From his hideout in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden detailed what he hoped would become of the group he created and chastised those who had veered off course.
“We need to extend and develop our operations in America and not keep it limited to blowing up airplanes,” states a 2010 letter from bin Laden to an ally in Yemen, which was uncovered in his Abbottabad compound after the Al Qaeda leader was killed.
Striking the tone of a perturbed CEO, bin Laden continued: “I need to remind you about the general politics of Al Qaeda … Al Qaeda concentrates on its external big enemy before its internal enemy.”
This was part of his vision — concentrate on hitting the U.S. and its allies at home in small-scale attacks that create panic, weaken the economy and force the U.S. to withdraw from Muslim lands.
Bin Laden would have been pleased lately.
On April 15, two bombs exploded within seconds at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 200.
On Monday, RCMP arrested Raed Jaser in Toronto and Chiheb Esseghaier in Montreal, following allegations they were planning Canada’s first known Al Qaeda-directed terrorist plot: an attack on the Toronto-New York train route.
Then there are the recent cases of Canadians going abroad to fight. Two young men from London, Ont — Xristos Katsiroubas was 24, Ali Medlej 22 — were confirmed as participants in a deadly, Al Qaeda-linked terrorist attack in Algeria. And Somali authorities believe Mahad Ali Dhore, a former university student from Markham, was among the suicide bombers who attacked Mogadishu mid-month.
But does this spate of terrorism cases indicate a worrying new trend? Or is the real worry that the high-profile incidents will incite political opportunism and a repeat of what followed the 9/11 attacks — a dramatic reshaping of Western foreign policy and laws?
“First and foremost, keep calm, carry on being resilient; (those) are things we can do as a society,” says Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director at Canada’s Security Intelligence Service.
“If we do overreact, it will lead to empowering those who want to do stuff …I think there is value in that view to say, ‘Let’s not go ballistic and rewrite all the laws.’ We do have to be a little smarter.”
Evan Kohlmann, a U.S. terrorism analyst, agrees. He bemoans that our views of terrorism swing from one extreme to the other.
“When we are in the immediate wake of a terrorist attack or an uncovered terrorist plot, there is a surge of interest and concern in the problem of international terrorism,” he wrote in an email to the Star.
“Then, when nothing happens for a while, public interest gradually fades, and consequently any suggestion that there is a genuine threat from terrorism is pooh-poohed and dismissed out of hand as unjustified paranoia on the part of law enforcement.”
Says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director for the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization: “There have been spikes in domestic terrorism in the U.S., and it’s then receded. We’re not experiencing an epidemic, but definitely we should be looking for implications that we can draw from . . . incidents like these.”
So what can be learned?
Boisvert says the Canadian case may prove to be an example of what he calls “Jihad 3 free 3-in-1 credit report.0.” — not an attack planned on the scale of 9/11, nor directed by Al Qaeda’s core, but a local plot that drew inspiration or some sort of support from Al Qaeda.
Michael Zekulin, a political science instructor at the University of Calgary and specialist in terrorism and radicalization, said that although this case may be considered Canada’s first taste of organized terrorism, he notes the country has always been a target, along with other western democracies.
He wonders if the alleged train plot could reveal that Al Qaeda’s connection here is limited, considering the two accused: a Tunisian doctoral student with a history of erratic behaviour, and a permanent resident with a lengthy criminal history.
If a large terrorist organization were directing the effort, “You would think that they’d have more to choose from,” Zekulin said.
He agrees that attacks in future will be less organized and perpetrated more by “self-radicalized” individuals. “They’re simply doing things on their own,” he said. “There is no way of telling how many of those there are . . . That’s a curveball for us.”
Although each case is distinct and probably motivated by a different grievance, at their most basic, such attacks are part of Al Qaeda’s legacy — what Wesley Wark, a national security policy expert at the University of Ottawa, says has been dubbed the “Al-Qaeda Narrative.” Its distinct message of jihad and destruction of the West by whatever means continues to resonate with a fraction of Muslims around the world, Wark said, including some in Canada.
“It’s resonating and providing the problem of homegrown terrorism — individuals without any direct connection to organized terrorist groups,” he said. They not only believe the message, but “they’re prepared to act on it. That’s the common denominator between the London group, the Via Rail bombers and the Boston bombing.”
While it seems clear the past week’s events will provoke renewed discussion on who is allowed into Canada and how they’re tracked, Zekulin said it’s imperative that we examine the individual motivation and rationale of people who seek to commit terror at home.
“The bigger concern is the homegrown people who have been here, born and raised, if not for extended periods of time,” he said. “That’s something that requires us to more fundamentally look at ourselves as a society and start asking ourselves how we . . . (have) to make an effort to make sure that multiculturalism is not just a buzzword.”
The risk, he said, is ending up with people who feel like isolated outsiders in a country that provides refuge but not acceptance.
Zekulin said it’s important for societies and governments to deplore individual attacks, but help deter future dangers.
“You absolutely have to condemn these attacks,” he said. “But that’s only one part of the equation. And that removes the existing individuals. It does nothing to address those who might come to replace them.
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