A year ago Canada dodged a terrorist bullet when the almost 25-year old Muslim convert Aaron Driver climbed into a cab outside his sister’s home in Strathroy, a small town not quite 40 km from London, Ontario, set off an explosive device that didn’t do a lot of damage to either himself or the taxi, and was killed probably by police gunfire when he exited the vehicle in possession of a second bomb.
The RCMP had been on the scene because it had received notice from the FBI earlier that day of an online video in which an apparent Canadian pledged allegiance to Islamic State and said he would carry out an attack somewhere that day.
In the aftermath of the incident critics came from every direction. Why did it take the FBI to tell our police that Mr. Driver posed a threat? Why didn’t we know more given that he was on a peace bond with very strict conditions? How was he able to make a martyrdom video and a bomb since he was not supposed to have access to online communications? Did the police put the cab driver at unnecessary risk (NB the cab driver is seeking some compensation for his ordeal)? Why wasn’t Mr. Driver, whom everyone seems to claim had a ‘challenged’ upbringing, accorded more help? And so on and so on.
What is most interesting, to me at least, is that little of the criticism has originated with anyone with any background in counter terrorism. Lorne Dawson of the University of Waterloo aside, few commentators, Mr. Driver’s lawyer included, have really had anything interesting to add to this case. In the interests of adding what I hope to be some valuable commentary – based on 30+ years experience in intelligence and CT – to this unfortunate ordeal I have decided to pen this column.
First and foremost, the accusation that the RCMP was negligent in protecting the cab driver is not well-founded. In cases like these events happen quickly and not everything is crystal clear as it appears in TV shows like 24. The fact is that the RCMP acted appropriately and impressively: recall that they did not know who was in the video shared by the FBI and that it was thanks to a sharp analyst (NB I am always a fan of the analysts!) that it was determined that Aaron Driver was the ‘man in the mask’. The situation was indeed fluid and no one can predict in advance what twists and turns these events take. In the end there was an element of luck in that Mr. Driver proved to be a poor bombmaker and that the cabbie was not seriously injured (I am NOT playing down the psychological impact of what he went through). Successful counterterrorism is always a combination of skill and luck.
Next, we are still no closer to figuring out who radicalises to violence and why. Mr. Driver’s complicated life undoubtedly played a role in his (poor) decision making but nothing in his past was either a sufficient or a necessary cause for his eventual embrace of terrorism. If broken families and childhood trauma were of any real influence in the creation of terrorists, Canada would have millions of violent extremists. The fact that there is no evidence in support of this should remind us that there are no easy answers to the complex question of radicalisation. Prediction in terrorism is a fool’s game and yet fools continue to play it.
Lastly, nor are we any closer to determining whether peace bonds are useful anti-terrorism tools. While I understand why they are deployed they nevertheless are labour intensive implements and we know that no police force can monitor a lot of people indefinitely. Mr. Driver was judged to be of minimal threat based on what we knew then: of course, 20-20 hindsight being what it is, we were wrong but it is not obvious that we should have known that at the time. As a result, we continue to place potentially dangerous people on peace bonds and we hope that none of these progresses like Mr. Driver did.
We need to acknowledge a few things on this anniversary of the ‘Strathroy situation’. We are at a relatively manageable terrorist threat and that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. Men like Aaron Driver will continue to radicalise to violence: some will leave to join terrorist groups like IS or Al Qaeda and some will strike here, but overall these events will be rare. We will still struggle with keeping Canadians safe while respecting human rights and counter terrorism will never be perfect.
One last point. Despite his best efforts, Aaron Driver killed no one and died for his ideology. And for that we have the RCMP and its partners to thank. Maybe it is good to sit back and put things in perspective rather than panic and point fingers at those we think failed us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. He has spoken to audiences about terrorism across Canada and the US and around the world. firstname.lastname@example.org