Canadian intelligence and law enforcement officers are “reevaluating” some 90 people they suspect are linked to terrorist groups in the wake of the deadly shooting near Canada’s Parliament, but the nation’s top cop said that unfortunately for him, no arrests are on the immediate horizon.
“We’re reevaluating all of our individuals to make sure that those that present the greatest sort of risk are assessed and [officers] have resources attributed to them either to do surveillance, focus on the investigation, to get evidence, to make arrests,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner Bob Paulson told reporters Thursday. “We have not made arrests today. We do not have any intention of making imminent arrests. Generally, I would like to say that I have intentions of making lots of arrests, but in turns on the evidence and as the evidence is collected and the cases are built, we will be making arrests.”
Gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was shot and killed by security forces Wednesday after he opened fire with a small caliber rifle in Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa. Minutes earlier, police say Zehaf-Bibeau had gunned down a uniformed soldier, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, at a nearby national war monument.
Though Zehaf-Bibeau, was not one of the nearly 100 suspects that the northern nation had been watching -- and police say the only known link between him and other jihadis is an email found on another accused terrorist’s hard drive -- the case prompted Paulson and other top Canadian officials to question the nation’s current domestic anti-terrorism posture.
“…[W]e live in a dangerous world. Terrorism has been here with us for a while, and dangerously close on a number of occasions… We will not be intimidated. We will be vigilant, but we will not run scared. We will be prudent, but we will not panic,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Parliament Thursday, a day after he and other lawmakers had been within feet of the rifle-wielding gunman. “As members know, in recent weeks I have been saying that our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention, and arrest. They need to be much strengthened.”
Paulson wondered aloud about legally lowering the bar for taking law enforcement action against suspects.
“I understand that sort of we need to look at all options in terms of trying to deal with this sort of difficult and hard to understand threat and balance that against what we’ve seen in previous engagements with this threat, that we are able to act, you know, decisively, quickly, preventatively, and perhaps on a threshold that is somewhat lower,” he said during his press conference. “You know, without throwing somebody in jail forever, but being able to act decisively at a point where the suspicion is realized.”
Speaking next to Paulson, Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau said he has seen a “gap evolve over law enforcement’s ability to maintain control over these individuals that are being radicalized.”
Canada is hardly the only Western nation struggling with what to do about a number of citizens in country linked to terror groups abroad -– including a growing number of Westerners who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join in the fight for or against the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ABC News reported back in January that the FBI was already watching dozens of people who had fought in Syria and returned to the U.S.
British intelligence suspects that hundreds of its citizens have traveled to Syria to fight and last week law enforcement there announced terrorism charges against four men that had been arrested in London in the two weeks previous. The men, police alleged, had conducted “hostile reconnaissance” on an English police station and military base, had purchased a firearm and silencer and had reams of “jihadi material” on their computers.
The same day as that announcement, Metropolitan Police’s National Policing Lead for Counter Terrorism Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley wrote separately on the MET website that the MET has made over 200 arrests this year alone and is running “exceptionally high numbers of counter-terrorism investigations, the likes of which we have not seen for several years.”
Rowley too spoke about the delicate balance between disrupting potentially deadly plots and gathering enough evidence against the suspects.
“Public safety is our number one priority and we will always focus our disruption activity against those posing the greatest and most imminent threat. Sometimes this means intervening very early – essential to prevent attacks, but presenting enormous challenges in securing sufficient evidence to charge,” he wrote.
In the U.S., reports of the rise in domestic terrorism investigations came on the heels of startling revelations about the National Security Agency’s pervasive foreign and domestic surveillance programs, adding fuel to an already raging debate about the balance between civil liberties and national security -- a debate not restricted by America’s northern border, as Canada was already considering conservative legislation to strengthen its security forces.
Thomas Mulcair, leader of Canada’s opposition New Democratic party, spoke immediately after the Prime Minister Thursday.
“[The attack] has only strengthened our commitment to each other and to a peaceful world. Let us not become more suspicious of our neighbors. Let us not be driven by fear because in Canada, love always triumphs over hate,” he said.
Then Justin Trudeau, head of the Liberty Party, added, “We are a proud democracy, a welcoming and peaceful nation. We are a country of open arms, open minds, and open hearts. We are a nation of fairness, justice and the rule of law.”
“We will not be intimidated into changing that, by anybody. These are instead the very values and ideals upon which we must rely in the days ahead… [Those who perpetrate attacks] are criminals, and criminals will not dictate how we act as a nation, how we govern ourselves, or how we treat each other. They will not dictate our values,” he said.