Thwarted terrorist attack still raises questions

This week’s successful prevention of a terrorist attack by self-professed Muslim convert and would be jihadi Aaron Driver in Strathroy Ontario merits appreciation from Canadians of the effective work of the RCMP, OPP and local police. Thanks are also due to the FBI who alerted the RCMP Wednesday morning after they became aware of the jihadi video online where the then unidentified Driver pledged his allegiance to IS and announced his murderous intent.

The RCMP was then able to identify Driver, reportedly, in part, through face recognition biometric technology, which matched his video image to a photograph in their existing national security database. Driver was already subject to a terrorism ‘peace bond’ which was ordered against him in Winnipeg following his arrest in Winnipeg in June 2015. It was clear from his own social media postings and connections that he supported Islamist terrorism, including the Parliament Hill attack in October 2014, and that he met the required evidentiary grounds ‘(may commit a terrorism offence’) which is now beyond dispute.

The effectiveness of the peace bond, as well as other systemic issues are now legitimately being questioned even as Canadians correctly recognize the excellent work done by the RCMP and other police agencies that thwarted this intended mass murder in a still undetermined mass population venue. Also worthy of note was the candid and substantive media briefing the day after the takedown of Driver provided by RCMP Deputy Commissioner (Federal Policing) Mike Cabana and Assistant Commissioner Jennifer Strachan. It is clear that under Deputy Commissioner Cabana’s leadership, effective Canada-US relationships exist and that immediate operational response is in a deployment ready status. The importance of this cannot be overstated because unlike the traditional criminal justice world, in counter terrorism success is measured in prevention and not just prosecution.

Post incident review and operational investigations are underway but the event clearly raises a number of systemic issues that merit analysis as well. To be clear; this should not be a finger pointing exercise but rather one that explores what happened, or what didn’t… and why… so as to determine if improvements can be made. One thing is certain, the domestic Islamist terrorist threat in Canada remains real and thus must be pragmatically addressed.

Listed below are issues that merit consideration:

  • Why was the FBI able to detect the video which RCMP/CSIS were not able to and is there a joint Canada-US natsec ‘bad guy’ database supported by face recognition biometrics?
  • Why was the RCMP unable to detect if Driver was on the internet/social media?
  • Does the RCMP have face recognition biometrics technology and natsec database so as to ID persons of interest and does it include persons on terrorism peace bonds, identified jihadis, etc…?
  • Are the conditions of peace bonds practically enforceable and effective and is appropriate consideration given to seeking residency restrictions to avoid community placement without public notice?
  • Would the earlier removed electronic monitoring requirement have assisted to help detect Driver’s acquisition of explosive equipment?
  • Was the ongoing supervision of Driver sufficient and was RCMP aware of and OK with him attending the London Muslim Mosque?
  • Did Driver have a second explosive device?
  • Were RCMP able to intercept Driver’s communications while awaiting takedown?
  • Why was the RCMP unable to decrypt previous intercepted social media to reveal not only who he was communicating with but what was being said?
  • How was Driver radicalized and are efforts underway to identify and incapacitate such groups/methods?

Ironically, all of these issues are ones which would be appropriate for in camera hearings conducted by the proposed Parliamentary National Security Committee as proposed in Bill C-22 which is currently before Parliament. Whatever the forum, these questions need to be asked – and answered.

Scott Newark is a former Alberta Crown Prosecutor who has also served as Executive Officer of the Canadian Police Association, Vice Chair of the Ontario Office for Victims of Crime, Director of Operations to the Washington D.C.-based Investigative Project on Terrorism and as a Security Policy Advisor to the Governments of Ontario and Canada.