Canada: Ottawa attacker was not a ‘lone wolf’

October’s terror attack in Canada, in which a lone attacker tragically took the life of a Canadian soldier outside of the Parliament building in Ottawa, prompted a series of hand-wringing reports over the rise of “lone wolf” terrorists.

This attack was preceded by a radicalized man striking two members of Canada’s military with a car, killing one. The Ottawa attack was followed by another radicalized Islamist attacking New York City Police officers with a hatchet. Yesterday, a self-styled Islamic cleric took two lives and wounded may others after taking a group in Sydney hostage.

The rise of the “lone wolf” terrorist troubled many, but also confirmed for some that the era of high-profile terror attacks had passed. Perhaps Western counter-terror methods had grown so effective that aspiring terrorists could now only hope to achieve small-scale, low-tech attacks?

“The only lone wolf who killed a lot of people was not a jihadist,” Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence in London, told Time Magazine in October. “It was Anders Breivik in 2011 in Norway, who was very sophisticated, a good planner. He acted all on his own and pulled off a massive operation killing 77 people.”

“Typically, lone wolves do one attack, killing one or two people, because they do not have the expertise or sophistication.” Moreover, [Demos terrorism analyst Jamie] Bartlett suggests a rise in lone wolf acts can be seen to represent an increased success in counterterrorism operations. As a result of increased intelligence work in stopping larger, plots like 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings, he says, terrorist groups are “limited to conducting attacks that require very little training, very little preparation, very little communication.”

Those who took solace in the fact that “lone wolf” terrorists have little or no connection to foreign terrorists or are dissuaded by Western counter-terror practices from carrying out large-scale attacks got some bad news from Canadian officials on Tuesday.

“Several weeks after the Ottawa attack, Canada’s top law-enforcement official now says that gunman was not only was inspired by Islamic State, he may have been in direct contact with the group,” Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin reported.

After 32-year old Canadian Muslim Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed the Parliament building in Ottawa, shot a soldier on guard duty fatally in the back, made his way into the Hall of Honor, and opened fire before eventually being gunned down himself, Canadian officials said there was no evidence tying him to Islamic State.

But in late November, Canadian Justice Minister Peter MacKay told me in an interview that not only did the Canadian government believe that Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau, a Muslim who drove over two soldiers only days earlier, were radicalized by the Islamic State, they now suspect both men may have been in direct contact with the group.

“They were influenced by ISIS there is no question,” MacKay told me at the Halifax International Security Forum.

Few are going to be surprised by the fact that these two Canadian terrorists, both of whom attempted to travel to the Middle East or North Africa and were steeped in Islamist ideology, carried out their attacks following the direct encouragement of Islamic State operatives.

Those who insisted that the War on Terror was evolving into a new stage, one in which the Islamist ideology of homegrown terrorists would be less directly attributable to threats overseas, must reassess this judgment in light of new information. It is clear, as it always was, that the threat of Islamic radicalism must be combatted abroad before it can ever hope to be contained at home.