The scary reality of terrorism in Canada

It took luck and a tip from the FBI to stop Aaron Driver. The peace bond restriction on him was, in the end, just a piece a paper.

Video footage showing Aaron Driver is seen behind RCMP Deputy Commissioner Mike Cabana (left) and Assistant Commissioner Jennifer Strachan during a press conference for what the RCMP are calling a terrorism incident, in Strathroy, Ontario yesterday, on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Video footage showing Aaron Driver is seen behind RCMP Deputy Commissioner Mike Cabana (left) and Assistant Commissioner Jennifer Strachan during a press conference for what the RCMP are calling a terrorism incident, in Strathroy, Ontario yesterday, on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The phone rang at 8:30 Wednesday morning—and from that moment, the clock started ticking. “A race against time,” to borrow the words of RCMP Deputy Commissioner Mike Cabana.

On the other end of the line was an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, calling to warn the Mounties about a chilling discovery: in a dark corner of the Internet (exactly where has yet to be disclosed), the FBI stumbled upon an ISIS-inspired martyrdom video, starring a mystery man wearing a black balaclava. The would-be terrorist was planning an “imminent” attack, the agent said, location unknown.

“Oh Canada, you received many warnings,” says the masked man, his camera rolling. “You were told many times what will become of those who fight against the Islamic State…There is a fire burning in the chest of every Muslim, and this fire can be cooled only by the spilling of your blood.” He finishes his two-minute rant by pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, who “has called for jihad in the lands of the crusaders.”

“I’m responding to this call,” the man says.

Over the next two hours, the RCMP and CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, pored over hundreds of photos in their investigative files, scrambling to figure out the man’s identity—and where he might be. By 11:00 a.m., authorities were fairly certain they’d found their match: Aaron Driver, 24, a Saskatchewan-born Muslim convert who was anything but a stranger to Canada’s national security apparatus.

Many people did not die on Wednesday because police and spies did their jobs in rapid time, swooping in to prevent a catastrophe. Driver, it turned out, was on the verge of attempting mass murder, and when he called for a taxi at 4:00 p.m.—explosives in tow—heavily armed officers were camped outside his house, ready to take him down. “Some amazing work went on,” said RCMP Assistant Commissioner Jennifer Strachan. “The fact that a call happened at 8:30 in the morning, and by 11:00 we feel we had someone identified and we were moving on it, to me is incredible. The sure fact was: if he had gotten out of that residence before we got there, the scenario would have ended a lot of differently.”

Of course, it also would have ended a lot differently if Aaron Driver hadn’t been arrogant and careless, posting his videotaped pledge in advance of his planned attack. Or if the FBI had never noticed the video in the first place, prompting that life-saving tip. Dogged police work saved the day, no doubt, but so did a good bit of luck.

“Let’s look at this from the positive side and the not-so-positive side,” says Phil Gurski, a former intelligence analyst at CSIS, and the author of The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-Inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West. “The positive side is that the FBI is an amazing partner of the RCMP and CSIS; it is an excellent relationship and there are constant exchanges of intelligence. But I can only imagine that in the highest echelons of CSIS and the RCMP, there is a lot of soul searching: ‘OK, we’ve done good. But what did we miss—and how can we ensure we don’t miss it next time?’ ”

Like the video, for example. It’s now clear that no official on the Canadian side of the border had any idea that Driver—an Islamist extremist well-known to police, arrested last year on suspicion of terrorism, and living under a court-ordered peace bond in small-town Strathroy, Ont., where he was forbidden (theoretically) from possessing explosives or using the Internet—had filmed his final words and was poised to target innocent civilians. At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Deputy Commissioner Cabana was asked the obvious question: Why did it take a tip from the FBI to stop a would-be terrorist in Canada, and what does that say about our country’s ability to combat terrorism?

“It goes both ways,” he replied. “Sometimes we share information with the Americans that allows them to take action with respect to some of their targets, some of their investigations; sometimes they share information with us that allows us to take action, as was the case [Wednesday]. So I don’t think it says anything about the abilities of the Canadian security agencies.”

He is right. Every day, both nations share valuable, sensitive intelligence, and although most exchanges never make headlines, it’s safe to assume the FBI has thanked the Mounties more than once for a timely tip. Still, the bigger issue remains: regardless of who found the video, it led Canadian authorities straight to a man who was already on their radar—a self-admitted ISIS sympathizer who posed enough of a potential threat that he was slapped with parole-like conditions aimed at keeping him contained. How, then, did he come so close to killing so many? Was nobody watching this guy?

Like so much else in the murky world of anti-terrorism, the answer is hardly simple. Bottom line: Aaron Driver was one of many, many suspects known to CSIS and the RCMP, and monitoring each one, full-time, is wishful thinking, even if they are bound by the restrictions of a peace bond. “If the suggestion is that Mr. Driver was under constant surveillance, I can tell you that was not the case,” Cabana told reporters. “Mr. Driver was one individual among others that have potentially criminal intentions, and our ability to monitor people 24 hours a day and seven days a week simply does not exist. We can’t do that.”

The only surefire way to thwart a terrorist attack is to jail said terrorist, but criminal charges require a high threshold of proof that is extremely difficult to meet (beyond a reasonable doubt). The Criminal Code does allow for temporary “preventive detention” in urgent circumstances, but it’s not clear whether police have ever exercised that power. The other alternative (though definitely not foolproof) is a peace bond, like the one Driver was supposed to follow.

Used increasingly in anti-terror cases (nearly 20, at last count), peace bonds allow police to impose strict living conditions on a suspect without having to meet a high burden of proof. Authorities must simply convince a judge that they have reasonable grounds to believe a person may commit a terrorist offence, and if the court agrees, it will impose bail-like conditions on the target before setting him free.

In Driver’s case, there was plenty of evidence to warrant such a bond: Twitter posts praising ISIS atrocities. Frequent online contact with other well-known extremists. A recipe for homemade bombs stored on his hard drive. Speaking to the Toronto Star in early 2015 (under his pseudonym, Harun Abdurahman), Driver justified the October 2014 terrorist attacks that killed one soldier near Parliament Hill and another in the parking lot of a Quebec mall. “They weren’t attacks on civilians or attacks on women and children,” he said. “They were attacks on uniformed soldiers and members of the government.”

Arrested in June 2015, his original bond dictated that he wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and attend religious counselling. But his lawyer filed a constitutional challenge—and won—convincing a judge that Driver should not be forced to undergo such counselling. In February, a new peace bond was issued; Driver was no longer required to wear the monitoring device, but he had to keep the peace, stay off social media, avoid firearms and explosives, and refrain from speaking to anyone with links to Islamic State. Living with his sister in Strathroy, he also had to report to police twice a month.

In hindsight, those stipulations were nothing more than a piece of paper. The peace bond did not stop Driver from going online, getting in touch with ISIS associates, and acquiring explosives. “We have to ask ourselves a very serious question: Are peace bonds a sufficient tool to deal with terrorism?” Gurski says. “What does this mean for the other guys on peace bonds? Are they going to reassess those? We did a good job this time, but what if he’d gone through? What if he’d been successful?”

Here’s another difficult question: Realistically, what more could authorities have done? Driver’s behaviour was alarming enough to pursue that peace bond, but until he donned his black balaclava and pressed record, his behaviour never ventured into criminal territory worthy of charges. And with finite resources—and a long list of ever-evolving threats coming to their attention—CSIS and the RCMP can’t give each one the same undivided attention.

Translation: there are other targets out there considered far more dangerous than Aaron Driver.

Anti-terrorism is hardly an exact science, and never will be. Police officers and intelligence analysts are constantly assessing and reassessing what they know, what they don’t know, and what falls in between—and for the most part, Canada’s national-security apparatus has a record worth boasting about. And yes, sometimes even the best can use a little luck.

Ralph Goodale, the Liberal minister of public safety, probably summed it up best during his Thursday news conference: “I want to thank the FBI for their assistance.”



The scary reality of terrorism in Canada

  1. Stop this nonsense

    You’re trying to scare people with half-wit hype…..that is not responsible journalism

    • You want them to stop reporting the news of the day if it doesn’t fit with your worldview? I thought you were interested in root causes. They are reporting on the root cause. You can call it “half-wit hype” if that is what you choose but to not mention it would truly be irresponsible journalism. If reality offends you, don’t read about it.

      • Oh right…..you dismiss each one of these terrorists as “mentally ill.” This article makes it difficult for you to do so and so you try to come up with another way to dismiss it. “Half-wit hype.” Good one.

        • BOO!

          Now go hide in the closet and cower like Harp

          • Alternatively, it is pretty scary because of how close this hits to ‘home’ — and by that I mean that terror reigns in the heart of a young man who was born, and raised, and has people who love him, in Canada.

            The national-security apparatus has done its part through the peace bond. Now, what other parts of our society needs to be strengthened to help vulnerable young minds from succumbing to the terror in their hearts that drives them to live by the bomb (and thus die by the bomb), rather than negotiating through the hassles of finding their place in co-existing with everyone else who are also finding their place?

            Those who live by terror, die by terror — terrorists are the ones who are the most terrified. So it is scary for the rest of us, in the sorrowful sense, and the kind of sorrow that can motivate us to look for the hopeful options to move on together.

    • Suggest you read some UK/European news sites to understand how serious and widespread the problem is. It is so under reported in Canada we have little idea of what’s bound to come to North America in due course. We need more complete, factual reporting not one sided politically correct opinion pieces.

      • Suggest that what SHOULD alarm you is that a young man was killed


        • “…and the proper course of action has been taken to ensure there is no danger to public safety.” RCMP said in a statement.

          Messy but most effective!

          • “In time of war the law falls silent”


        • The cabbie who dove out of the car as he detonated his device feels a little differently than you do EM on the point of “HE HADN’T DONE ANYTHING.” You are so delusional, you won’t believe it when one of these sad little converts blows up a few hundred people at a mall like this one wanted to. Unless of course your grandchildren happen to be among the dead.

          • That’s always the excuse.

    • We have declared war in ISIS – Harpergovermint did it. Did you miss it?

      That’s not important, they’re being knocked-off in thousands and the sex slaves are being released.

      This is about homegrown Canadian terror, Coming off a bad week last week when a couple of pressure cooker bombers walked out scott-free because the ‘little help they got from friends’ was provided by helpful police. Never mind the fact that they were tried under the old legislation and would be doing life sentences if they had been charged under C-51, somebody is going to use Strathroy to want to clamp down even harder and make it easier for police to make a case that will get you locked-up. While we all know its for our own good, police have a vested interest in locking people up. It shows that they’re doing the job. Obviously ‘the job’, in Driver’s case, could have been done better. And we’ve got the excuses already being made to show for it.

      More police, more surveillance, faster response times, tougher courts, harsher sentences, more prisons aren’t going to improve safety a whit. How would any of those things have changed the Driver kid? Somebody – even a cop – taking an interest might. You can’t legislate that.

  2. The RCMP story is that Driver set off a bomb in a car. The result was minimal damage. He was then shot while trying to set off a second device. Presumably the first bomb did not incapacitate him. The photo the RCMP released of the car show minimal damage such as might be caused by a stun grenade (such as police ERTs carry) and certainly not by a bomb intended to cause mass casualties in a mall (where the explosion would be less concentrated).

    Perhaps the first bomb was a tiny one to be used by Driver as a distraction device or maybe it malfunctioned. But given the discrepancies in what actually happened on Parliament Hill and the initial RCMP story we should be leery of taking the RCMP’s word for what happened.

    • Well lucky for us a cab driver was in the car so you can take his word for it.

      • He dove out of the car just as Aaron Driver detonated a device. The fact that Driver wasn’t good at building bombs, doesn’t make him less culpable.

  3. A bit cheesy this story as in the number of holes in it. Let’s start with the court case last year. It says Driver was arrested but it doesn’t mention on what charges. Generally a peace bond represents a fall-back position after a failure to convict, or a minor penalty for a trivial offense. Nothing in the story indicates which (It may have been his internet activities – a ‘mistake’ he says he made that got him noticed) – other than the RCMP recommended the peace bond and that a monitoring device involved. Had there been a conviction, parole – which is far more stringent might have been used, and, possibly, jail time. Those two things didn’t happen. At that time Driver was probably thought to more a flake than a felon. But afterward it seems apparent he knew he was being watched and acted accordingly.

    It says the police spent hours scanning photos looking for a suspect to match the video star – who was wearing a bandanna. In the Ottawa shooting, US resources were used to identify the shooter from a picture of him at the War Memorial and wearing a bandannna. The identification took US authorities less than an hour. Bibeau was not previously known to Canadian police outside BC.

    There is a transfer of information between the US and Canada – one of its ‘Five Eyes’ partners. US authorities are curtailed by law in terms of what can be used and how to surveil US citizens in the USA, Canada has similar privacy laws. But Canadian authorities and others overseas are not bound by US restrictions and Canadian entities can and do regularly monitor US communications. The US reciprocates by monitoring Canadian communications to get around privacy legislation here. Information gathered by such bodies as the one for which Snowden worked is shared. Obviously a US watcher picked up a ‘hit’ when Driver’s Jihad video was uploaded.

    And then there is the sort of surveillance vacuum in which Driver found himself after moving to the London Ontario area. While it’s understandable that the neighbours might not have been informed about him – messing around on the internet, even suspicious messing around, is not a crime. But local police should have known about it. Yesterday’s incident reveals the presence of the local force, as well as the OPP (SWAT unit) and the RCMP. Given the importance of the tip, CSIS was probably involved as well. There have been other radicalization incidents coming out of London and area and, given the size of that city, it is likely that all four bodies have offices, or detachments, there. So who was watching Driver? He was known to have moved in with a sister in Strathroy.

    If there is any lesson to be learned from this, it should be that driving the activity into hiding, or underground is no solution and that some people like Driver can be radicalized by ham-handed security measures. It seems that, whatever neglect of his obvious interests was involved, it may have turned him into a potential killer. It certainly got him killed.

    • Harp did not declare war….only Parliament can do that.

      ISIS is neither a country nor a location……just a few nutbars with old guns.

      Canada has no ‘terrorist movement’

      Now go grab your teddy, and off you go to bed

      • Gee, Justin sent troops to Latvia without every having a vote in parliament. I think you are a little rusty on just who does what. As for for what ISIS has in their arsenal…..you do realize they were selling oil to fund their fight so they have more than a few “old guns” and it is more than few “nut bars”. It is Saddams national guard. They are well trained and they are busy recruiting internationally. One of their most successful terrorist plots was in Nice, where one person killed using a large truck and a gun to mow down people celebrating Bastille Day. They don’t need a “terrorist network”, they have the Internet and stupid people are joining….mostly engineers. As a sociopath with the inability to feel empathy, I imagine this doesn’t concern you but it does concern others. I knew you were delusional but to honestly believe that the RCMP and FBI made up the story of Aaron Driver and planted evidence with a cabbie in attendance. Now, that is a conspiracy theory if I ever heard one. They were monitoring Driver. Driver knew it. He enjoyed the celebrity and they likely knew it was him from tracing his Internet address.

        • Sending troops somewhere is not a declaration of war

          And the GG is our commander-in-chief…not the PM

          Now if you aren’t going to be serious on here….then talk to someone else…your stupidity is just boring

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