Was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's attack on Parliament Hill his Plan B?

It has been four months since gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau fatally shot a reservist and was then killed attacking Parliament Hill, an event that has helped spur new anti-terror legislation. But those who spoke with him say Zehaf-Bibeau talked often of his goal to emigrate to Libya, in part to escape drug addiction.

Ottawa shooter may have turned to terror plan after failing to get passport out of Canada

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has suggested that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, had committed a 'criminal act' and that based on the shooter's past, there wasn't enough evidence to describe his actions as terrorism. (Vancouver Police Department)

As MPs debate a major piece of anti-terrorism legislation presented partly as a response to the Oct. 22 shootings on Parliament Hill, Canadians still know relatively little about what lay behind that attack.

Certainly, the federal government seems content to have a certain view of gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's motivations prevail: that he was a conventional jihadi terrorist inspired by, and perhaps in direct communication with, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS.

One key piece of evidence that might clear up some of the questions about Zehaf-Bibeau's thinking is a video he recorded before his death.

Initially, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said the video would "certainly someday be released," and that he was inclined to do so "as soon as possible."

A few weeks later, his view had changed. "We may look at releasing some aspects of the transcript of the video. But I don't know that we will be releasing the video," Paulson said in November.

Now, a committee of MPs has invited Paulson to testify about the video's contents at his earliest convenience.

What do we know?

A day after the attack, Paulson mused about the gunman's motivation.

"I think the passport figured prominently in his motives. I'm not inside his head, but I think the passport was central to what was driving him."

Paulson's words have been echoed by a number of other people who knew Zehaf-Bibeau. They paint a picture of a man who was considering two mutually exclusive plans of action. One was a plan of emigration and the start of a new life; the other, an attack on Parliament that would surely have ended any hope of leaving the country.

Logic dictates that Zehaf-Bibeau could only carry out one of those two plans.

Interviews with people who spoke with him in the weeks before he shot and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial suggest the attack was in fact his Plan B, one he began to put in motion on Oct. 2, 20 days before he finally carried it out.

The passport failure

Oct. 2 is the day Zehaf-Bibeau arrived in Ottawa from Vancouver. Tellingly, before even finding a place to stay, he went straight to the Libyan embassy to apply for a passport.

Yousef Furgani, chargé d'affaires at the Libyan Embassy in Ottawa, met Zehaf-Bibeau on Oct. 2 when he walked in and asked to renew his expired Libyan passport. (CBC photo)

"He said he had family in Libya," Yousef Furgani, first secretary of the Libyan Embassy, told CBC News in October. "He said he missed them, and he wanted to go back and live there."

Zehaf-Bibeau had told many people over the years about his desire to emigrate to Libya, where he had gone to live as a teenager with his father following his parents' separation.

At least as far back as 2007, when Zehaf-Bibeau worked building tunnels in Squamish, B.C., Libya was on his mind. His foreman in Squamish remembers: "He said he wanted to settle down there and find a wife."

Zehaf-Bibeau was also already showing signs of interest in jihadi ideology, sharing videos of Taliban attacks on his cellphone, although his co-workers didn't take him too seriously.

The fact that much of Libya is now under the control of Islamist militias — and even a Libyan franchise of ISIS — may suggest it's all a moot point. Today, an aspiring jihadi might find Libya almost as attractive as Syria, where the RCMP initially, and incorrectly, suggested Zehaf-Bibeau was planning to travel.

But Zehaf-Bibeau's Libyan longings predated the arrival of jihadi groups in Libya. He seems to have been no less interested in moving there when the country was under the control of the Ghadhafi family.

Escape from addiction

According to people who spoke with Zehaf-Bibeau, Libya seems to have become more than just the happy land of his youth — it was also a potential refuge from a worsening crack addiction.

Years before the Parliament Hill attack, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau told co-workers in Squamish, B.C., about his desire to move to Libya, and even began to wear the clothes of a Libyan tribal sheik.

After his arrival in Ottawa, he befriended Libyan-born Abdelkarim Abubakir, telling him the same thing he had told others at the shelter he frequented in Vancouver.

"He just wanted to go out from here, because the temptation from the drug is very strong, and he cannot resist it. That's his weakness. He wanted to go to Libya, he said," Abubakir told CBC News.

"So that's why he tell me, 'I have a passport to be accepted, and I hope it's going to be accepted,' but then it was otherwise. So I think that's why he did it, because his hope was to get out of here."

Abubakir says Zehaf-Bibeau kept his plan to attack Parliament entirely to himself. But Abubakir now believes the idea was already formed when Zehaf-Bibeau arrived in Ottawa. "That was in his head, too," he says, "but only if he couldn't get the passport."

It didn't take long after Zehaf-Bibeau was rejected at the Libyan embassy to move on to Plan B — the attack that would shock the nation. Less than 48 hours after the Libyans turned him away, Zehaf-Bibeau was captured on surveillance cameras taking a tour of Parliament Hill.

Mixed motives

While politicians and the public have debated whether Zehaf-Bibeau was motivated more by ideology or by personal issues, the real answer may be both.

People who knew him have left little doubt that he supported jihadi groups openly and vocally.

But one thing is clear: as late as Oct. 2, Zehaf-Bibeau was pursuing a personal ambition that, had it succeeded, would have made the attack on Parliament Hill impossible.

Unlike their counterparts in France and Australia, the RCMP have been extremely tight-lipped about their investigation into recent terrorist attacks.

But when Paulson spoke 30 hours after the attack, he had already seen Zehaf-Bibeau's video and knew quite a bit about his movements. Tellingly, he did not say that Zehaf-Bibeau came to the nation's capital in order to stage an attack on Parliament.

"He was in town to deal with a passport issue," said Paulson.