Terror without ideology: can authorities track the violent subculture linked to Monday's van attack?

The new commander of Canada’s special forces says there's no textbook answer to the threat posed by 'lone wolf' terrorist or criminal attacks, but the country’s elite counter-terrorism unit has its eyes open to emerging trends.

Chief of Canada's special forces won't comment, but promises his people are watching the 'threat environment'

Incoming commander of CANSOFCOM Major-General Peter Dawe speaks to reporters at a Canadian Special Operations Forces Command change of command ceremony in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. (Patrick Doyle/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The new commander of Canada's special forces says there's no textbook answer to the threat posed by 'lone wolf' terrorist or criminal attacks, but the country's elite counter-terrorism unit has its eyes open to emerging trends.

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe delivered the message of reassurance Wednesday following a change of command ceremony in Ottawa on Wednesday.

Dawe said he was not able to comment directly on this week's van attack in Toronto, which claimed the lives of 10 people and injured 14 others.

"I can assure Canadians that its special forces are constantly analyzing the threat environment, making sure we have the right tools to respond at the right place and the right time," said Dawe, who has taken over for Maj.-Gen. Mike Rouleau.

The Liberal government has been careful to describe the attack on Toronto's Yonge St. as something that did not represent a threat to national security — something that would have put it squarely on the radar of Joint Task Force 2, the military's highly trained counter-terrorism force.

Defining terrorism

The alleged attacker, 25-year-old Alek Minassian, who faces 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder, openly identified himself as part of an "Incel Rebellion."

Incel is a short-form online term for "involuntarily celibate." It is a misogynist online network of men expressing resentment and anger against women because they aren't getting sex. Members of the incel community praised the Toronto attack on Monday and called for more similar actions, saying "it's now or never."

There is a debate underway about whether the movement represents a terrorist threat. Many are skeptical.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Tuesday he was only vaguely aware of the incel concept prior to the attack.

"I had heard the expressions, but I must say I would not have had any detailed idea, or any information, about who or what that was," he said following a meeting of G7 security ministers.

Security services, including the RCMP and CSIS, keep track of a wide range of potential threats, as "many as humanly possible," said Goodale.

He would not reveal whether the incel subculture is now being tracked. Neither would Dawe, who said JTF-2 is "obligated to scan" various threats to the country and its citizens.

Trends, tactics and techniques

"What we take great pride in is that we stay as informed as we can about the current operating environment," Dawe said. "We track trends. We track tactics, techniques and procedure of the enemy as we see it."

The forms of menace witnessed by military and security services evolve rapidly and have become increasingly complex, he said.

"It requires a great degree of agility and nuance, precision and discretion," said Dawe.

In reality, though, how much of a threat does this online subculture represent? And how much in the way of resources should intelligence agencies devote to such an elusive target?

A young boy writes a message at a memorial for victims of the mass killing on Yonge Street at Finch Avenue on April 24, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Cole Burston/Getty Images)

A former CSIS analyst said Incel does not meet the bar for terrorism in that it does not have an "ideology" apart from hate. That, he said, would make it hard to justify ordering CSIS, the RCMP — or even JTF-2 — to follow it.

"I'd be very surprised if they are," said Phil Gurski. "I can't speak for JTF-2, but from a CSIS perspective, it would not fit the mandate as a threat to Canada using violence from an ideological perspective."

He noted the difference between the attack on Monday and the Oct. 22, 2014 attack on Parliament Hill. In that event, Michael Zehaf Bibeau pledged allegiance to ISIS and claimed the attack was reprisal over Canadian policy in Afghanistan.

"From my perspective — and, admittedly, it is skin deep — incel does not represent a ideological movement," said Gurski.

He also said the evidence of the accused's adherence to this so-called movement is thin.

"It's based upon one Facebook post," said Gurski. "Incel has praised him, but not claimed him as one of their own, to my knowledge."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.