of more to come.  It is what it is.  Yes, we will see more but we are not faced with an existential threat from homegrown terrorists, even 50-year old ones from Montreal whom everyone thought was a ‘good guy’.  Let us keep this in perspective.

My thoughts and prayers are with Lieutenant Jeff Neville and I wish him a speedy recovery.

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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