Small-Scale Attacks by Self-Radicalized Terrorists Are the New Normal

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Police block off access to Parliament Hill after shots were fired on Wednesday Oct. 22, 2014 in Ottawa.
Police block off access to Parliament Hill after shots were fired on Wednesday Oct. 22, 2014 in Ottawa. Photo: Sun Media/Splash News/Corbis

A certain maturity and dignity seemed to blanket Ottawa after the terrorist shooting on Parliament Hill yesterday, the second such attack the country has suffered this week. The police were methodical in clearing the city, and took their time before declaring the attacks over; the remarks of the politicians (the mayor, the right-leaning prime minister, and the left-leaning opposition leader) were moving and empathic. The temptation was to credit the Canadian talent for keeping things in proportion, but even here in outlandish America (even on cable news) a general reasonableness held. “We’re talking about one guy,” Shep Smith said on Fox News. “Don’t freak out.” Twenty-four hours later, what looks a little more obvious is how drilled everyone was, from the pols to the cops to the mother of the shooter, who explained that she was grieving for the victim and his family but not her own son. Crazy as it is to say, there is a kind of routine about these low-level terror attacks now. We are used to this.

Part of the routine is that the first public suspicion is always that the attack had something to do with jihad. The emphasis on Islamic sources for any terror attack is so automatic that you often suspect that the analysts are underrating the capacities of all of our other maniacs (separatists and survivalists and plain old psychopaths). But usually they are right. Certainly they have been in Canada this week. Monday’s terrorist, Martin Couture-Rouleau, and Wednesday’s, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, were both Canadian-born Muslims who had been radicalized recently and had their passports taken away because of government concerns they were attempting to join ISIS. That they were 2 of only 90 Canadians on a watch list designed to identify potential ISIS recruits raised some questions about how carefully the authorities were watching those on the list. But their cases also offer a way of thinking about exactly how permanent the domestic threat of terror in the name of Islam, and the measure we undertake to prevent it, may be.

Zehaf-Bibeau — 32 years old, raised in Montreal, the son of a Libyan-born restauranteur and a Canadian immigration official — is the kind of character who 50 years ago would have been called a drifter, a boarder, a menace. His biography, hastily filled in by reporters overnight, is a chronicle of small crimes, unemployment, and escalating mania. “Suspected killer in Ottawa had a disturbing side,” ran the Globe and Mail’s headline this morning. But though the disturbances found a language in Islam, they don’t seem to have been Islamist in nature. “He said the devil is after him,” a friend from a British Columbia mosque explained, saying that Zehaf-Bibeau “frequently talked about the presence of Shaytan in the world — an Arabic term for devils and demons. ‘I think he must have been mentally ill.’”

Couture-Rouleau, who rammed his car into two uniformed Canadian soldiers in a suburban parking lot on Monday, seems to have been self-radicalizing in the same way. He had only converted to Islam last year — 25 years old, he ran a small pressure-washing business in Quebec — but his Facebook postings quickly grew frightening enough that they drew the attention of authorities, who took away his passport. The suggestion in the media was that Couture-Rouleau had followed exhortations given in an ISIS communique (he had posted one of the group’s videos on his Facebook page) that had urged followers in the West to commit acts of jihad, and had specifically suggested ramming people with cars. 

This strain of radicalism, more fury than politics, has always been strong among the Western converts to Islam, but in the ISIS era it has become the movement’s singular face. Alongside its manias, Al Qaeda always had a pedantic, textual side, the Zawahiri influence — at times, as when it excommunicated the group that would become ISIS, it took its own interpretation of the Qu’ran seriously. There was an anti-colonial strain to its politics. ISIS has none of this finickiness, and the stories of its Western recruits that have emerged have looked quite similar to those of Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau. In their lives, Islam can seem almost an opportunistic label, a way to channel and articulate a more basic rage and alienation. ISIS’s genius, in recruiting, has been not to overcomplicate things, to happily play the role of maniac and murderer, of piratic social disease, of simple uncivilized Other.

The modern West has had organized terrorist movements that haven’t been Islamic: White supremacists and anti-government zealots, radical black nationalists, the Irish Republican Army. But each of these groups were political, and so their grievances could be addressed by policy. Formal and informal racial segregation could be outlawed, the condition of the inner cities improved. In the ISIS era, it is hard to imagine any policy that might end the threat of radical jihad. Beneath the question of support for Israel and involvement in politics in the Muslim world, there is the more basic matter of our liberal culture. The alienation and manias of Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau seem more elemental than politics.

The sobering thought that comes out of the Ottawa shooting isn’t that we ought to be scared, or that we need more stringent counter-terror policies, or a more martial stand toward the Middle East. It is simply that both this kind of episode — a self-radicalizing purported Islamist who launches a small-scale but murderous and scary act of terror — and the exaggerated, sometimes discriminatory seeming steps our government takes to prevent it may be, for the foreseeable future, part of our human routine.