Last month, Faisal Hussain opened fire on Danforth Avenue in Toronto, killing two and wounding many others. Although much has been written about the tragedy, there are some aspects of the case that warrant further analysis.
First, the police reportedly delayed releasing the killer’s identity until the Hussain family could issue a formal statement, which was in fact composed by a Muslim community activist.
I understand the desire to defuse an explosive situation and, in principle, I am not opposed to a multicultural state taking reasonable steps to minimize domestic strife in particularly charged scenarios.
Nonetheless, some found the time delay and authorship of the family statement troubling. This attempt to maintain societal amity may have come at the expense of the trust the public has for the police and the Ministry of Public Safety. Law enforcement and government must always be seen as impartial and fully forthcoming with information that the public has a right to know.
Many Canadians feel that duty was not properly administered here. Compounding this perception was the absence of more information from the authorities about Hussain visiting terrorist websites and the disturbingly few degrees of separation between him and a massive seizure of carfentanil, an opioid so powerful and deadly that experts view it as a weapon that is threatening to national security. Inevitably, all sorts of conspiracy theories have festered in the void created by the official silence or injudicious reassurances that the attack had no national security element.
Furthermore, the author of the family’s statement is reportedly affiliated with an organization that some experts have identified as a Muslim Brotherhood front group. The Muslim Brotherhood is active in almost 100 countries. Its extremist ideology was the subject of congressional hearings in the U.S. and a major government review in the U.K., and has been described as a primary gateway to jihadist violence. Leaders and followers of al-Qaida and the Islamic State have credited Muslim Brotherhood thinkers with inspiring their actions. Any involvement by someone possibly affiliated with a Muslim Brotherhood-related entity – even in the crafting of a message to the public – can arouse concern regarding its authenticity and motivation.
The second troubling aspect of this case is the idea that Hussain’s actions didn’t constitute terrorism because he suffered from mental illness. Radicalization is a highly complex process, but research suggests that sometimes mental illness may in fact contribute to terrorist activity when it mixes with other factors like substance abuse and extremist propaganda.
It is also possible that mental illness can make individuals more susceptible to negative influences. This does not in any way mean that such episodes are not related to terrorism. It does, however, put the onus on policymakers to better protect those with mental illnesses from being radicalized through extremist narratives that can be presented online or in educational or religious institutions.
A defeated private member’s bill (C-371) that aimed to prohibit schools and religious and cultural centres from accepting donations from foreign governments found to be engaging in activities that support radicalization, would have been a helpful tool in this regard. The federal government would be wise to introduce its own version of this legislation.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for this attack, but its claim may not be truthful. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that while some terrorist groups like al-Qaida have avoided recruiting mentally unstable individuals, other groups are not as discerning. ISIS in particular has waged a social media campaign promoting a DIY approach to terrorism – any operative and any type of attack will do.
To be clear, the Danforth tragedy may not have been a terrorist attack. But just as the authorities must be careful not to unduly alarm the public, they should also not disrespect Canadians by dismissing legitimate concerns that have not yet been answered.