Canada was shocked by the killing of a soldier at the National Cenotaph by a homegrown terrorist
Normally the phrase ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time’ has a negative connotation. Like when you are stuck in a snowstorm without winter tires as I am sure happened to many Manitobans last week. Or when you show up at a Toronto Maple Leafs game sporting a Montreal Canadiens jersey (NB if you are not a hockey fan these two are arch rivals).
Five years ago today two people were in the wrong place at the wrong time and it cost one of them his life. On a fine October morning in Canada’s capital city Corporal Nathan Cirillo was standing honour guard at the National Cenotaph in the downtown Ottawa core. A man sped up to the memorial, got out of his car and opened fire, shooting Corporal Cirillo.
The assailant got back into his vehicle, pulled a U-turn, and headed for Parliament Hill a few hundred metres away.
Foiled by a barrier, he abandoned his car, hijacked another and raced to the Centre Block where, shotgun still in hand, he attempted to enter the seat of Canada’s government but was shot dead within minutes. While this was unfolding first responders and concerned citizens were trying, ultimately unsuccessfully, to save Corporal Cirillo’s life: he left a five-year old boy orphaned.
The assailant’s name was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a radicalised homegrown Canadian Islamic State (ISIS) wannabe who has earlier produced a short cellphone video in which he said his actions were in retribution for Canadian military deployments in Muslim-dominant lands. He had failed to get to his native Libya where he wanted to join an ISIS affiliate and died in a hail of bullets in anything but a blaze of glory.
The attack was over in a matter of minutes but much of Ottawa was in lockdown for hours as the RCMP and Ottawa Police wanted to ensure that there was only one terrorist (and he was dead). It was a scene few Canadians, and even fewer Ottawans, had ever experienced, and I hope we never do again.
But who was that second person in the wrong place at the wrong time? It was me. At the time of the incident I was in a car between Toronto and Picton (Ontario), having just delivered one presentation on homegrown Islamist extremism and going to give another. This was a phenomenon that I had studied for over a decade and I had become the leading strategic analyst at CSIS on what was happening on this front in Canada. And yet when an attack actually took place, unlike the ones we had collectively foiled through good intelligence and police work, I was not where I should have been: trying to help figure out what had just transpired and who the hell Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was. I was torn between professional frustration and sorrow over the death of Nathan Cirillo (the following morning I made a point of going to where he had died, already overflowing with commemorative items left by Canadians shocked at what had taken place).
I was torn between professional frustration and sorrow over the death of Nathan Cirillo
That day I recommitted myself to better understanding homegrown terrorism in my country, whether tied to ISIS, Al Qaeda or any other Islamist extremist group, a promise I have kept to this day, even beyond my career in intelligence. I make no pretense of being an expert in this regard nor a very important piece of the puzzle. But I am still keen to help where I can and will keep doing so.
So that more little boys like Marcus are not left fatherless.