What does it take to lay terrorism charges? An internal government document explains the RCMP view

Click to play video: 'Toronto Police release the names of all Toronto van attack victims'
Toronto Police release the names of all Toronto van attack victims
On Friday Toronto Police Homicide Inspector Bryan Bott released the names of all the victims of Monday's deadly van attack in northern Toronto – Apr 27, 2018

On March 14, 2016, Ayanle Hassan Ali entered the Canadian Forces Recruiting Centre on Toronto’s Yonge Street and began slashing soldiers with a knife while claiming Allah had sent him to kill.

Two years later, Alek Minassian allegedly posted a message on Facebook supporting the misogynist Incel movement and drove a van along the Yonge Street sidewalks, killing 10 people, eight of them women.

While Ali was eventually charged with terrorism offences, a Toronto police detective said on Friday the van attack investigation had not met the threshold for terrorism charges.

It took the RCMP two weeks to charge Ali with terrorism, and depending on the outcome of the investigation into Monday’s vehicular attack, Minassian could still face counts of terrorism.

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But an internal RCMP email obtained by Global News under the Access to Information Act shows the police force’s view of the obstacles to laying terror charges.

“For charges to be laid, it is necessary to gather sufficient evidence to demonstrate a clear ideological basis and motivation for the act. Therefore, obtaining the burden of evidence to warrant a terrorism charge can be challenging,” it said.

Click to play video: 'Surveillance video shows van driving down sidewalk on Yonge St. during attack'
Surveillance video shows van driving down sidewalk on Yonge St. during attack

The Criminal Code defines terrorist activity as an act committed for a political, religious or ideological “purpose, objective or cause, in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act.”

“Central to this definition is the requirement of the ideological motivation, and the intention of intimidation with regard to security,” read the RCMP email, sent last September to Public Safety Canada as part of the government’s efforts to draft the 2017 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada.

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The message Minassian allegedly posted after he rented a Ryder panel van north of Toronto was brief, but hinted at his intentions, saying the “Incel Rebellion has begun!” Incels are involuntarily celibate men.

“All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger,” it concluded, referring to a California mass killer whose manifesto expressed his inability to find a girlfriend and his hatred of women.

Terrorism charges are rare in Canada and the RCMP email said there were particular difficulties involved in bringing counts of terrorism against those aligned with the extreme right.

“The socio-political nature of many far-right ideologies would make it appear that some activity could potentially meet the definition of terrorism,” it said.

“However, the far right is not an ideologically coherent movement — groups have a range of motivations, and many actors have no clear ideological basis.”

“Furthermore acts of violence lack the clear intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public or clear intend for their actions.”

High school photo of Alec Minassian.
High school photo of Alec Minassian. Facebook

But University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese said there was no reason to assume the terrorism provisions applied only to an “ideologically-coherent movement.” Nor is the law limited to those trying undermine the public sense of security, he said.

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“If your purpose is to scare people from acting in ways they would otherwise act, that should suffice,” Forcese said.

A narrow interpretation of terrorist activity skews the law in favour of violence justified by religion because its credos are structured, he said.

“Nascent or novel nihilist world views, however, can be just as deserving of scrutiny and can be accommodated by the definition of terrorist activity.”

“That they are harder to prove because they can’t be encapsulated by a single religious label should not deter investigations, especially when they pose a clear danger to public safety,” he said.

In another document released under the Access to Information Act, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service asked Public Safety Canada to change a passage in the 2017 threat report that mentioned ISIS (or Daesh) and Al Qaeda together with right wing extremism (RWE) and left wing extremism (LWE).

“Terrorism and extremism are not the same. By using both terms in the same sentence/paragraph, the public may see the threat as the same,” CSIS wrote.

“This holds when you reference Daesh and Al Qaeda in the same paragraph and, on one occasion, same sentence as left-wing and right-wing extremism.  The threat from Daesh and Al Qaeda is not the same as the threat from RWE/LWE.”

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CSIS also took issue with a passage that said right wing extremism was “a growing concern in Canada.”

“‘Growing concern’ is a subjective statement – what is your facting for this? Additionally, what type of ‘concern’ are you referencing (criminal, violent extremism, terrorism?),” CSIS wrote.

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