Trudeau, Goodale try to reassure Canadians and the world in wake of deadly van attack
G7 ministers meeting in Toronto discussed 'soft targets' and online radicalization
The Trudeau government sought to reassure a shocked nation and visiting allies Tuesday that the horrific event that unfolded on a busy Toronto street 24 hours earlier was a random act of violence — and not part of an organized plot.
The scene on Yonge Street Monday afternoon — after a man drove a van through a crowd of pedestrians, killing 10 and injuring 14 in what paramedics called an event of "pure carnage" — was something straight out of a counter-terrorism officer's worst nightmares.
Security analysts call them "soft targets" — unsecured public spaces where a lone attacker can do maximum damage.
What to do about them was part of the discussion at the G7 security ministers' conference which took place in downtown Toronto over the past three days — just 17 kilometres from the scene of the tragedy.
Alek Minassian, 25, of Richmond Hill, Ont., is expected to be charged with a 14th count of attempted murder in addition to the 10 counts of first-degree murder he already faces.
Government officials briefed on the investigation say that, so far, the suspect is not associated with any organized terrorist group and does not represent a larger threat to national security.
The message was reinforced from the top down Tuesday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to reassure the country.
"Obviously, all Canadians continue and will continue to have questions about why this happened, what could possibly be the motives behind it," he said in the foyer of the House of Commons. "As was indicated last night, at this time we have no reason to suspect that there is any national security element to this attack, but obviously, the investigations continue."
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale delivered the same message to the G7 ministers, many of whom personally expressed their sympathy to him before the opening of Tuesday's talks.
He spoke privately and at length with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti.
Ben Wallace, Britain's minister of state for security, spoke glowingly about the RCMP and Canada's security services, but his public remarks were cut off as journalists were hustled out of the room by organizers.
Before the closed-door session, Goodale described the incident as a "very large homicide investigation" and heaped praise on first responders.
"Police officers and first responders are amazing people, as we all know within our respective jurisdictions," he said.
"They do truly remarkable work, and we are grateful to them for their exceptional efforts in cases of emergency."
Many of the nations sitting around the table have faced similar attacks — by terrorists and others. Goodale said after Tuesday's meeting that there was a clear lesson here for every country: "Think through your potential vulnerabilities in advance."
That, the minister said, is something the federal government does on a regular basis.
Regardless of how the police probe unfolds, Monday's attack is a reminder of the enormous challenges involved in securing ordinary public venues from extraordinary threats.
"The work of government and ministers obviously goes on," Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said not long after Monday's attack. "This is a very sad day for the people of Toronto and the people of Canada."
Trucks as weapons
The use of trucks and vans as deadly weapons has become more common. Almost two years ago, a 19 tonne cargo truck deliberately slammed into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds of others. The driver, a French resident of Tunisian origin, died in an exchange of gunfire with police.
ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack, as it did for a similar attack in Berlin less than six months later, which took the lives of 12 people.
Another van attack hit Barcelona, Spain last summer; 14 died in that incident along the city's popular Las Ramblas tourist walkway.
Last fall, a man drove 20 blocks through Lower Manhattan and used a truck to ram into people on a pedestrian and bicycle path, killing eight and injuring 11.
Federal officials continue to monitor a call by ISIS for its followers to use vehicles as weapons in 'lone wolf' attacks — even though the extremist group has been defeated on the battlefield and is now scattered throughout its former territory and beyond.
Some of those followers are now returning to western nations.
Those so-called "terrorist travellers" were the focus of talks involving G7 security and foreign ministers on Monday, Goodale said.
"Now that their focus is less riveted upon Syria and Iraq, there is a very large question about, where will they go?" he said. "We discussed issues around how do we make sure we know the answer to that question."
Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault briefed the security ministers from the world's leading industrialized democracies Tuesday.
Tech leaders say they're taking steps
The role the internet plays in terrorist recruitment and messaging was a dominant topic Tuesday among the security ministers who were meeting in advance of the full G7 leaders summit in Charlevoix, Quebec in early June.
Tech industry leaders, under the umbrella of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, came to the meeting armed with data points hoping to convince the G7 that they are taking a proactive stand by ripping down extremist propaganda largely without being told to by the authorities.
Goodale quoted some of those statistics in his closing news conference.
"Ministers were grateful for the progress, but ministers were also anxious to see more," he said.
Almost all of the online heavyweights — Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube — take part in the forum.
The companies declared last December their joint determination to "curb the spread" of terrorist content online. They're also examining how technologies can be exploited for violent purposes.