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Suspect’s alleged statements about ISIS led to terrorism charge over Toronto hammer attack: sources

Toronto police, RCMP say deadly hammer attack was terrorism related
WATCH: Charges against Saad Akhtar, who was originally charged with first-degree murder, have been updated, but Toronto police and the RCMP say there is no further threat to public safety because they believe he was acting alone when he allegedly killed a random woman with a hammer.

Every morning, Hang-Kam Annie Chiu left her basement suite in Scarborough and walked to the local Tim Hortons, where she ordered a large coffee with two creams.

She would sit by the window with a group of seniors who met daily, helping them with their English, holding the door for them and making sure they got to their buses on time.

“She helped people,” an employee said. “She was amazing.”

At 64, Chiu was looking forward to retirement in September. But three weeks ago, she allegedly became Canada’s latest victim of terrorism.

READ MORE: Deadly Toronto hammer attack was terrorism, police allege

On the evening of Friday, Feb. 21, she was on a sidewalk between the rice pasta factory where she worked and her home when a man armed with a hammer took her life.

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Three hours later, Saad Akhtar, a 30-year-old software developer, walked into the Toronto police 42 Division precinct and turned himself in.

The police station was partially evacuated over a suspicious package he allegedly left at the front desk. A bomb disposal team was called in, said Meaghan Gray, a Toronto police spokesperson.

“The package was rendered safe and members were allowed to return to normal operations,” she said.

Saad Akhtar, 30, has been charged with killing Hang-Kam Annie Chiu in an act of terrorism.
Saad Akhtar, 30, has been charged with killing Hang-Kam Annie Chiu in an act of terrorism.

Akhtar was initially arrested for first-degree murder, but Toronto police then came across undisclosed evidence suggesting the killing might have been an act of terrorism.

They contacted the RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Team in Toronto, and on Feb. 25, the charge was changed to “murder-terrorist activity.”

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Police have not explained why they suspect the killing was terrorism-related, but Global News has learned the decision stemmed from Akhtar’s statements concerning the so-called Islamic State.

Police are also investigating written materials they found.

Mother of suspect accused of killing Scarborough woman with hammer speaks out
Mother of suspect accused of killing Scarborough woman with hammer speaks out

ISIS supporters have plotted and carried out a handful of attacks in Canadian cities over the past six years, but this would be the first to claim a life (other than that of the attacker) since October 2014.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for Chiu’s killing, but an expert said ISIS had historically tended to do so only when the attacker was killed.

“I would be very curious to find out what exactly he said about the Islamic State,” said Prof. Amarnath Amarasingam, a Queen’s University terrorism expert who researches ISIS.

He would like to know whether the suspect pledged allegiance to ISIS, or said he was responding to western military attacks on the group. He said the choice of target made little sense, being neither military, police or infrastructure.

“It signals, though, that the Islamic State, even with thousands of its fighters behind bars and holding no territory, still continues to inspire individuals to engage in low-level attacks,” Amarasingam said.

A makeshift memorial at the spot Hang-Kam Annie Chiu was attacked by a man armed with a hammer on Feb. 21, 2020.
A makeshift memorial at the spot Hang-Kam Annie Chiu was attacked by a man armed with a hammer on Feb. 21, 2020. Stewart Bell, Global News

A year ago, ISIS lost the last of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. Thousands of its fighters and their families are now imprisoned, including Canadians.

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The terrorist group suffered a further blow when its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed by the U.S. military last October.

A crackdown on ISIS online channels has also had some success, curbing its propaganda output, although the group, its regional affiliates and supporters continue to disseminate statements through online platforms.

“The RCMP has engaged online platforms on a case-by-case basis to request removal of content, and has also sought preservation orders to use communications as evidence in criminal proceedings,” said Catherine Fortin, an RCMP spokesperson.

But ISIS supporters have continued to carry out small-scale attacks this year, striking in the United Kingdom, France and allegedly Canada as well.

READ MORE: A growing number of Canadian victims of overseas terrorism, but little support for them

The Toronto hammer killing was consistent with recent international attacks in which ISIS supporters have acted alone and used everyday objects such as knives as weapons.

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders told reporters the attack was random. Police have described it as an isolated incident and said there was “no further known threat to the public.”

Chiu had no relationship with Akhtar, who had left Pakistan with his family in 2001 and completed a co-op at the University Health Network at the end of December, his mother said.

She said he would punch holes in the walls of her townhouse when he was angry, and patch them over once he calmed. He had left for a mosque on the Friday of the killing but never returned, she said.

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A written statement by an employee of the Tim Hortons that Hang-Kam Annie Chiu visited every morning.
A written statement by an employee of the Tim Hortons that Hang-Kam Annie Chiu visited every morning.

The manager of the Pioneer gas station, where Chiu would sometimes buy cigarettes, said she was struck on the sidewalk beside his business and fled east before collapsing.

“It’s just sad,” he said.

Chiu’s family declined to comment, as did her employer. The family that owns the house where she lived in a rented basement unit said they knew little about their former tenant.

Flowers and a white teddy bear have been left at the base of a tree where it happened. In the Tim Hortons across the street, the seniors Chiu would sit with in the mornings have not returned.

“It was my pleasure knowing Annie for the past one and a half years as our guest,” an employee, too frightened by the events to be identified, said in a written statement.

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“She was a very kind person who helped out other elderly guests. They would sit together as a group, have a cup of coffee and chat,” she wrote.

“Our team members are sad for her loss because she always arrived at our restaurant with a big smile and was always cheerful.”

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca