When are terrorism charges warranted? Experts say it's complicated

Terrorism charges add complexity and don't necessarily result in stiffer sentences, experts say

October 03, 2017

Abdulahi Hasan Sharif, 30, is charged with five counts of attempted murder for attacks in Edmonton on Sept. 30. (Edmonton Police Service)

RCMP continue to investigate the actions of Abdulahi Hasan Sharif and have not ruled out laying terrorism charges in the future.

The 30-year-old man is accused of attacking a police officer with a knife and using a cube van to plow into pedestrians — actions the Edmonton police have said mimic some of the most terrible terrorist attacks in Europe.


In a news conference Monday, police announced a host of charges, including attempted murder and criminal flight causing bodily harm. Some have asked: Why has Sharif not been charged with terrorism offences? 

The key element for a terrorism charge is motivation, said Lorne Dawson, director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society and a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo.

Motivation is not always easy to prove, he said.

"You have to prove the individual did it in the service of some kind of ideological, political or religious or social cause. That becomes difficult to establish because the person has to out-and-out say, 'I did it for this reason,'" Dawson said.

"If they don't say that, you're left looking at what they're reading or what they've said to other people ... you're left inferring from their other activities in life whether ideology played a key role."

RCMP Supt. Stacey Talbot speaks about the weekend attacks in Edmonton at a news conference Monday. (CBC)

Are specific terrorism laws needed?

Canada's suite of terrorism laws were developed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. The vast majority of those laws deal with ancillary actions, such as providing financial support to a terrorist organization or helping terrorist causes in some other way.

When it comes to committing a terrorist act, many have argued that specific terrorism laws are not needed, since the Criminal Code already covers offences such as murder.

'You have to prove the individual did it in the service of some kind of ideological, political or religious or social cause.' - Lorne Dawson, Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society

In some cases, "good, old fashioned charges like attempted murder, dangerous driving, or aggravated assault carry sufficient penalty and stigma to deal with the situation," said Steven Penney, a law professor at the University of Alberta.

"The fact the crimes may have been committed for religious, ideological, or political reasons could be considered in sentencing as aggravating factors. But they're not essential to proving the nature of the conduct."​

In January, Alexandre Bissonnette allegedly entered a Quebec City mosque and shot six men to death. He is facing six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder, even while the attack has been called terrorism by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other politicians. 

The attack is "the single most lethal terrorist attack in Canada after the Air India bombing in 1985," Dawson said.

"What would be the purpose of bringing terrorism charges that open all kinds of other room for dispute, and constitutional issues, and challenges and things before the court when you can just proceed straightforwardly on murder charges?

"It's a debate of the practicality of it, versus wanting to create a solid public social message that terrorism is unacceptable."

No single definition

Added to the legal nuances of terrorism in Canada is that there is no single definition of terrorism.

"There are literally hundreds of definitions of terrorism and endless disputes about them," Dawson said. "In the United States, the FBI, the CIA, the Justice Department all use different definitions."

Dawson said terrorism is essentially an act to intimidate the wider population around a particular cause.

"With terrorism, you're not trying to terrify the people you're killing," Dawson said.

"You're trying to terrify the people who are watching the event, the general population, by saying, 'You could be next.'"

A cube van tipped over after a high speed chase through downtown Edmonton on Sept. 30, 2017. (CBC)
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