A fatal shooting in the heart of Canada’s normally quiet capital has raised questions about why the country would be a target for extremists, shaking a long-held national image of security and safety.
Large parts of central Ottawa, a city home to more than 800,000 people, were placed into lockdown after a gunman killed a soldier, identified as Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was standing guard at the National War Memorial.
The gunman then stormed into the nearby main Parliament building, where he was brought down in a volley of gunfire.
“We all want answers, none more so than me,” said Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson.
Canada, like Australia, has a fairly low crime rate and mass shootings are a relatively rare event. This is despite Canada having a high rate of gun ownership. The low crime rate is in stark contrast to its southern neighbour, the United States, which has been plagued by mass shootings.
But the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has increased the threat of homegrown terrorism, especially from extremists launching lone wolf-style attacks, according to Greg Barton, a Monash University expert on counter-terrorism operations.
“It’s not just in Canada, it’s probably going to be happening elsewhere in the world. It may happen here,” he said of such unsophisticated terrorist plots.
“This is the sort of thing I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of.”
Canada’s counter-terrorism police have been tracking at least 90 suspected extremists trying to travel to Syria to fight with Islamic State – a similar number to those on a watch list in Australia. And the Ottawa shooting, described as a terrorist attack by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, came three days after a 25-year-old suspected extremist was killed in Quebec after ramming a car into two Canadian armed forces members, killing one of them.
The two attacks came only weeks after Islamic State released a video that urged followers to kill people living in western nations, including Canada and Australia.
“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European … or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah and kill him in any manner or way however it may be,” Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in the video.
“Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict,” he added.
Canada has joined Australia and other nations in a military coalition to battle Islamic State fighters who have taken over parts of Iraq and Syria. Canada has sent six fighter jets to take part in airstrikes against the militants.
Mr Harper, in an internationally-televised address from an undisclosed location, appeared to directly link the attack in Ottawa with the nation’s efforts in combating overseas terrorism.
“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 said.
He said the shooting would result in Canada redoubling its efforts in working with allies in fighting terrorist organisations around the world.
“They will have no safe haven,” he said.
But Professor Barton pointed out that the call to arms to kill Canadians came in the Islamic State video, which was released weeks before the nation joined in the coalition.
“It’s that network of radicalism and support that seems to be key,” he said.
“The fact they’ve got homegrown radicalisation producing foreign fighters in connection with Iraq and Syria means they would be in the frame regardless.”
He said the fourth edition of the terror group’s magazine Dabiq, released earlier this month, also called on followers to target any resident of “crusader nations” wherever they can be found, with any weapon, and without warning. Followers were told to not tell anyone about their plans, he said.
Canada’s terrorism threat level was recently raised to medium from low because of a rise in “general chatter” from radical groups, though police said there was no specific threat triggering the increase.
“It caught us by surprise,” Gilles Michaud, assistant commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) told a press conference shortly after the fatal shooting in Ottawa.
“If we had known that this was coming, we would have been able to disrupt it.”
– with Reuters
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