For many, the shooting attacks in the Canadian parliament this week are a horrific surprise. Canada is a viewed by most as a very open, tolerant and friendly society, having welcomed many waves of immigrants from all over the world. However there are elements of extremism that have plagued Canadian society for some time.
For instance, in 2005, the Toronto 18, a terrorist group spanning the U.S., Canada, and the UK plotted to storm the Canadian Parliament with assault rifles, take it over and behead the Prime Minister and members of Parliament until Canadian troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan. While many thought the attacks could never have been actualized, part of the group was serious enough to have managed to build a working remote detonator and order tons of fertilizer for truck bombs to be placed around Toronto—attacking various sites in what would have been a series of catastrophic attacks. It was only the actions of two undercover agents—Mubin Shaikh, primary among them—that saved Canadians from the disastrous effects of such a series of attacks. Our new book, Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18—al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Extremism in the West detailing the inside story of the terrorist plotters is released this week—chillingly, just as we see their very terrorist plots actualized.
“We’ll attack the Parliament buildings of Canada,” the ringleader of the Toronto 18, Fahim Ahmad crowed to his cadres. “First we’ll distract the police with bombs going off all around the city. That will take all the security forces attention away from the Parliament,” Fahim continued. “And when they are responding to the car bombs, we’ll storm the Parliament buildings!” He went on to tell his cadres that they would take the Parliament members hostage and behead first, the Prime Minister and then the Members, one by one. His plan, thought by many to be far-fetched, now sadly has been shown, in part at least—conceivable.
And while the Toronto 18 members were rounded up resulting in eleven convictions, Canadian extremism did not disappear. Indeed, with the conflict in Syria and the rise of al Nusra and now ISIS, Canadians are presently overrepresented among Westerners in the fight. The number of fighters from Canada (over one hundred) that have gone to fight the Assad regime in Syria—many now also joining al Nusra and ISIS—have been equal to the number of those from the United States, and have kept pace also, with that of the UK. But Canada’s population is only half of that of the UK, and the Muslim population is only a third of the size, yet Canada currently has as many foreign fighters joining ISIS. So the fact is, that Canadians represent a disproportionate number of Western fighters in Syria and Iraq. Clearly extremism has a foothold in what we often think of as peaceful and peace-loving Canada.
And the ideology of ISIS is fanning the flames. Their claim of having created a real caliphate and having anointed a legitimate caliph (al Baghdadi), along with their call to an idealized version of being a Muslim (to live like the original Companions) speaks to the inner needs of many Canadian first and second generation Muslim immigrants who are somehow failing in their lives, as well as religious seekers who have converted and sought out an extremist form of Islam. For them, this call to ISIS resolves any issues of identity. And if they go on “hijra” that is migrate from Canada to the land of Sham and Iraq where ISIS is in charge they believe it will provide them with a “safe” place to practice their extremist form of Islam. Sadly they don’t realize that they actually have their highest religious freedoms inside Canada and will forfeit nearly all of their rights in joining ISIS.
But unlike al Qaeda, joining ISIS is easy. There is no vetting process—everyone is welcomed, and it is not so difficult to get there. And ISIS, in its social media outreach claims “We are all ISIS” thereby creating a community of belonging. Indeed their films and social media outreach make a big point of the international gathering, that those of all skin colors and ethnic descent are welcomed with open arms. All Muslims belong and everyone is accepted.
Not only that—with ISIS, everyone also has a part to play, and is significant to the shared vision. And according to ISIS, and Anwar al Awlaki, who was the ideologue (killed finally by a U.S. drone) that laid a lot of the groundwork for embracing their vision of Islam—all Muslims are obligated to take part in militant jihad. The belief among those who drink the “kool-aid” proffered by ISIS and formerly by Awlaki, who lives on via the Internet and continues to inspire beyond his death, is that they are engaging with a powerful compact with Allah. They may have to kill and die for it—but it is their Muslim identity and duty to do so—even inside Canada.
And ISIS has simplified things. Travel is not required—you can act in place. But for those wanting adventure there is a real and accessible place to come to—and that place, Sham and Iraq, is held sacred in the apocalyptic vision of the end times and strongly resonates with the shared vision, that ISIS is ushering in the new age of Islamic victory.
For Canadians lost in their path of self actualization, failing somehow in their lives, and looking for some way to redeem their manhood, womanhood, their sense of self, or to bolster a failing identity or belonging, ISIS offers them a compelling vision for a path forward—to bring about the final Caliphate. It just requires a commitment to violent action.
While it is still unclear who organized the attacks on the Canadian Parliament and the thinking of now killed, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau who carried them out, the fact that they mirror an attack that was already plotted by the Toronto 18 is indeed chilling. Given the instigation of ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani ash-Shami stating, “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever … including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be,” it’s likely that we will learn that this too was an ISIS plot.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry and of Security Studies at Georgetown University in the Medical School and in School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She also was responsible in 2006-2007 for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.