Was the Ottawa gunman a terrorist?

Much controversy has erupted regarding whether Ottawa gunman Michael Zehaf Bibeau was a terrorist.

Whatever the outcome of the debate, the horrendous nature of Bibeau’s actions cannot be denied: killing a soldier guarding a war memorial then threatening the lives of others on Parliament Hill. However a proper classification of Bibeau and his actions is important because of the legal and social policy implications that could potentially flow from a misunderstanding of his acts. Using the term “terrorism” to describe all incidents that make us afraid is not good enough.

The day of the shooting, Prime Minister Harper was clear in his view that Bibeau was a terrorist, stating, “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 in the world.”  Last week, the Harper government proposed new measures to allow Canadian security agencies to track suspected terror suspects and to charge and prosecute them.

Yesterday, Opposition Leader Thomas Muclair stated that while Bibeau’s acts were clearly criminal, there is not enough evidence to classify them as terrorist acts.  Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau seemed to take a middle ground, stating that because the RCMP classified them as terrorist acts, they should be considered as such.

Our political leaders seem to be unaware that the term “terrorism” was legally defined by the Supreme Court of Canada over a decade ago. In a case named Suresh – in which I represented an intervenor, Amnesty International – the Court examined the difficulty in defining terrorism but nevertheless was able to unanimously agree upon a definition after examining international authorities.  The Court defined terrorism as:

“any act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”

There is no doubt that the first part of the definition is present in Bibeau’s actions: he caused death to someone not taking part in hostilities. There is little evidence however that he intended to intimidate a population or compel any government or organization to do or refrain from doing any act. Much has been reported of Bibeau’s alleged extremist views, however we also know that he was a crack addict with a criminal record and mental health issues. We also know that he was acting alone.

All of this indicates that Mr. Muclair is likely most accurate in labeling Bibeau’s actions as criminal but not terrorist.  The debate should continue as new evidence appears, but we should not neglect the fact that our highest court has contributed to discussion.