A hammer attack that killed a 64-year-old woman in Toronto on Feb. 21 has been linked by police to terrorism, with the alleged murderer now facing a terrorism-related charge.
Saad Akhtar, 30, was already facing a first-degree murder charge over the apparently random killing of the woman, attacked by a man with a hammer on Friday evening.
But on Tuesday, prosecutors updated charge to “murder – terrorist activity.” The charge applies to a murder “if the act or omission constituting the offence also constitutes a terrorist activity.”
The RCMP and Toronto police said in a joint news release the attack “appears to be an isolated incident and there is no further known threat to the public associated to the accused at this time.”
The victim has been identified by police as Hang-Kam Annie Chiu. She was walking on Toronto’s Sheppard Ave. East near Markham Rd. when she was attacked at around 7 p.m.
The accused’s mother told Global News she had no idea who the victim was, calling Chiu “a stranger” to the family and her son.
Akhtar turned himself in to the Toronto Police Service’s 42 Division following the attack.
“As part of our investigation into the homicide, we came across evidence that lead us to believe there may be a terrorism-related offence,” said Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray.
Police then contacted the RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Team in Toronto, which probes terrorism cases.
“And that’s what’s brought us to today where the updated charge was laid in court this morning,” said Gray.
University of Calgary law professor Michael Nesbitt said he believed this was the first time the specific charge of murder – terrorist activity had been used.
He said there were two reasons to apply the charge.
“One, signalling, and calling it what it is, if authorities think it’s terrorism. And two, it gets you from second degree murder to first-degree murder without having to prove that the murder was ‘planned and deliberate’,” he said.
“That in turn gets you a longer sentence in terms of the parole ineligibility going from 10 to 25 years, but still life in prison.”
Akhtar’s mother said the family had left Pakistan in 2001 to escape terrorism.
She said her son had completed a co-op at the University Health Network at the end of December.
He would punch the walls in her townhouse when he was angry.
Asked if she had been concerned about his behavior, she said: “Of course I am worried but I can’t help because he don’t want to take help.”
He walked an hour every day to a mosque and back but did not return home on Friday night as usual, she said, adding the attack did not occur on his regular route home.
Police later told her he had been arrested.
It would be Canada’s first deadly terrorist attack since a self-described follower of the misogynist Incel movement ploughed a rented van into pedestrians on Toronto’s Yonge Street in April 2018, killing 10 people.
It was unclear whether Akhtar was attached to any terrorist group.
The so-called Islamic State has since 2014 been urging followers to conduct attacks using readily-available weapons such as knives and vehicles.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s latest annual report said extremists inspired by ISIS and Al Qaeda were “the number one national security threat to public safety in this country. Investigating these threats remains a top priority for CSIS.”