OTTAWA - Justin Bourque was not a terrorist, but he terrorized.
The 24-year-old murdered three RCMP officers and wounded two others in an attack on Canada’s east coast this summer.
Described as depressed, emotionally and financially unstable, Bourque sparked a manhunt before he was finally caught, shutting down the city of Moncton, N.B., for 30 hours. Bourque was later deemed mentally fit to stand trial and pleaded guilty.
On Monday, he will be in court again to hear the victim impact statements from the injured and relatives of the dead.
By definition, Bourque was a “lone wolf,” someone who acted without outside influence, driven by personal impulses still not understood. Bourque’s father said his son sounded paranoid during their last conversation. “It was as if another person was speaking,” Victor Bourque told the court.
There are similarities between Bourque and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the 32-year-old who terrorized the nation’s capital on Wednesday.
Both men were angry. Both were battling inner demons, although Zehaf-Bibeau, who was estranged from his parents, had a much longer history: problems with drugs, alcohol and petty crime, struggling with mental health issues.
But the implications of Zehaf-Bibeau killing a soldier and striking the heart of the country’s capital with Ottawa’s involvement in the war against the so-called Islamic State group in Syria, are far reaching.
In the shock, grief and burst of patriotism that follows such acts, there have been calls for new terror laws, greater police powers, tighter security and headlines that read: “Canada Under Attack.”
This fear of Canada under siege by “homegrown terrorists” was only heightened by the fact that Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Parliament after he fatally shot 24-year-old Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial just two days after Martin Couture-Rouleau killed a Canadian soldier in a hit-and-run in Quebec.
Couture-Rouleau, too, was a lone wolf, and roughly fits the profile of what security services have warned in recent years will be the next wave of terrorists.
The threat has increased recently with a combustible mix: the rise of ISIS and the West’s failure to stop the slaughter of President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.
ISIS is adept at online propaganda, speaking to disenfranchised young people, offering a sense of belonging and direction to those who have neither. Canada’s prominent military role in fighting ISIS and strong war rhetoric from Ottawa has helped bring home what many Canadians likely regarded as a distant war.
Last month, an ISIS spokesperson issued a rambling 42-minute speech calling for attacks wherever, whenever, if adherents of the group could not travel abroad: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian . . . kill him in any manner or way however it may be,” he said.
There is no evidence to show the attacks this week were inspired by these words, but both men were hoping to go to Syria, and frustrated by their difficulty in travelling.
Couture-Rouleau, who had waited in a parking lot for at least two hours Monday before he drove his car into two soldiers, killing 53-year-old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, had had his passport seized when he tried to fly to Syria, via Turkey earlier this year. The RCMP had already designated him a “high-risk traveller.”
Zehaf-Bibeau was delayed in getting a passport due to security questions regarding his criminal history, which, according to those who last spoke to him, was a source of great angst.
But while ISIS has undoubtedly increased the stakes, lone wolf terrorism is not new.
“The study of terrorism is a speculative endeavour at best, with cultural and personal biases potentially affecting explanations as to why individuals or groups may resort to violence against a wide range of targets,” writes Jeffrey D. Simon in his book, The Growing Threat of Lone Wolf Terrorism.
Simon says the most important aspect to the lone wolf terrorism phenomenon is the Internet, which allows people to become “infatuated with extremist ideologies.”
Before Anders Behring Breivik bombed downtown Oslo on July 20, 2011, and then systematically gunned down 62 teenagers and young adults at a summer camp for Norway’s Labour Party, the 32-year-old Norwegian posted a 1,500-page manifesto online calling for an end to “the Islamic colonization and Islamisation of Western Europe.”
Norway’s dignified and measured response in the immediate wake of such a horrific terrorist attack is often held up as the model of how a country should deal with national tragedy.
Canada’s time has come — the next few weeks and months will reveal how we cope.
Based on the facts known to date, it is unclear if new security laws or more resources may have not have stopped men like Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau, any more than they could have stopped Bourque.
“As my colleague in Quebec said, even if we had surveillance on Rouleau, in the parking lot, we probably would not have been in a position to have stopped his attack on those soldiers. That’s the kind of threat we’re having to deal with,” RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told a press conference Thursday.
As for Zehaf-Bibeau, Paulson said: “We didn’t know that this individual was in Ottawa, had that intention and of course had we known that we all would have acted on that in defense.”
But in echoing comments made earlier by the head of the Canadian Security Service Intelligence Service, Paulson also stated that the security services were overwhelmed.
And in this sense, some have suggested that the examination of what went wrong should extend beyond looking to the actions of inactions of the RCMP, CSIS or Canada’s Muslims communities, which have widely denounced the acts.
“In many cases the kind of person who becomes radicalized and tries to pull off a lone wolf terror attack would, in the absence of becoming radicalized, commit some other violent crime,” says David Welch, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and chair of Global Security. “The problem is not Muslim radicalization so much as maladjusted males.”
Welch said many who turn to the Internet and are “self-radicalized” are detected and intercepted. But there will always be the elusive lone wolf and he said that problem must be kept in perspective.
“Such people will never bring down the state or succeed in doing more than inflicting local, limited damage,” he said. “That is not to belittle the tragedy of the death or injury of their innocent victims, but the tragedies here are personal, not national, and we need to keep that in fact in view.”