We learned a little more about the April 2017 van attack – but questions remain

There is something about me you need to know because it helps you to understand why I do what I do. As I have often made clear, I spent 32 years in the Canadian intelligence community as an analyst working on information ranging from intercepted communications to human sources. I was paid to understand what we had, sometimes after having translated or transcribed the item into English, what it meant, whether it was of intelligence value, and then to package it up for clients to use.

In this regard source accuracy and reliability were crucial. I once learned that humans lie and deceive, and figuring out when this was the case was critical to my use of those sources. On other occasions we had a few snippets of a bigger picture and still had to weigh in on what was going on. We seldom had enough information or were in a position to gauge source reliability to be 100 percent happy with what we knew. And yet we had a job to do.

This professional past colours how I do things today, despite my retirement. I am neither apologising for nor lording this fact: it is what it is. Others seem to care less about accuracy or volume of data before they make definitive statements about what just happened or, horror of horrors in my view, what is yet to transpire. I don’t think too highly of this approach but acknowledge that in an era of ‘instant analysis’ there is a demand. And where there is a demand there will be a supplier.

All this is in relation to the release today of a police interview with Alek Minassian, an alleged ‘incel’ who ran down 26 people on Toronto’s Yonge Street in April 2018, killing 10. He has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder and is due to stand trial before a judge only in 2020.

Here is what we learned from that interview:

  • he first started to “feel radicalized” after Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 near a university campus in Isla Vista, Calif., and then killed himself in 2014 ⁠— four years before the van attack
  • he and Rodger exchanged private messages on Reddit from January 2014 until three days before the Isla Vista attack in May 2014
  • he published a Facebook post the day of the van attack, pledging allegiance to the “incel rebellion” and praising Rodger, who Minassian considers the rebellion’s “founding forefather.”
  • after the attack by Rodger, he started “thinking and daydreaming” about taking action of his own and spent more and more time on incel-related online forums
  • despite that abstract plotting, on the day he was arrested, “the planning didn’t occur until about a month ago.”
  • he decided on a 10-foot van because it would be “big enough to have an effect but not too big that I can’t manoeuvre with it.”
  •  he didn’t really plan the attack for the Yonge-Finch area but instead “started seeing a lot of people walking” and decided “it’s time to go for it.” 
  •  he had intended to die through suicide by cop

For many this seals the deal: Alek Minassian was an incel terrorist who planned his attack months in advance. Case closed.

I am still on the fence, for one simple reason: source reliability.

We still only have Mr. Minassian’s version of events. We still have only one FaceBook posting, the one made the day of the attacks. CBC admits it “hasn’t been able to independently verify Minassian’s claim that he communicated online with Rodger.” If all these posts are real where are they?

Why would he lie? How many reasons do you want? Here are a few:

  • he felt his life was going nowhere
  • he wants to portray himself as a hero to incels
  • he wants to link his life to something bigger
  • he wants to impress women and finally ‘get laid’ (his words not mine); there is a phenomenon where women fall in love with serial killers and want to sleep with them
  • he is a messed up man who has no idea what he is doing: the defence will undoubtedly play up this angle

I have no idea if Mr. Minassian is telling us the truth and the whole story. I am also non-committal (much to the anger of many) on whether incel is an ideology – and not just hatred for women – and hence a terrorist ‘movement’. That the Crown has not elected to charge him with terrorism should not be over-interpreted: a guilty verdict on murder is clear while one on terrorism would be harder to achieve.

In the end we still have a single, uncorroborated source on why he did what he did. That is seldom good enough in intelligence and should be equally questionable in the real world.

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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