In the wake of the attack in London, Ont., that left four people dead, police said they are investigating whether they could lay terrorism charges against the 20-year-old man accused of intentionally driving into a Muslim family of five.
Though there have been growing calls to charge the suspect with terrorism, some security experts say this may be difficult to do.
“We have seen a lot of hesitancy in applying this because the terrorism laws we have were designed in 2001, and terrorism has evolved since this,” said Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University and a terrorism expert.
“Proving a terrorism offence can be difficult. You have to go back and show the person was motivated by political, ideological, or religious purpose,” she said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and The National Council of Canadian Muslims have all called the incident a terrorist attack.
Leah West, a professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said to use a criminal term, like terrorism, without enough evidence, means there now may be pressure in the justice system to follow through with terrorism charges.
But like Carvin, she said, prosecutors may be unwilling to use the charge.
What has the suspect been charged with?
London police said the suspect, Nathaniel Veltman, jumped the curb in his vehicle on Sunday, struck five members of the family, ranging in age from nine to 74, and then drove off at high speed.
Veltman, a resident of London who was arrested after the incident, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
He does not have a criminal record, and is not known to be a member of a hate group, police said.
On Sunday, London Police Det.-Supt. Paul Waight said they will be working with the RCMP and law officials to investigate whether they can charge the suspect with terrorism.
“There is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act, motivated by hate,” Waight told reporters. “We believe the victims were targeted because of their Islamic faith.”
Why terrorism charges may be difficult
Prosecutors and law enforcement need to consider three points when making the decision to lay terrorism charges, Carvin said.
The terrorist activity must be committed in whole or in part for a “political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause,” there has to be an intent of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public, and there has to be an intent to cause death or serious bodily harm, she explained.
And charging someone with terrorism after they have already been charged with murder may not be worth the time for some prosecutors, West explained.
“You have to prove all three elements, including motive beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said. “Unless there is clear evidence, you are going to have to ask the jury to make a lot of inferences on what someone is watching online or who some associates with, which can be challenging to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”
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Prosecutors can very seldom prove an ideological cause, she said and typically, religious purposes are used more often for terrorist charges. In the past, terrorism charges have mainly been used to prosecute members of organized Islamist extremist groups.
Since Canada created the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2001, terrorism has evolved to include many forms of violent extremism, which used to be labelled as the far-right or far-left, she said.
‘”We now call that ideologically motivated violent extremism. It’s a mix of grievance and political beliefs and conspiracy theories that don’t fit into various categories. It’s a collection of grievances,” she said.
This is what makes it complicated, as there may not be one ideological belief, but a collection of many, she explained. This makes it difficult for a prosecutor to point to one set of principles of beliefs that caused the event.
An example of this can be seen with the 2014 Moncton N.B. shootings where a gunman killed three RCMP officers.
“We would call him an anti-government extremist, someone who believes in conspiracy theories and anti-government, but he was not charged with a terrorist offence, he was charged with murder,” Carvin said.
And he received the longest sentence in Canadian history, 75 years.
The design of the legislation is another hurdle that gets in the way of laying terrorism charges. The legislation was originally meant to prevent terrorism by targeting “left of boom” offences – crimes that happens before any terrorist attack, Carvin said.
“The idea is that you are able to find a terrorist group and then interrupt that, and they haven’t yet committed murder. But you could lay a terrorism charge on them,” she said.
But once the attack takes place, the most serious charge you can face in Canada is murder.
Essentially, West and Carvin argue from a prosecution perspective that it may not make sense to spend the extra resources to charge someone with terrorism when murder can carry the same sentence.
For example, in 2017, six people were killed and 19 seriously injured when a gunman burst into the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City.
The gunman was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder in the killings and was sentenced to life in prison. Terrorism charges were never used.
In the London vehicle attack case, Carvin said the suspect could face more than 100 years in prison if found guilty of murder, which is “beyond a life sentence.”
“So law enforcement and prosecutors then have to think, should we prove terrorism as well? But this is difficult to do, particularly in the ideological cases, as you have to go back and show the person was motivated by a particular ideology when you have already got them for a murder charge.”
The importance of using terrorism charges
Despite the hurdles, charging someone with a terrorist act can help prevent future terrorist acts, Yusuf Faqari, the Quebec director of public affairs for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, told the Canadian Press.
“These poor Canadians of Islamic origin lost their lives because of the faith that they practise,” he said. “What else do we need more there to call it what it is? It needs to be called a terrorist attack so it prevents other tragedies.”
She said the definition of terrorism is evolving, and although proving it may be difficult, it should be up to the prosecutors to be more “ambitious.”
For example, this could mean widening the definition of terrorism to include more far-right groups.
Terrorism charges can still be used in London attack
West said it’s probably too early for terrorism charges to be laid because investigators need sufficient evidence of motive.
“It may not have been immediately apparent that the violence was motivated by ideology, politics or religion, or immediately apparent that the intent of the accused was to create fear or intimidate a segment of the population,” she said. “And you need both of those elements, on top of serious violence, for terrorism.”
In the incident involving the London truck attack, she said it may take time to investigate whether the suspect was motivated by political, religious or ideological beliefs.
For example, “in the last 18 months, (there were) two cases in Toronto where cases of three charges of murder were brought forward and either a few days or a few months later, terrorism charges were subsequently laid once that evidence was found to be sufficient to bring terrorism charges,” West explained.
— with files from the Canadian Press