The terrorist who took his time

If you are really seized with an issue – and I mean really, really burning with zeal and a desire to right a perceived wrong – would you not want to put your commitment to the test as soon as you could? Would you not want to show the world that what you fervently believe in is really important and that people are suffering from some injustice? Would you not want to stand up and say “Hey! I am doing my part to make things better!”

Or would you wait 16 years?

This seems to be what happened in the case of Amor Ftouhi, a Montreal man convicted yesterday (April 18) of a terrorist attack in June 2017 at the Flint, Michigan airport and sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Ftouhi drove all the way to Flint from Montreal – by the way Google Maps tells me that is almost 1,000 km along the 401, although I think the terrorist went south to New York which would make this an even longer trip – because he felt it would be easiest to purchase a firearm there. Thwarted from doing so he bought a knife which he used to stab airport police Lieutenant Jeff Neville, who thankfully survived the vicious attack.

I remember at the time wondering what this was all about. It did have some of the hallmarks of a terrorist incident as Mr. Ftouhi did yell ‘Allahu Akbar’ as he plunged the knife into the lieutenant’s neck and this kind of action has been encouraged by many Islamist extremist groups such as Islamic State for years. But there was not a lot else to go on immediately. Thanks, however, to excellent reporting by Global News’ Stewart Bell and others, I can now weigh in on this and what it means. In short, I do agree it was a terrorist attack, albeit an odd one and there are still many unanswered questions.

Mr. Ftouhi told investigators that he was a “soldier of Allah,” had supported Al Qaeda (AQ) and Usama bin Laden since 9/11, and believed the US was the enemy of Islam. He thought there was a war on Muslims and that the US was “the problem”. In his mind, when AQ attacked the US, it was done for Allah.

For its part, his defence tried to paint him as a frustrated immigrant (he entered Canada in 2007). He apparently collected welfare and worked at ‘menial jobs,’ a shortcoming he attributed to ‘Canadian intolerance, Islamophobia and discrimination’. In the words of one of his lawyers, rather than being an ideological extremist, Ftouhi was hopeless as a result of being “wholly unprepared for the challenges he would face both as a first-generation immigrant and as a Muslim in a predominantly Christian city.” His attack at the Flint airport was an attempt to “kill to be killed”.

Aside from the terrorist’s support for AQ and Usama bin Laden, what else do we know about his radicalisation process and mindset? Not a lot. If he was indeed a fan of 9/11 that began while he was still in Tunisia, not in Canada, implying that he was a violent radical before his arrival here (which, if known at the time, would have precluded his admission I would think). The answer to many of the questions surrounding his radicalisation to violence thus lie in North Africa, a region full of jihadis. I do not know what if anything Tunisian security authorities have shared with their Canadian and US counterparts.

Furthermore, if he lived in Montreal for a full decade before heading to Michigan what was he up to all that time (besides struggling financially)? Was he part of a larger Islamist extremist milieu in Quebec? Was he tied to other likeminded people online? Did he show any overt signs of his violent ideology (NB most terrorists do)? Was he on a CSIS or RCMP radar? Why wait ten years before acting on his convictions? All very good questions.

In the end Lt. Neville did not die, thank God. Mr. Ftouhi will spend the rest of his natural life in a US prison – in the US life does mean life. He already has demonstrated that he does not regret what he did. In a letter to his wife and children (by the way I feel for those kids) he wrote: “Tell my children that I love them all; they must be proud of their father, who is fighting the infidel criminals. I am not like the other Muslims, who are all talk and no action, who have held on to earthly matters, and stayed away from jihad.” This does not strike me as a case for ‘deradicalisation’.

I think that the lesson here is that not all terrorist attacks are preventable. A guy with a knife who is not on anyone’s watch list can succeed. At least in this case his success was not complete.

I wish a continued recovery for Lt. Neville.

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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