Ottawa shooting inflated the rhetoric of 'homegrown terrorism'

As Canadians mark the one-year anniversary of the Ottawa shooting today, Muslim communities around the country will be sharing in the sorrow at the deaths of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent but will also be reminded of some of the ugly rhetoric that accompanied the tragedy and the unwelcome attention it drew to their faith.

Muslims bore brunt of government's fear-mongering in wake of Oct. 22, 2014, Parliament Hill shooting, say some

Mourners take part in a vigil for slain soldiers Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent on Oct. 28, 2014, in Montreal. Muslim Canadians were quick to denounce the attacks on Cirillo and Vincent after it emerged that the perpetrators were both Muslim converts who were inspired by ISIS propaganda. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

As Canadians mark the one-year anniversary of the Ottawa shooting today, Muslim communities around the country will be sharing in the sorrow at the deaths of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent but will also be reminded of some of the ugly rhetoric that accompanied the tragedy and the unwelcome attention it drew to their faith.

"It was a horrific thing, and we all felt it was terrible what had happened and were anxious and frightened about it, but suddenly, along with that feeling that we shared with all Canadians — to be targeted as if it was part of us and Islam and Muslims that those two men did it..." recalled Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.

In the days and weeks following the Oct. 22, 2014, shooting of Cirillo, a sentry at the National War Memorial — and the targeted hit and run that killed Vincent two days prior in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. — much of the focus was on the fact the perpetrators were Muslim converts who sympathized with ISIS and extremist ideas of jihad.

Less consideration was given to the fact that both were troubled young men with histories of mental illness who had become increasingly isolated from their families and communities.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper placed the attacks squarely within the broader context of the global war on terror almost immediately.

"It will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores," Harper said after the Oct. 22 attack.

Martin Couture-Rouleau, left, and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, right, both had a history of mental health issues and a series of personal problems that some have suggested facilitated their radicalization. (CBC/Facebook/Twitter)

Four months later, his then minister of defence Jason Kenney told the Conference of Defence Associations that "homegrown terrorism is not a remote concept but a Canadian reality."

By April, the Conservative government had joined U.S.-led airstrikes on ISIS in Syria, after vowing in December 2014 to restrict Canada's participation to Iraq. The next month, the government passed Bill C-51, counterterrorism legislation that expanded the powers of CSIS and other security forces and was intended, the government said, to help law enforcement more easily thwart attacks such as the one that had occurred on Parliament Hill. 

But as more details about Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau and their troubled lives emerged, some questioned whether the attacks should even be seen in the context of the wider ISIS threat, but rather as the isolated, violent actions of mentally ill individuals in crisis.

Rhetoric vs. actions

Thomas Juneau, who has worked as a strategic analyst for the Department of National Defence (DND), doesn't think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive.

"Even if they had some form of mental fragility or vulnerability or illness, that doesn't change that they did it under inspiration from Islamic State. They were not guided or directed by Islamic State, but they were inspired by the ideology, by the online activity," he said.

"It's part of the business model of an organization like Islamic State to prey on individuals like that."

Juneau acknowledges the government engaged in some fear-mongering after the attacks and again during the recent election campaign, when Harper referred to the Ottawa attacks on several occasions, telling supporters in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., that "Canada is not immune to jihadist terrorism. Two brave soldiers dead on our own soil." He asserted that "only our Conservative Party is going to keep Canadians safe."

The deaths of Cirillo, left, and Vincent, right, were evidence that the global jihad being waged by ISIS and other extremist groups had reached home soil, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said after the attacks. (Canadian Press)

It's important to distinguish rhetoric from substance, however, said Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

"Some of the things that were stated were clearly inflated and sometimes even apocalyptic in their tone, but I didn't see behaviour that matched that," he said. "The actual substance of the reaction was basically measured, moderate and appropriate."

The rhetoric might have helped the government get more public support for airstrikes in Syria and Bill C-51, but given the Conservatives' view on homegrown terrorism and the ISIS threat, it's likely these measures would have been carried out anyway, Juneau said.

Radicalization a threat taken 'extremely seriously'

Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, has seen first-hand how the rhetoric around the attacks has affected his community. Complaints to the council about anti-Muslim vandalism and verbal abuse spiked in the attacks' aftermath and again during the election campaign, fed in part by the heated niqab debate

He said he hopes a change in government will help "turn the page on the kind of rhetoric that divides us versus them."

"We have confidence in our fellow Canadians that they will see these acts for what they are — the actions of fringe groups or individuals on the margins who have been radicalized towards extreme violence through propaganda and other factors," Gardee said.

Gardee was one of several Muslim leaders who publicly condemned the attacks when they occurred and participated in a wreath-laying ceremony. He said that although some of what we learned about the attackers helped distance them from the Muslim community, most Canadian Muslims recognize that violent extremism remains a real threat.

"Some of what we have learned has certainly provided a deeper and more contextualized picture of what transpired. At the same time, it is clear that violent radicalization towards criminal violence remains an issue and one that Canadian Muslims take extremely seriously," he said.

Angry young men

Sikander Hashmi​, an imam with the Kanata Muslim Association in Ottawa, said that although local police and the RCMP reached out to the community in the wake of the shootings and have maintained good relations, the same was not true at the federal level.

"There didn't seem to be, on a national level, an effort to engage the community and to really talk to us as partners. We as community leaders and imams are really on the front lines of the struggle against radicalization," he said.

Harper, left, and his wife, Laureen, at the regimental funeral service for Cirillo in Hamilton on Oct. 28, 2014. Some Muslim leaders feel Harper exploited Canadians' fears about Muslim extremists in the wake of the Ottawa shooting and again during the recent election campaign. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Hashmi would like to see a common strategy to combat radicalization that engages community leaders, law enforcement, social workers and educators instead of the kind of exploitation of "fears and misunderstandings" that occurred after the attacks and throughout the election campaign.

"It's somewhat disappointing that that approach hasn't really materialized, and I think the federal government has a really important role to play in this, so we'll see what happens [with the new government]," he said.

Steve Day, a former leader of the elite JTF2 counterterrorism unit, sees the rhetoric around the October attacks as a distraction that has kept the government from addressing the real weaknesses in Canada's defences.

He sees Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau as "young men with mental challenges angry at Canadian society for whatever reason" whose connection to ISIS was one of convenience, not conviction.

"It's like any other loser looking for a friend: they just hook their wagon to the latest, greatest thing. It could have been white power," he said.

There is little to be done to stop such lone-wolf actors, he said, but there is something to be done about the systemic problems in Canada's national security apparatus, whose agencies are under-resourced and each fighting to protect their piece of the pie.

"We need to break down the silos between the different security actors — between CSIS, CSE [Communications Security Establishment], the RCMP, DND and other public safety agencies. We need to break down those silos, share information appropriately and get out of this tribal everybody's got their own rifle [mentality]," Day said.


Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with CBCNews.ca. She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.


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