Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s parents live in a townhouse in a north end Montreal suburb. Martin Couture-Rouleau’s father lived in a similar cookie-cutter bungalow in the Montreal exurb of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. The two men were Muslims, responsible for the death of two Canadian soldiers in as many days. Both had earlier scrapes with the law—drunk driving in both cases, amongst other infractions—that spoke to their propensity for boozy transgression before their apparent conversion to a puritanical strain of Islam. Both had drifted away from family and loved ones for long periods in the lead up to their last violent acts.
There is no indication that Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau knew each other. Yet Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, and 25-year-old Couture-Rouleau, who struck and killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent not 24 hours before Zehaf-Bibeau went on his rampage in Canada’s Parliament, share several similarities. It suggests Islamic State’s campaign to compel believers to commit what might be called “micro-terrorism” is successfully targeting one specific demographic. And it shows how this sort of terrorism—undertaken by lone individuals with little beyond their own bodies as weapons—is incredibly hard to predict and even more difficult to prevent.
First, here is what we know so far about Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. According to a joint letter written by his parents, Bulgasem Zehaf and Susan Bibeau, to the Associated Press, Zehaf-Bibeau had only recently reconnected with his parents after a prolonged silence. “You say that our son was vulnerable [but] we were unaware of this, [he] was lost and didn’t fit into a mould. Me, his mother, spoke to him last week during a dinner,” she writes, the same week as Zehaf-Bibeau’s 32nd birthday. “I hadn’t seen him for five years before this.”
His teenage years were apparently the picture of middle-class conformity. He grew up in the Montreal suburb of Laval and attended Collège Laval, a private high school, for his ninth grade. La Presse quotes his classmates remembering him as a funny and likeable fellow. He was “in the pot smokers’ gang not the jock gang,” said one. “He smoked pot at the time, and even took acid,” said another.
Susan Bibeau is Franco-Manitoban by birth. She serves as a senior official with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, and is an expert on immigration law. Until 2004, Libyan-born Bulgasem Zehaf owned a café on Crescent Street, one of the city’s prime drinking strips (think Bourbon Street without the beads, and with plenty of spray tans). Meanwhile, according to court documents, his son racked up several charges between 2001 and 2006, including drunk driving, drug possession, and aggravated robbery. In 2012, while in Vancouver, he was given a two-month sentence for uttering threats.
By 2011, Zehaf-Bibeau had moved to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, where he worshipped at a Burnaby mosque, Masjid al-Salaam. There he met fellow worshipper David Bathurst, who operates an irrigation and landscaping business with his father, John. The Bathursts hired Zehaf-Bibeau that summer, but he lasted only two days on the job.
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“We feel awful,” says John Bathurst, whose phone has not stopped ringing since news broke about his company’s small connection to the Parliament Hill gunman. “I feel awful that some guy I was probably on a job site with did this to a soldier—and to Canada, because this is an assault on Canada.”
Daud Ismail, the chairperson of al-Salaam, broke into tears when told that the man who attacked the nation’s capital once prayed at his mosque. “All I can say to the Canadian public is I’m bleeding in my heart,” he said, his voice cracking.
“It’s sad. I feel for the families of the people performing their duties, and in the line of duty they face criminals like this. I want to assure the Canadian public, as far as our mosque is concerned, we have zero tolerance. Police should go after people like this and they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
David Bathurst hadn’t seen Zehaf-Bibeau in more than two years when he bumped into him at a Vancouver-area mosque six weeks ago. They had a brief conversation, says David’s father. “The guy was talking about going somewhere in the Middle East to study, and Dave just said: ‘Make sure you’re going there to study, and not to serve the devil’s terms,’ ” John says. “That was David’s advice to him, and he never saw him after that.”
Recently, Zehaf-Bibeau had been living at the Ottawa Mission homeless shelter, where he was teaching Islam to two other young men, bragging about his anti-Canadian views and claiming to be on a no-fly list. According to the RCMP, he dreamed of going to Syria to fight the infidels.
Likewise, Couture-Rouleau had himself preached Islam to his friends—some of whom he’d managed to convert, according to interviews conducted by blogger Dominic Arpin. However these friends began to back away from Couture-Rouleau once he began to speak of violence. One said Couture-Rouleau was a “ticking time bomb” on social media; his father, Gilles Rouleau, told TVA that he didn’t agree with his son’s conversion to Islam.
Couture-Rouleau had an outsized social media presence, making his conversion from beer-swilling partier all the more apparent. Both he and Zehaf-Bibeau, though, suffered through some sort of personal crisis along with their apparent religious awakenings. In Zehaf-Rouleau’s case, he cut himself off entirely from his family and, according to a friend of his interviewed by the Globe and Mail, was convinced that the devil was after him. For his part, Couture-Rouleau had let his small pressure-washing business wilt and had been in a custody battle over his three-year-old son.
Faith and personal crisis are a caustic mix, says Brian Jenkins, a senior researcher with the RAND Corporation. “Faith plays an undeniable role in the biographies of these individuals who carry out such attacks,” Jenkins says. “The specific ideology that makes it an individual duty to participate in an armed struggle between infidels and Islam certainly plays a part in that. But there is one common element again and again, and that’s personal crisis. They are at a crisis moment in their lives and embrace a radical ideology that resonates with them. It’s putting on a cloak of a new identity.”
By virtue of their solitary nature—”I don’t like ‘lone wolf’, I prefer ‘stray dogs,’ ” Jenkins says—catching people like Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau before they carry out attacks can be a special kind of hell. Says Jenkins: “It’s not like there’s an X-ray machine to see what a man is thinking.”