Conflict & Justice

Details emerge about the suspect in the Ottawa shooting, but not about potential terrorist ties

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Police officers inspect the area around the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa, where a Canadian soldier was shot and killed, on October 23, 2014.

Credit:

Blair Gable/Reuters

To police, he was a petty criminal with a string of convictions for drug and weapons offenses. Now he’s the man suspected of killing a soldier standing guard at Canada's National War Memorial and then storming the nearby parliament building.

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The suspect, 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was shot to death inside parliament after a gun battle with security staff.

“[Michael Zehaf-Bibeau] has got a history of petty theft in a few communities,” says Josh Wingrove, a reporter for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. “This was a guy who was troubled and was on the radar for a while.“

Wingrove was in Centre Block on Parliament Hill at the time of the shooting on Wednesday, waiting for Conservative members of parliament to enter their weekly caucus meeting. He recorded the first moments of the shooting inside parliament and the chaos that followed:

It was Canada's second deadly attack in three days by a recent convert to Islam, and raised fears that the country is suffering reprisals for joining the US-led air campaign against the militant group ISIS in Iraq and Syria. On Monday, a man ran over two soldiers in a parking lot in Quebec, killing one and injuring the other before being shot to death by police.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper linked both episodes to the “savagery'” of radical ideologies abroad, and Canada made an unprecedented decision to order off-duty military personnel across the country to get out of uniform or get off the streets. That order remains in effect, and suggests the authorities might be nervous about further attacks. 

Eli Lake, a national security reporter for the Daily Beast, says it’s premature to jump to any conclusions about any connections between the two attacks. The Canadian government has presented no evidence that the suspected perpetrators of the two attacks this week knew each other or might be part of some kind of network.

“What we have here are home-grown cases, radicalized cases, tied to perversions of Islam — if even tied to Islam — and rejected by mosques,” Wingrove says.

But a former government minister with responsibility for national security, Stockwell Day, told the Daily Beast that he had independent information that both suspects had a common "digital trail" — meaning they had frequented the same internet chat-rooms and websites.

Lake says Canadian officials have also mentioned that an event in Toronto to honor Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai was cancelled after the attack. “This may indicate that there is a concern that there is more of a network out there than the government wants to publicly say at this point," he says. 

Canadian authorities report they are actively watching about 90 individuals with known radical sympathies. These individuals are usually notified that they are being watched under the Canadian system, and may face travel restrictions. But Lake points out the Canadian equivalent of the NSA is allowed to conduct much more invasive domestic surveillance than its US counterpart.

In a brief telephone interview with the Associated Press, the suspect’s mother, Susan Bibeau,  said she didn’t know what to say to those hurt. “Can you ever explain something like this?” she said. “We are sorry." She rejected her son's turn to radicalism, saying her sadness over the incident was reserved "for the people. Not for my son."

The man credited with shooting Zehaf-Bibeau is the parliament’s sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers. He was given a standing ovation by the Prime Minister and members of parliament when he and the legislature returned to work on Thursday.

Wingrove says he couldn't tell from his perspective inside parliament who was responsible for shooting the suspected gunman. “All I saw was a lot of gunfire,” he says. "I can’t tell you which bullet from which gun brought [the gunman] down. I was stunned by the number of gunshots fired. It was a surreal moment and just a heartbreaking day here for us in Ottawa.”