“This is the kind of day that changes everything,” said Canadian MP John McKay. On Wednesday, Canada — a country so unaccustomed to terrorism and gun violence that most parliament security guards were unarmed until recently — was deeply shaken by a shooting in Ottawa that left a corporal guarding the tomb of the unknown soldier at the National War Memorial dead, and political leaders stacking furniture against doors as they heard dozens of shots on the other side.
Adding to the terror, downtown Ottawa was on lockdown for much of the day, as police combed the area for what they said could be two or three shooters. Eventually, they concluded that there was only one gunman: Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who was killed in a shootout with security in Parliament, steps from where Prime Minister Stephen Harper was addressing his party. Here’s what we’ve learned about him so far.
He was born Michael Joseph Hall and changed his name after converting to Islam.
Zehaf-Bibeau was born in 1982 and grew up in Ottawa and Montreal. His father is a businessman, and his mother is the deputy chairperson of a division of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board. They divorced 15 years ago. Friend Dave Bathurst told The Globe and Mail that Zehaf-Bibeau spent time in Libya, where his father fought in 2011, before moving to Western Canada to work as a miner and laborer.
His behavior was “erratic.”
It’s unclear when Zehaf-Bibeau converted, but Bathurst met him in a mosque about three years ago. He said he didn’t seem violent, but displayed signs of mental illness, frequently talking about devils and demons. “We were having a conversation in a kitchen, and I don’t know how he worded it: He said the devil is after him,” Bathurst said. Due to his “erratic” behavior, elders at the mosque asked Zehaf-Bibeau to stop attending prayers.
Yet a court found him mentally fit.
Zehaf-Bibeau had a criminal record, according to court documents uncovered by CBC News. In 2004, he was charged with drug possession, and in 2001 he was charged with robbery and uttering threats. He pleaded guilty in both incidents and served about two months in jail each time.
Briand Anderson, who represented Zehaf-Bibeau in the robbery case, described the incident as “something fairly minor and fairly bizarre.” He said he underwent a psychiatric assessment and was “found fit – not certifiable per overnight assessment.”
He wanted to travel to the Middle East.
Bathurst said he ran into his friend in a Vancouver mosque a few weeks ago. “He wanted to go back to Libya and study,” he said. Bathurst adds that he told Zehaf-Bibeau he should make sure he was focused on studying and “not something else.” He insisted he just wanted to learn about Islam and study Arabic.
He couldn’t go because his passport was revoked.
According to The Globe and Mail, he was recently deemed a “high-risk traveler” by the Canadian government, and his passport was confiscated. A U.S. law-enforcement official told CNN that he has visited the United States at least four times, most recently in 2013.
He may be connected to other terrorists.
While officials said he was the only shooter in the capitol on Wednesday, they are investigating whether there’s a connection to an attack earlier this week in Quebec. On Monday one Canadian soldier died and another was injured after they were run down by 25-year-old Martin Couture-Rouleau, who was killed by police after a car chase. Couture-Rouleau was also a “high-risk traveler,” and he was arrested at the airport in July while attempting to fly to Turkey. Authorities said he had become “radicalized” and intended to join a militant group once overseas.
Stockwell Day, Canada’s former minister of public safety, told the Daily Beast that intelligence suggests Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau visited the same jihadist websites. “It is likely there is a digital trail that suggests they accessed some of the same internet chat rooms and websites,” he said. “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.”
Last month an ISIS spokesman urged sympathizers to kill Americans, Canadians, Australians, or people from any other coalition country “in any manner or way.” So far there’s no evidence that Zehaf-Bibeau was following this directive, but Canadian officials were already linking the attacks to ISIS on Wednesday night.
In a televised speech from an undisclosed location, Prime Minister Harper called Couture-Rouleau “an ISIL-inspired terrorist,” and said of Wednesday’s shooting, “in the days to come we will learn more about the terrorist and any accomplices he may have had, but 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.” He added, “We will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated.”