Information Gap About Zehaf-Bibeau Threatens Security

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 4, 2015

The release of several reports into the attack by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau on Parliament Hill last October reveal some missed opportunities to apprehend the shooter before he entered Parliament. The major lessons that needed to be learned were long available and pre-dated the Zehaf-Bibeau attacks. It took the shock and tragedy of that attack to bring about the long called-for unification of the separate security forces on Parliament Hill and to provide for their leadership under the command of the RCMP. These reforms were announced prior to the release of the reports, taking some air out of them.

Canada suffers from an endemic problem of overweening secrecy that chokes off public debate.

The very narrow focus of the police reports themselves represent a different missed opportunity. We now have a detailed, forensic picture of the actions taken by Zehaf-Bibeau from the moment he took his first shot against Corporal Nathan Cirillo, to the time of Zehaf-Bibeau’s death, less than six minutes later, in a hail of gunfire inside the Centre Block of Parliament. What we don’t have is any broader investigation into the background of the Zehaf-Bibeau attack — nothing about the radicalization of the shooter, about his beliefs and motives, about his preparations for the attack, about security agency knowledge, or lack of knowledge, about him.

Instead we get a single, overwrought conclusion in the study prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police at the request of the RCMP:

“The unfortunate events of October 22, 2014 at the Cenotaph and Parliament Hill are a grim reminder that Canada is ill-prepared to prevent and respond to such attacks.”

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There is nothing in the forensic analysis of the Zehaf-Bibeau attack that can bear the burden of such a sweeping statement, but it smacks of politics and of an ill-considered willingness to add to public anxiety about Canada’s counter-terrorism capabilities.

The RCMP’s own, separate, after-action review was deliberately limited, by whose decision is not clear, to “the protective actions taken by the RCMP in response to the incident;” it explicitly precluded any examination of the national security context, existing threat levels at the time of the attacks, or any “pre-incident” information about the shooter.

This leaves Canadians with a worrying chasm of information about Zehaf-Bibeau’s development as a jihad-inspired terrorist, and any reflection of what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the attack plot. It may well be that confusion lingers about whether Zehaf-Bibeau even deserves the tag of “terrorist.” This became a highly politicized issue immediately following the attacks, with the prime minister’s immediate labeling of Zehaf-Bibeau as a terrorist.

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An even greater chasm exists with regard to the other, and largely forgotten, terrorist attack of October 2014, in which Martin Couture-Rouleau ran down and killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. Where is the inquiry into that attack and the subsequent death of Couture-Rouleau in a confrontation with the Quebec Sûreté? Unlike Zehaf-Bibeau, Couture-Rouleau had been under investigation by the RCMP, had his passport seized and had been prevented from travelling abroad. The RCMP had intervened directly with him and, as they confessed shortly after his attack, had come to a conclusion that he had changed his ways and did not pose an imminent threat. Later media leaks changed the channel on the story to one of an inability of the RCMP to acquire a peace bond against him, a leak that came suspiciously close to the government’s tabling of Bill C-51, the new anti-terrorism act, which included lowered thresholds for the issuance of peace bonds.

As a recent meeting of the Senate Liberal “Open Caucus” heard from several witnesses, including me, Canada suffers from an endemic problem of overweening secrecy that chokes off public debate. That problem has raised its head once more in the failure to constitute a proper public study of the attacks of October 2014. We need only look at how the Australians responded to their Sydney terror siege in December 2014, with an Australian government review issued in February 2015 and an on-going coroner’s inquiry that is expected to extend into 2016, to know that the balance between secrecy and public knowledge is out of kilter here.

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