Michael Zehaf-Bibeau: ’Just aiming to hit some soldiers’

Video: Zehaf-Bibeau’s recorded manifesto offers the clearest view yet of what motivated the Ottawa shooter
Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, is seen in an undated picture from the Vancouver Police Department released by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police October 25, 2014. Zehaf-Bibeau was shot and killed by security officers in Ottawa on Wednesday after allegedly gunning down 24-year-old Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was standing a ceremonial watch at a monument to Canada’s war dead near Parliament Hill. REUTERS/Vancouver Police Department/Handout (CANADA - Tags: CRIME LAW) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - RTR4BKUD
Undated photo of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau.
Undated photo of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau.

When Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was still alive—standing sentry at the National War Memorial—his would-be killer sat behind the wheel of his Toyota Corolla, speaking into his cell phone camera. Clearly, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau knew he wouldn’t survive the attack to come, and he made sure to leave behind a message from the grave.

“This is in retaliation for Afghanistan and because Harper wants to send his troops to Iraq,” said the 32-year-old Canadian, sporting a short beard and a shaved moustache. “So we are retaliating, the Mujahedin 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 spoke quickly, but his voice was clear and articulate. His brown eyes veered between the camera’s lens and the car’s windshield. “Just aiming to hit some soldiers just to show that you’re not even safe in your own land, and you gotta be careful,” he said. “So, may Allah accept from us.”

“It’s a disgrace you guys have forgotten God and have you let every indecency and things running your land,” Zehaf-Bibeau continued. “We are good people, righteous people, believers of God and believing his law and his Prophets, peace be upon them all. That’s my message to all of you in this, Inshallah, we’ll not cease until you guys decide to be a peaceful country and stay to your own…and stop going to other countries and stop occupying and killing the righteous of us who are trying to bring back religious law in our countries.”

“Thank you,” he concluded.

More than four months after Zehaf-Bibeau terrorized downtown Ottawa—killing an unarmed reservist before storming Parliament Hill and dying in a hail of bullets—RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson finally responded to mounting public pressure to release the gunman’s recorded manifesto (or at least most of it). Though less than a minute long, the footage provides the clearest indication of the shooter’s mindset and motivation on that terrible morning: “retaliation” for Canada’s military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the “indecency” and “disgrace” of the country where he was born and raised.

“The video speaks for itself,” Paulson said, addressing a packed Friday meeting of the House of Commons public safety committee—just steps from the hallway where Zehaf-Bibeau was shot and killed. “It is what it is.”

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” with the intention of intimidating the public or compelling a government “to do or to refrain from doing any act.”) 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. “The active investigation is pursuing those who may have contributed, actively contributed, to his development and his radicalization,” Paulson said. “We are actively investigating individuals who may have contributed to his crimes.”

More than 130 Mounties are assigned to the case, and 400 people have been interviewed. Investigators are still trying to identify some associates who were in contact with Zehaf-Bibeau, either by phone or email, in the days leading up to the attack. “Anyone who aided him, abetted him, counselled him, facilitated his crimes or conspired with him is also in our view a terrorist,” Paulson said. “And where the evidence exists we will charge them with terrorist offences.”

When police first discovered the cell phone recording, Paulson promised to show it to Canadians as soon as possible. A month later, however, he backtracked, saying the RCMP may only disclose a transcript of the footage, not the actual clip. Although he now says the “enormous public interest attached to this case” persuaded him to once again change his mind, he told the committee 18 seconds of the footage—13 at the beginning; five at the end—had to be redacted for “operational reasons” connected to the active investigation. “I can’t tell you how it will affect the investigation because in order to explain that I would have to tell you all about our investigation,” he said. “It’s complicated, so I’m asking you to be patient because it’s going to take time.”

The inference, though, is clear: the RCMP has other potential suspects on its radar, and those 18 seconds could prove critical to a future prosecution.

Born in 1982, the only child of a Canadian mother and a Libyan father, Zehaf-Bibeau was raised in the Montreal suburb of Laval, where he attended private school and appeared a well-adjusted teenager. (“He’ll go far in life,” read his final yearbook inscription.) But after graduation, his life spiraled down a path of hard drugs and petty crime, with convictions ranging from assault to fraud to weapons possession. He eventually disowned his parents and moved to British Columbia, where his final years were a patchwork of contradictions.

In 2007, he was earning hefty paycheques as part of a tunnel construction crew in Squamish, but colleagues from that time say he was already exhibiting hints of radicalization. More than once, he reportedly showed them YouTube videos of Taliban IED attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. By 2010, he was worshiping at Masjid Al-Salaam, a Burnaby mosque where he met another young Muslim named Hasibullah Yusufzai. Last July, three months before Zehaf-Bibeau shot Cpl. Cirillo in the back, the RCMP charged his former acquaintance with travelling overseas for terrorist purposes.

The commissioner did not mention Yusufzai during his committee appearance, but the fugitive’s relationship with the Parliament Hill gunman—whatever it was—is no doubt a key aspect of the ongoing investigation.

Paulson said Friday that Zehaf-Bibeau “became increasingly aligned with terrorist ideology in the last years of his life while living in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and, for a short period, in Alberta.” But he also struggled mightily with an addiction to crack cocaine—and potential mental health problems. By late-2011, broke and homeless, he was so desperate to go to jail and sober up that he staged a robbery at a Vancouver McDonald’s. “I’m a crack addict and, at the same time, I’m a religious person,” he told a judge after his arrest. “I want to sacrifice freedom and good things for a year, maybe, so when I come out I’ll appreciate things in life more and be clean.”

A psychiatrist who examined Zehaf-Bibeau behind bars concluded that “he didn’t suffer from a mental illness.” A second psych assessment uncovered “no features or signs of mental illness.” A third exam, conducted after he served two months in prison, found that he may suffer from an undiagnosed mental disorder, perhaps bipolar. Zehaf-Bibeau himself did not agree with that conclusion, and on the day he was released from prison his lawyer described him as a “perfectly functioning individual.”

Related reading: Mother’s emails offer new glimpse into Oct. 22 rampage 

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 he had any problem, Paulson said, it was with his passport. Zehaf-Bibeau was anxious to leave Canada (he told numerous people, including his mother, that he hoped to move to Libya, his father’s homeland) and in August, he applied for a Canadian passport in Vancouver. Informed that his application needed to be reviewed, he decided to travel to Ottawa in the hopes of ironing out the problem. He hitchhiked to Calgary, then travelled by Greyhound bus the rest of the way; during the journey, he repeatedly told people he met that he was going to Ottawa to get a passport.

He arrived in the city on Oct. 2, and within two hours he was at the Libyan embassy, hoping to renew an expired passport he had previously obtained on account of his dad’s citizenship. Again, he was told it would take a few weeks, at the very least.

Is this the moment when his plot began to take shape? Frustrated by the passport delays—both from the Canadian government, and the Libyan—did Zehaf-Bibeau shift his plans? If he was able to leave the country, would Cpl. Cirillo still be alive?

On Oct. 4, he took a guided tour of Parliament Hill, but did nothing to rouse suspicion. A few days later, he met his mother for lunch, their first meeting in more than five years. A senior executive at the federal Immigration and Refugee Board, she offered him a bed at her Ottawa condo. He declined, preferring to stay at a downtown shelter.

On Oct. 21, Zehaf-Bibeau paid $650 cash for that used Toyota—then drove 150 km to an aunt’s home in Mont-Tremblant, Que. He hadn’t been the house for more than a decade. The two ate dinner and reminisced, and he spent the night.

The next morning, he left his aunt’s house with a large knife—a blade that was later found on his corpse, tied to his wrist.

Another witness, according to Paulson, saw Zehaf-Bibeau place a large rifle in his trunk that morning: a lever-action Winchester. More than four months later, the RCMP still doesn’t know where the weapon came from.

As he steered his Corolla back to Ottawa, Zehaf-Bibeau pulled into a parking lot near Metcalfe Street. He wasn’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol, as toxicology tests later confirmed.

He pulled out his phone and pressed record.

Related reading:

Bearing Witness: An oral history of Oct. 22

Nathan Cirillo’s supervisor speaks out