Why the RCMP would censor 18 seconds from the Zehaf-Bibeau video

Police finally aired a tape of the Parliament Hill shooter’s last words. But what does he say in secret?

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Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was still alive, standing sentry at the National War Memorial. He wore white boots, polished to a shine, and the tartan kilt of his regiment (the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders). His morning shift was nearly finished.

Two kilometres down the road, another born-and-raised Canadian—Michael Zehaf-Bibeau—sat behind the wheel of his parked Toyota Corolla. In his mind, warped as it was, the time had come. He pulled out his smartphone and turned on the video camera.

“This is in retaliation for Afghanistan and because Harper wants to send his troops to Iraq,” said the 32-year-old Muslim, sporting a short beard and a shaved upper lip. “So we are retaliating, the mujahedeen of this world. Canada’s officially become one of our enemies by fighting and bombing us and creating a lot of terror in our countries and killing us and killing our innocents.”

He seemed agitated, but not wild-eyed or frantic. “Just aiming to hit some soldiers, just to show that you’re not even safe in your own land, and you gotta be careful,”  Zehaf-Bibeau continued, his voice clear. “So, may Allah accept from us.”

As he spoke his final words, his brown eyes veered between the camera’s lens and the car’s windshield. “It’s a disgrace you guys have forgotten God,” he went on. “We’ll not cease until you guys decide to be a peaceful country . . . and stop occupying and killing the righteous of us who are trying to bring back religious law in our countries.

“Thank you.”

Minutes later, Cpl. Cirillo was lying in a pool of blood, shot in the back with a lever-action rifle. His killer would perish, too, cut down by a flurry of bullets after storming the front doors of Parliament Hill.

Back in the Toyota, police found the phone—and the gunman’s message from the grave.

Amid mounting public pressure, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson finally agreed last week to release the footage (at least, most of it) at a meeting of the House of Commons standing committee on public safety and national security. Dead for nearly five months, Zehaf-Bibeau came back to life on large screens arranged around the room—the same Centre Block space where Conservative MPs heard the bullets fly on Oct. 22, then barricaded the doors and took up flagpoles as weapons.

Paulson was unequivocal. Zehaf-Bibeau was a terrorist, he said, and would have been charged with terrorism offences had he been captured alive. (The Criminal Code defines terrorism as any act committed “for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause.”) The commissioner also made clear that despite the gunman’s demise, the RCMP’s criminal investigation is still very open—and that others could be charged in connection with the Ottawa attack. “We are actively investigating individuals who may have contributed to his crimes,” he said.

Which is why 18 seconds of the video (13 at the start, five at the end) are being kept under wraps until further notice. Somewhere in that censored footage is a clue, or lead, or some nugget that might point police to a potential accomplice. “It’s complicated,” Paulson said, when asked to explain why those particular seconds can’t be shown. “I’m asking you to be patient, because it’s going to take time.”

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson talks to the media after appearing at the Commons Public Safety committee to publicly display and discuss the video Michael Zehaf Bibeau filmed just prior to his shooting rampage on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday, March 6, 2015. (Fred Chartrand/CP)
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson talks to the media after appearing at the Commons Public Safety committee to publicly display and discuss the video Michael Zehaf Bibeau filmed just prior to his shooting rampage on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday, March 6, 2015. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

Canadians, of course, have already been extremely patient. When the video was first discovered, Paulson promised to release the entire clip as soon as possible, only to backtrack a month later by saying the Mounties may end up publicizing just a partial transcript. The commissioner now says the “enormous public interest attached to this case” persuaded him to change his mind once again, though not entirely. “I am satisfied that there are reasonable and sound operational reasons for these edits, and you will no doubt want to understand these reasons, too,” he told the committee. “Unfortunately, for the very same reasons we have edited the video, I cannot explain to you at this point why we have done so.”

Does Zehaf-Bibeau mention a specific name? Do his words somehow link him to another person on the RCMP’s radar? Or are investigators simply erring on the side of abundant caution, careful not to tarnish evidence that could be central to a future prosecution?

“The public has to put a little bit of trust in the police,” says Dave Perry, a former homicide and sex-crimes investigator for the Toronto police, who now operates a private security firm, Investigative Solutions Network Inc. “If they are holding something back, they have a reason—and it’s a legitimate reason. In a sensitive investigation that could involve national security, they’ve got to be extremely careful.”

At this point, Perry says, any guess is just that: a guess. But he says it’s important to remember that police typically hold back certain snippets of evidence they can use in the future to, for example, confirm someone’s confession. (Only the killer, for instance, would know the colour of a victim’s shirt—unless police publicly shared that detail.) “They’re protecting the integrity of the investigation,” Perry says. “The police have leads they need to follow up on, uncontaminated.”

It’s also possible there’s nothing at all significant about those 18 seconds, and the Mounties are simply trying to generate “chatter” among certain people they’re monitoring. “Sometimes police will go public because they want to trigger conversations by the bad guys,” says Pierre-Yves Borduas, a former deputy RCMP commissioner. “They go public, and then the bad guys start talking: ‘The police haven’t got a clue because we’re so smart and they’re dumb.’ ”

There is no indication yet that the Mounties have secured any wiretap warrants as part of the investigation, but Paulson left little doubt that suspects exist. More than 130 officers and support staff are assigned to the file, 400 witnesses have been interviewed, and police are still trying to track down multiple people who had contact with the gunman during the final weeks of his life. “Anyone who aided him, abetted him, counselled him, facilitated his crimes, or conspired with him is also, in our view, a terrorist, and, where the evidence exists, we will charge them with terrorist offences,” Paulson said, adding later: “I’m persuaded that Zehaf-Bibeau didn’t come to this act alone.”

This much, the commissioner says, is now clear: Zehaf-Bibeau “became increasingly aligned with terrorist ideology” while living in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and, for a short period, in Alberta. Although Paulson didn’t mention this specific fact, it’s well-known that Zehaf-Bibeau befriended another young B.C. Muslim named Hasibullah Yusufzai—who, just three months before the Parliament attack, was charged with travelling overseas for terrorist purposes. Still a wanted fugitive, Yusufzai is believed to have joined Islamic State militants in Iraq.

But if Zehaf-Bibeau displayed hints of Islamist radicalization during his years out west, his transformation coincided with a period of heavy drug use and bouts of homelessness. At one point, he was so desperate to kick his crack addiction that he staged a robbery at a McDonald’s restaurant so he could go to prison and sober up.

Related: Our investigation into Michael Zehaf-Bibeau

Two psychiatric evaluations conducted after his arrest found no evidence of mental illness, but a third assessment concluded that Zehaf-Bibeau may have suffered from bipolar disorder. (He himself disagreed with the expert’s report, and when he was released from custody in early 2012, his lawyer described him as a “perfectly functioning individual.”) Asked if mental illness may have played a role in the Ottawa attack, Paulson downplayed the link. “We’re looking at every aspect of his life,” he replied. “We haven’t found any particular warning signs of problems with mental health.”

If anything, Paulson said, Zehaf-Bibeau’s biggest problem was his passport. He told numerous people that he was anxious to move to Libya, his father’s homeland, and he applied for a Canadian passport in Vancouver last August. Informed that his application needed to be further scrutinized, he decided to travel to Ottawa in the hope of ironing out the problem. He hitchhiked to Calgary, then rode a Greyhound bus the rest of the way.

He arrived in the capital on Oct. 2 and, within two hours, he was inside the Libyan embassy, trying to renew an expired passport he had obtained on account of his dad’s citizenship. Again, he was told his application would take a few weeks to process.

Is this the moment his plot began to take shape? If he had been able to leave the country, would Cpl. Cirillo still be alive?

Related: An oral history of Oct. 22

On Oct. 4, Zehaf-Bibeau took a tour of Parliament Hill; he blended in with the rest of the guests, doing nothing to rouse suspicion. Two weeks later, he paid $650 in cash for that used Corolla—then drove 150 km to an aunt’s home in Mont Tremblant, Que. He hadn’t seen his relative in more than a decade. They ate dinner together and reminisced, and he spent the night.

Early the next morning, Oct. 22, he left the house with a large knife—a blade that was later found on his corpse, tied to his wrist. Other witnesses, according to Paulson, saw him place a long rifle in his trunk: a .30-.30 Winchester. To this day, the RCMP still don’t know, or aren’t saying, where he acquired the weapon.

As he steered the Corolla back toward Ottawa, Zehaf-Bibeau was sober and alert; as toxicology tests later confirmed, there were no drugs or alcohol in his system.

He pulled into a parking lot near Metcalfe Street, just around the corner from the city’s police headquarters.

He pressed record.