Terrorists have twice attacked Canadian government targets this week, with a shooting Wednesday at the country’s parliament in Ottawa. Now Canadian and American authorities are trying to learn whether the killers acted alone or were part of a larger extremist network.
The mayhem caused by alleged Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau occurred just two days after another man, Martin Rouleau-Couture, struck two Canadian soldiers with a car in Quebec—killing one and wounding another.
Full details on Zehaf-Bibeau are still emerging. But he appears to have been a 32-year-old native of Quebec with a history of legal troubles that predate his radicalization. Canadian journalist Domenic Fazioli reported that Zehaf-Bibeau had been arrested a total of five times for drug possession and parole violations.
Canadian reports paint the picture of a disturbed individual, who once told a friend the “devil is after him,” and whose father appears to have fought on behalf of rebels in Libya in 2011.
Former Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day, who once oversaw Canadian security agencies in cabinet as a member of the ruling Conservative government, said he had independent information that suggested the two suspects visited the same jihadist web forums.
“It is likely there is a digital trail that suggests they accessed some of the same Internet chat rooms and websites,” he told The Daily Beast. “It appears the [Parliament Hill shooter] was using some of the same networks as the killer [from earlier this week], who killed an army officer… And it was interesting that ISIS apparently, or a source identifying themselves as ISIS, had a photo out of this guy in pretty short order.”
In fact, a Canadian journalist says that he was the first to post the photo of Zehaf-Bibeau that was later linked by the ISIS affiliated Twitter account. In an article written in French by journalist William Reymond, he writes that the photo of Zehaf-Bibeau posing with a gun was first posted anonymously in response to a Tweet from the Ottawa police asking for any information about the shooter. According to Reymond, he took a screenshot of the photo before the anonymous poster deleted it and was the first to publish the image, later picked up by the jihadist account. If that chronology is correct, it could mean the ISIS account that later posted the photo was trying to falsely suggest a formal affiliation between Zehaf-Bibeau and the terrorist group.
Speaking to the nation Wednesday evening, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was quick to link the shooting on Parliament Hill and the killing of a Canadian soldier earlier this week by “an ISIL-inspired terrorist,” using an alternate acronym for ISIS.
“This week’s events are a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world,” Harper said, pledging to “fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores.”
Last week, Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Michel Coulombe estimated that 130 people had traveled abroad to join in alleged terrorist activities. Eighty people had “returned to Canada after travel abroad for a variety of suspected terrorism-related purposes.”
“I don’t want people to believe that we have 80 returnees who were hard fighters in Iraq and Syria, because that is not the picture we have at the moment,” Coulombe added in testimony before a parliamentary committee.
The head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Bob Paulson, noted at the same hearing that there were 63 active national-security investigations into 90 terror suspects.
“It’s nothing for Canadians to be alarmed about,” Paulson said.
Though there is not yet any information suggesting that this week’s attackers had coordinated their strikes, there were some obvious similarities between them.
Rouleau-Couture and Zehaf-Bibeau were both reportedly born in Canada and lived in Quebec before recently converting to Islam. Both attackers had previous arrests and were known to Canadian intelligence officials for the suspicion that they might try to join jihadist groups abroad.
Like Rouleau-Couture, the Canadian government had designated Michael Zehaf-Bibeau as a “high-risk traveler” and seized his passport, according to Canada’s Globe and Mail.
On Thursday, the House of Commons resumed business on Parliament Hill with applause for Kevin Vickers, the sergeant-at-arms who reportedly shot Zehaf-Bibeau during his attack the previous day.
A key question remaining for Canadian law enforcement is whether the men received any support from ISIS or other terrorist groups, or acted alone in planning and carrying out their attacks.
By the day after Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack, Ottawa police had concluded they believe only one gunman was involved in the shootings in Parliament and at the National War Memorial.
Just two days ago a top official in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) acknowledged being stretched thin by the effort to monitor potential threats.
“There’s nothing more that we can do with the budget that we have except to prioritize internally as effectively as we can and I think we’re doing that. Our success rate has been quite good,” said Jeff Yaworski, the CSIS deputy operations director. “I’d be foolhardy to say we’ve got all the bases covered,” he added. “We do what we can with the budget that we have.”
On Tuesday, before the Parliament Hill shootings, Canada raised its terrorism threat level from low to medium, citing “general chatter” from radical groups like ISIL and al Qaeda. The failure of that system to prevent this attack will be closely eyed as the investigation of the attack develops.
The Department of National Defense identified the soldier that had been shot Wednesday as Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. “This is a shocking and tragic event which reminds us of the real threats posed by those who would do us all harm in the name of radical ideas, beliefs and motives,” said Minister of National Defense Rob Nicholson Wednesday evening.
Canadian news sources said the soldier was 24 years old and hailed from Hamilton, Ontario; was a member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada regiment and the father of a 6-year-old son.
As parliament resumed business Thursday, it held a moment of silence for Cirillo, who had been standing guard at Canada's national War Memorial when he was shot by Zehaf-Bibeau.
Canadian and American officials have been cooperating, and the prime minister’s spokesman confirmed that he had spoken briefly with President Barack Obama. Canadian officials had been conferring with their FBI counterparts, and the American agency tweeted its condolences to Canada and its willingness “to assist our partners as they deal with the ongoing situation in their capital.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with new information.