On Feb. 21, Annie Chiu was bludgeoned to death on a Toronto sidewalk by an alleged ISIS supporter with a hammer.
At a Toronto massage parlour three days later, a suspected incel allegedly stabbed Ashley Arzaga to death and wounded another woman.
Canada’s latest terrorist attacks don’t look anything like 9/11.
They involved lone attackers who weren’t formal members of any terrorist groups. Rather, they were allegedly drawn to violent extremist causes on the internet.
And despite never having trained at a terrorist camp, and armed with nothing more than a hammer and a machete, they managed to carry out attacks that killed.
This may be a rudimentary form of terrorism, but it has proven frustratingly hard to stop, leaving victims from Alberta to Ontario and Quebec.
While counter-terrorism agencies have disrupted international mass-casualty plots by the Toronto 18 and Via Rail conspirators, the unsophisticated loners have gone unnoticed until it was too late.
Terrorist groups like ISIS are well aware that lone attackers using simple weapons are more difficult to detect, which is why their propaganda has encouraged supporters to kill with knives, vehicles and even rocks.
“It’s nearly impossible to stop these opportunistic attacks, particularly from lone wolves that don’t have a digital footprint per se, or aren’t part of a larger organization,” said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Centre.
“It’s very hard.”
But experts said there were ways of disrupting it.
Noting that an increasingly younger demographic was being drawn to online extremism, Clarke said it was partly up to parents to tackle the problem.
He said the global pandemic may be making things even worse since it has left youths more socially-isolated and with endless hours to explore the internet, Clarke said.
“Many parents are working, they’re working from home, they’re trying to homeschool siblings. So you have these kind of teenagers that are holed up in their rooms, their basements. They’re online. Their parents don’t really know what they’re doing.”
The RCMP’s Terrorism and Violent Extremism Awareness Guide lists the “indicators” families should watch for, such as their internet and social media use, and includes the symbols associated with dozens of groups.
“It really does kind of depend on someone recognizing that there is a problem and telling someone in a position of authority,” said Stephanie Carvin, a professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
Researchers have found those preparing to engage in terrorism tend to behave in ways that signal what they are doing. “In over 50 per cent of these cases there is some kind of leakage,” Carvin said.
As a result, stopping this category of violence means having a public that is attuned to today’s terrorist threats and willing to intervene before it’s too late, she said.
Following the 2014 terrorist attacks that killed two Canadian Forces members in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa, the government launched a research project that came to the same conclusion.
Studies by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) found little support for the idea that attackers had acted suddenly. Instead, their violence was more likely to follow a year-long process of transformation and preparation.
They might watch violent propaganda videos, use extremist language and display extremist symbols, adopt a pseudonym or become noticeably security conscious, according to a CSIS study.
“Individuals mobilizing to violence — i.e. extremist travel, domestic or foreign attack plotting or facilitation activities — often inadvertently leak information to other individuals about their intent, capability and preparations,” it said.
The problem is, bystanders have to notice and do something about it. But the warning signs aren’t always taken seriously or understood by those around an attacker, or even by the authorities.
Last June, a woman was stabbed in a Sudbury parking lot by a man who said he was an incel. It later emerged he was shot by police a year earlier after charging at officers while shouting extremist slogans.
The woman’s baby, whom the attacker said he wanted to kill, was also injured. Alexander Stavropoulos, 26, pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted murder and breach of probation.
Police are alleging the teenager arrested for the deadly Feb. 24 attack at Toronto’s Crown Spa was familiar with the 2018 Toronto van attacker and also the author of the incel “manifesto.”
In a courtroom on Tuesday, his first-degree murder and attempted murder charges were updated to include “terrorist activity.” It is believed to be the first time an incel attacker has ever been charged with terrorism.
“Traditional counter-terrorism metrics are not going to work with an incel movement or a far-right,” said Jacob Ware, a U.S. researcher on far-right extremism.
One solution is to draw on the growing numbers that have left these movements and can help undermine violent extremists’ messaging, said Ware, the author of several recent papers on incels.
“How can we use their voices and how can we use their experience, their insights, to go back to the movements and try and get people out?”
He said tech companies also have a role to play in preventing vulnerable people, including those with mental health challenges, from being drawn into violent extremist movements.
“We need to be doing a better job of protecting young, mentally vulnerable people from being drawn into radical movements when they’re really just looking for a sense of identity, a sense of belonging online,” he said.
“We need to find a way to stop dangerous opportunists online from dragging in people who are suffering and who need help, not, you know, not more hatred.”
Experts said prosecuting the massage parlour killing as terrorism would send an important message. It could also make Canadians more aware of what today’s terrorism looks like, Carvin said.
Canadians know about ISIS and almost certainly would do something if they thought someone close to them was getting involved with the group, but that may not yet be the case for right-wing extremists or incels, she said.
“The only way people are going to recognize this as violent extremism is if we treat it as violent extremism,” said the Carleton University terrorism and national security expert.