On October 22, as one journalist put it: “Canada lost its innocence.” On that day, 30 year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, one of the two soldiers standing guard at the First World War Monument in Ottawa.
Cirillo was a much-beloved man and a man of honor, while his killer was nothing more than a wasted life. Zehaf-Bibeau was a drug addict, thief, and all-around small-time criminal who converted to Islam and tried to join ISIS in Syria, but could not get a passport.
Zehaf-Bibeau’s background is key in understanding why men like these are attracted to ISIS and have a desire to kill. Until more information becomes available, we can only speculate what demons drove this young man, and similar young men, to such destruction.
Although Zehaf-Bibeau was born and raised in Canada, in the latter part of his life he seems to have identified more with his father’s Libyan background than the English-Canadian heritage of his mother.
Among other factors, his parents had an uneasy relationship, his mother is a senior civil servant employed by Immigration Canada and his father ran a coffeehouse.
In a dramatic gesture, his mother said that she did not grieve for her son but rather for the people he harmed. One can only wonder why she had given up on her son and, more significantly, if she did so before he became a human mess.
Zehaf-Bibeau descended from being a party-going teenager to a homeless drug-addict drifting from city to city, until he returned home to Ottawa and decided to strike a blow for his brand of Islam and kill a soldier and attempting a murder spree in the Canadian Parliament.
What drove him to convert to the Islamic faith is not known, but there are disturbing questions regarding his transition to becoming a jihadist.
Initially wanting to travel to Syria and join ISIS, only when that failed did Zehaf-Bibeau turn to attacking the soldier at the First World War Monument and then Parliament.
His choice of targets is significant. The First World War Monument symbolizes the victory of Canada and the Allies against the Central Powers in 1918, which included the Ottoman Empire. As a result of the defeat, the new Turkish Republic in 1924 abolished the caliphate.
It is doubtful that Zehaf-Bibeau, in his drug-addled state and penury had become a student of history, so undoubtedly someone guided him towards the monument.
Furthermore, someone had to buy for this homeless man without means a rifle and bullets as well as give him funds to travel to Ottawa from Vancouver. Equally relevant is that someone also had to have directed him to go after members of Parliament following the shooting of the soldier.
There is a real possibility that Zehaf-Bibeau, and others like him, including the other Muslim convert who ran over a soldier in Montreal, are not acting entirely alone.
There is a strong inclination on the part of the authorities to label the terrorist attack in Ottawa an act by a so-called lone wolf, but other circumstantial evidence points to the contrary.
It is significant that before the Canadian authorities knew he was acting as a jihadist, ISIS issued a tweet identifying Zehaf-Bibeau as one of their own.
A few days after the terrorist attack, ISIS released a statement advising their followers in the West to use a gun and kill someone, anyone, and if they did not have a gun, to use a knife, and if they did not have a knife, to pick up a rock and smash the heads of the ‘infidels.’
According to Canadian and U.S. authorities, these lone wolves are not in direct communication, meaning electronic communication, with ISIS.
However, it is quite possible that ISIS has representatives in North America and Europe whose task is to make contact these lone wolves. In other words, when disaffected, disturbed young men and women reach out in response to the messages ISIS sends through social media, someone must find these hapless individuals and guide them to an appropriate target.
The challenge for the Canadian and American security services is to go through the thousands of immigration applicants from the Middle East and examine which of them may have, or at one time had, links to terrorist networks. Only through this process can they begin to identify potential ISIS recruiters and their victims.
It would be much easier, however, if Muslim communities in the West actively participated in condemning terrorism and the abuse of Islam by fanatics such as those in ISIS and included their voices in denouncing the torment and death inflicted upon Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
When one religious group is singled out for punishment because of that group’s beliefs, it opens the door to hatred against all religious denominations.
Through no fault of the Muslim communities in Canada or the US, troubled and deranged young men and women are attracted to the pornography of violence represented by the actions of ISIS.
Indeed, the terrorist organization tries to secure legitimacy by linking itself to Islam. To counter the siren call of ISIS to become part of the jihad, Muslims must openly and actively demonstrate their tolerance of other religions, clearly indicating that there is no room in Islam for hatred and violence.
(André Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver)