When Cpl. Nathan Cirillo arrived in Ottawa for the best assignment of his young life, the man who would shoot him to death had already been in the capital for nearly two weeks.
Cirillo was a bear of a man, six feet tall, 250 lb., with almost no body fat. He used to be a formidable bouncer at Club Absinthe, a boisterous Hamilton bar near the regimental headquarters of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada in the southern Ontario city. Only his “humongous smile” softened the impression he made, said Richard Booker, the club’s head of security, in an interview.
But Cirillo quit his night job at Absinthe because he wanted to be a full-time soldier. He was ecstatic when he was selected, along with his friend Branden Stevenson, to spend a month standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. “We sent our two top soldiers,” the Argylls commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Lawrence Hatfield, said.
The War Memorial assignment is security dressed up as ceremony. In 2006 three drunkards peed on the monument on Canada Day. Their photographs wound up on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen. The next summer the daily honour guard began, designed to shame carousers and skateboarders away from Ottawa’s most solemn monument. The two soldiers standing guard can do little more: their weapons have no firing pins or ammunition. They face the wide plaza south of the statue, their backs to Wellington Street.
So Cirillo would not have seen the non-descript four-door Toyota with no licence plates that pulled up behind him in Wellington’s eastbound lane, nor the tall man with long black hair and a scarf who emerged. This was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a 32-year-old with a long record of criminal charges and much more recent experience as a convert to some kind of notion of Islam. He had been in Ottawa barely longer than Cirillo—since perhaps Oct. 2—and living at the Ottawa Mission on Waller Street, four minutes drive from the War Memorial, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson would tell reporters later. Zehaf-Bibeau was carrying a 30-30 Winchester lever-action rifle. A light weapon whose simple design is more than a century old, the 30-30 is familiar from generations of cowboy movies and usually used today for hunting small game. It requires its user to cock a lever manually after each shot to eject spent cartridges. Zehaf-Bibeau would not be able to maintain a high rate of fire.
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At first he wouldn’t need it. He sprinted around the statue’s west side and emerged in the open plaza, by Stevenson and Cirillo. Neither had any functioning weapon with which to respond. Zehaf-Bibeau selected Cirillo, standing to his right as he faced the statue, and fired a small number of rounds at a range of only a few metres. A witness watching the macabre spectacle from a third-floor office across Elgin Street said that as Cirillo fell, Zehaf-Bibeau brandished his gun overhead and shouted.
Stevenson and several bystanders rushed to help the fallen soldier. The assailant ran back to his Toyota, reversed it onto Elgin Street a few metres behind him, then shifted into drive and crossed Wellington to begin the next phase of his assault.
What followed, documented outside the Centre Block by Parliament Hill security cameras and inside by the telephone camera of Globe and Mail reporter Josh Wingrove, was terrifying. It’s impossible to know how thoroughly Zehaf-Bibeau had planned his operation, but he knew this much: automobiles have only one point of access to the Parliament Hill precinct, a heavily guarded checkpoint that cannot be traversed without a wait. So his plan was to dump his own car on the street outside the East Block gate, commandeer another that had already gone through security, and be upon the front door in moments.
Pedestrians scrambled as he ran into the paved laneway next to the East Block, forced the driver of junior cabinet minister Michelle Rempel’s staff car out of the vehicle at gunpoint, and sped up to the Centre Block’s front door. An RCMP vehicle was right behind him. Another turned around hard to join the chase.
Ditching his second car a few metres from the Centre Block’s main doors, Zehaf-Bibeau now benefited from a design oversight in the building’s security defences. In 2012, Hill security was reviewed by Public Works, representatives of the House and Senate speakers, of MPs and senators, and other government departments. After previous incidents when an unauthorized bus and car were driven onto the Hill, the core concern was to keep cars from speeding up on the grounds around Parliament, according to Michelle Austin, a former ministerial staffer who attended the talks.
The main solution wasn’t complicated: more “bollards,” the retractable black metal poles stuck in the pavement at intersections and entry points on the Hill. “It was supposed to be super-pedestrian-accessible, super-not-accessible for cars. That finished just last year,” Austin said. “It was an attempt to balance protection with accessibility. The thought was . . . the threat would be vehicular, not somebody on foot.” So when Zehaf-Bibeau pulled open the Centre Block door, there was only very light security inside to stop him.
But the grim luck that had given Zehaf-Bibeau an exposed and unarmed military target minutes earlier was already running out. His timing was bad. At a few minutes before 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, every member of Parliament is attending weekly caucus meetings. The two largest, Conservative and New Democrat, were gathered in ornate committee rooms through heavy wooden doors on either side of Zehaf-Bibeau as he ran along the Hall of Honour toward the Library of Parliament.
The Conservative caucus had the Reading Room, to the left of the Hall of Honour. Their meeting had begun at 9:30 a.m. The Prime Minister was speaking when the first sounds of gunfire rang out. Conservative MP David Wilks, a 20-year veteran of the RCMP, hit the floor, just as he had been taught to do. His next thought was to secure the room. He and other MPs piled chairs up in front of the doors.
“We had piled enough chairs there that it would have taken a person some time to get through there and in that time, with a couple of us strategically placed, you could probably deal with that person,” Wilks said later. Some MPs grabbed flagpoles and prepared to use them as weapons in case any attacker got through. Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, a quadriplegic, argued with his caregiver: he insisted she should run if need be, she said she would stay with him. Some effort was made by MPs to protect the Prime Minister—it would emerge that the Prime Minister had been hidden in a closet-like space. “The caucus was ready to rumble if somebody came in,” says Fletcher.
Questions remain about the pivotal next few moments, though the riveting video footage tells part of the story. In the Hallway of Honour, a cool, quiet, subtly lit corridor where footfalls echo off the light-grey Tyndal limestone, roughly a dozen RCMP and House security officers pursued Zehaf-Bibeau to the library doors. A single loud gunshot echoed through the halls—presumably fired by the attacker—followed by 30 or so pops in rapid succession. Bullets pierced the ornate caucus room doors and shattered stonework. Which particular shot killed the attacker isn’t known: Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, who was widely credited with taking down Zehaf-Bibeau, was at the front of the gun battle, as were several RCMP officers. All told, from the moment Zehaf-Bibeau cut down Cirillo to when Zehaf-Bibeau fell to the ground dead, seven terrorizing minutes had passed.
Even though we now know the threat ended with Zehaf-Bibeau’s death, neither security officials, nor the citizens of the nation’s capital, could know that at the time. And for several more anxious hours, a lockdown zone that originally centred on the Hill was gradually expanded to include the downtown core, paralyzing the city. Unsure whether other attackers were still on the loose, police helicopters were deployed to scour downtown rooftops in search of more gunmen.
But back inside Centre Block, where groups of MPs were huddled in caucus rooms, private offices and the cafeteria, word had begun to slowly filter through the building. About 15 to 20 minutes after the volley of shots had ended, Vickers entered the Conservative caucus room with an announcement:
Zehaf-Bibeau was dead. The immediate danger, at least, had passed.
Attempting to fit the stunning attack on Parliament Hill into any kind of context is a challenge, but a few things are clear. This was the second murder of a member of the Canadian Forces on Canadian soil in three days. Each time the victim appeared to be chosen at random. On Monday in St.-Jean-sur-Richelieu, a car ran over and killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, injuring another soldier who was walking with Vincent. Martin Couture-Rouleau, 25, emerged from the car, attacked police with a knife as they arrived at the scene, and was shot to death. Second, both Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau were recent converts to a perverted and radical strain of Islam. In each case the conversion happened late in their short and troubled lives. Both men grew up on the outskirts of Montreal. Both were, to some extent, estranged from their families, prone to substance abuse—alcohol in Couture-Rouleau’s case, harder drugs, including crack cocaine, for Zehaf-Bibeau—and increasingly mistrusted by shrinking circles of friends.
Couture-Rouleau had let his small pressure-washing business founder. He was well-known to police. His passport was revoked after he attempted to travel to Turkey this summer. Police arrested him at the time, later releasing him because they could charge him with no crime. He was on an RCMP list of 90 Canadians who had either travelled overseas to commit terrorist acts or who intended to. The RCMP regularly visited his mosque in St.-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
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Zehaf-Bibeau was, if anything, even more of a loner. At the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, he was in and out of Vancouver-area courts for a series of offences he had, by all the evidence, committed precisely so somebody would jail him.
On Dec. 15, 2011, according to the Vancouver Sun, he went to the Burnaby RCMP detachment and announced he had committed an armed robbery 10 years earlier in Quebec. The constable on duty could find no record of the crime, refused to arrest him for it, and took Zehaf-Bibeau to Burnaby Hospital, where staff could not find evidence of mental illness. He was driven to a Vancouver detox centre, which refused him because he wasn’t drunk or high. Soon after, he tried to hold up a McDonald’s restaurant with a pointed stick. When the bored cashier shooed him away, he waited on the sidewalk outside for police to arrive. His duty counsel, Brian Anderson, said he had come west from Montreal for “a fresh start.” It really didn’t work. He was a fixture in Vancouver’s drug-ridden Downtown East Side, where he smoked large quantities of crack cocaine. If Vancouver wouldn’t help him elude his demons, jail might.
Zehaf-Bibeau told a judge: “I wanted to come to jail so I could clean up” and added that he had warned police, “ ‘If you can’t keep me in, I’m going to do something right now just to be put in’ . . . so I went to do another robbery, just so I could come to jail.”
Long-distance moves and major lifestyle changes are familiar to addicts, who call such behaviour a “geographical cure.” The idea is that if you move far enough away from the rut you’re in, you can shake your addiction.
It almost never works. His next such attempt was to move to Syria. But he couldn’t obtain a passport. RCMP Commissioner Paulson said Zehaf-Bibeau moved to Ottawa at the beginning of October to try to sort out his passport woes.
In one of the most extraordinary moments of a long and detailed Ottawa news conference on Thursday, Paulson speculated that his failure to get a passport might have motivated Zehaf-Bibeau to choose murderous violence closer to home. “I think the passport figured prominently in his motives,” Paulson told reporters. “You know, I’m not inside his head, but I think it was central to what was driving him. However, we have not come to ground completely on his motivations for this attack. But clearly it’s linked to his radicalization, clearly it’s linked to his difficult circumstances.”
Why Syria? Foreign Minister John Baird told the BBC on Friday that Canadian authorities “don’t have any evidence” to link Zehaf-Bibeau to Islamic State, which is simultaneously threatening the governments of Iraq and Syria with its brutal attacks. But if, in his desperation, Zehaf-Bibeau was trying to get to Syria to form the links he couldn’t forge from Vancouver, he would have had plenty of company.
“It’s obviously something that many countries around the world are confronting right now,” said David H. Ucko, an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, at the National Defence University in Washington, in an interview. “The whole ideology underpinning Islamic State has become something of a zeitgeist of rebellion, much like Marxist-Leninism might have been during the 1960s and early 1970s.
“So you have individuals in several societies, who in their efforts to either struggle against a society or give some sort of ideological expression to their own grievances will pick up on this ideology as a vehicle of dissent.”
In Canada, the debate over why people join terrorist groups has become hotly politicized, thanks to remarks Justin Trudeau made about the Boston Marathon bombing the day after he became the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 2013.
“Now, we don’t know now if it was terrorism or a single crazy or a domestic issue or a foreign issue,” Trudeau told the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge then. “But there is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with a society. And our approach has to be, where do those tensions come from?’
“Yes, there’s a need for security and response,” Trudeau added. “But we also need to make sure that as we go forward, that we don’t emphasize a culture of fear and mistrust. Because that ends up marginalizing even further those who already are feeling like they are enemies of society.”
Harper responded a day later as he left the funeral for former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in London. “When you see this kind of action, when you see this kind of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure out its root causes,” Harper told reporters. “You condemn it categorically and to the extent that you can deal with the perpetrators you deal with them as harshly as possible and that is what this government would do if it ever was faced with such actions.”
The gap between Trudeau’s interpretation of terrorism and the Conservatives’ is one of the issues at the heart of an endless and bitter partisan confrontation. “The root cause of terrorism is terrorists,” Pierre Poilievre, the minister of state for democratic reform, likes to say with finality. But among people who work full-time to ensure a world with fewer terrorists, sociology has a way of creeping into discussion and action.
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The RCMP’s Paulson was proud of police bravery in reacting to the gunman’s charge onto Parliament Hill. But the behind-the-scenes work of the Mounties isn’t about shooting down killers, it’s about grappling with the problem of radicalization among troubled young men. It’s psychology more than law enforcement. In the case of Couture-Rouleau, the RCMP was engaged in a bid to deradicalize him. Supt. Martine Fontaine, the top Mountie on national security issues in Quebec, revealed not only that Couture-Rouleau’s passport was seized in July when he tried fly to Turkey, but that the RCMP later met with his family and the imam of his mosque to talk about reforming him. According to Fontaine, Couture-Rouleau gave police the impression, in a meeting as late as Oct. 9, that he wanted to change his life.
A sign of the RCMP’s internal struggle over how far to go with de-radicalization efforts was its partnering with Islamic groups to write a booklet called “United Against Terrorism,” meant to help Muslim community leaders cope with extremist influences. The Mounties helped write a chapter entitled “Understanding radicalization and the role of RCMP in law enforcement and national security,” and the federal force’s logo even appears on the cover. But at the last minute the RCMP withdrew from the launch of the document in Winnipeg late last month. “After a final review of the handbook, the RCMP could not support the adversarial tone set by elements of the booklet and therefore directed RCMP Manitoba not to proceed with this initiative,” RCMP headquarters said in a news release. Exactly what part of the book the top Mounties found “adversarial” wasn’t explained. Muslim leaders involved in the project said they were perplexed.
“Many states have not done a good job finding a way for people of different creeds and colour and religion to live side by side,” said Ucko, the security affairs professor, who was careful to add that he believes this ostracism is less prevalent in Canada. “There are individuals, perhaps in their youth, who feel like they don’t belong to the state they are in fact situated.”
“If they furthermore feel like they are being victimized by that state, then Islamic State can in fact, despite its brutality, appear as a very suitable and attractive alternative source of authority and legitimacy. There are countless cases of individuals who are drawn to this ideology because [it is] feared and hated—because in a sense, being feared and hated connotes a certain level of respect, whereas being a second-class citizen is not.”
The number of recruits to Islamic State and other radical groups from abroad may not be countless, but it is large and growing fast. Last December, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), a London think tank, estimated that 11,000 individuals from 74 countries had become opposition fighters in Syria. Most were from the Middle East and North Africa. But the number of Western Europeans in the estimate had tripled in eight months, from as many as 600 to perhaps 1,900. And ICSR estimated that anywhere from nine to 100 Canadians could be fighting with Islamic State in Syria.
“The current mobilization is more significant than every other instance of foreign fighter mobilization since the Afghanistan war in the 1980s,” the ICSR report said.
Cases of newly radicalized, and in many cases newly converted, Canadians moving to the Middle East to join in a jihad have received substantial coverage in recent months. The most prominent was the case of Damian Clairmont from Calgary, who died nearly a year ago in Syria at 22. A Roman Catholic who struggled with depression and had been arrested on drug offences, Clairmont was one of a small number of Calgarians who went to Syria together to fight with radical groups. A month before Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot Nathan Cirillo, Islamic State sought to increase this mobilization—and to export its murderous effects outside the Middle East. An online video attributed to Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani urged supporters “in Europe, America, Australia and Canada” to fight back against the U.S.-led coalition of countries sending military assets to Syria. “Do not let this battle pass you by wherever you may be,” the video said. “You must strike the soldiers, patrons and troops . . .
“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, 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.”
Some seem to be answering the call. In late September, Numan Haider, 18, stabbed two police officers in Melbourne, Australia, before he was killed with a single shot to the head. He had asked to meet police to discuss his recently cancelled Australian passport. Two weeks before that, Australian police arrested 15 people in what they believe was a coordinated plot to randomly behead civilians in Brisbane and Sydney. The operation involved 800 federal and state police officers in what was billed as the largest counterterrorism operation in Australian history.
The scale of that operation was echoed in Ottawa when Paulson said he was moving hundreds of RCMP officers off routine files to handle counterterrorism operations. This sort of massive reaction is common to “asymmetrical warfare,” a military term for the wide array of techniques by which small, ill-equipped assailants can destabilize far larger and more prosperous opponents. The most often cited recent case is the al-Qaeda-trained pilots who used box cutters to commandeer four passenger jets and, in three cases, fly them into buildings on Sept. 11, 2001.
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But if anything, Islamic State and its bedraggled and isolated sympathizers around the world are even more asymmetrical in the contrast between their small-scale attacks and the widespread panic they provoke.
The mass al-Qaeda murders of a decade ago—9/11, the 2004 bombing at Atocha train station in Madrid, and the 2005 bus and subway bombings in London—were elaborate, technically complex operations involving several terrorists working in close co-operation for months. But over time, the people who could carry out that kind of operation killed themselves along with their victims. Or they were killed or captured by Western authorities. Or they had a succession of other plans stymied by intelligence agencies and police forces, using enhanced surveillance capabilities made possible by new anti-terrorism laws.
In the end, the heirs to al-Qaeda have given up on ornate schemes to kill massive numbers of victims simultaneously. They have opted for the kind of mayhem isolated killers can wreak by themselves with little preparation.
“I think Osama bin Laden, for better and worse, had a sense of aesthetics behind his attacks,” Ucko said. That’s changed. “So for example, Inspire, the English-language magazine that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula produces, directly guides its readers to make bombs out of materials in their mothers’ kitchens.
“Obviously what they’re vying for then is a plethora of small-scale attacks, a bottom-up mobilization, that won’t kill on the same level as 9/11, clearly. But they will incite a certain sense of siege mentality and terror in certain societies that don’t have the resiliency to deal with these issues.”
Attacks like the ones launched by Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau pose two kinds of danger, then. The first is direct: it is far easier to gun a car engine and run a man down, or to attack an unarmed soldier from the rear, than it once was to keep four commando teams coordinated across several cities. So easy that quite literally any addled and desperate loser can do it, even without actually belonging to an organized group.
That means it is impossible to rule out the possibility of attacks similar to these two, without warning, almost anywhere. It’s a frightening thought.
The second danger is an indirect result of that fear. It is that more of Canadian society’s marginalized will be feared, and that more of Canadian society will be on perpetual lockdown.
One common gut reaction on the day of the shootings was that Canada needs to tighten security on Parliament Hill and toughen policing of extremists. But almost as common was an instinctive trepidation about possible overreaction. Liberal MP John McKay was on his way into the Centre Block when he heard shots and security guards tell him to put his coat back on and get out. He says he was ushered out behind the historic Library of Parliament, where he says a construction worker coolly suggested that people gathering there should get behind one of the monuments on the Parliament grounds, overlooking the Ottawa River, in case they needed protection from shots fired inside the building. Police later moved them off the Hill entirely. Within minutes, McKay was talking with reporters.
“As I’m wondering down here, I’m thinking, boy, this changes a lot of things,” he said. “I hope we don’t yield to paranoia.” As a 17-year veteran MP, he said he has a strong attachment to the Hill’s tradition of a light security presence. “What that means is a reasonable access by the people of Canada to their elected legislators,” McKay said. “And I think that’s a good thing, I think that’s a tremendous value. I don’t want it to turn into the situation they have in [the U.S.] Congress, for example, where it’s a virtual armed camp.”
—With John Geddes, Aaron Wherry, Nick Taylor-Vaisey, Brett Popplewell and Dan Robson