Abdul Aziz Kawam was initially facing attempted murder, assault and weapons charges for allegedly slashing a passenger in the throat on a transit bus Saturday morning.
However, the B.C. RCMP’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) became involved on Sunday and prosecutors subsequently added four counts of terrorism to the charge sheet.
Charging documents allege the attack was committed in the name of the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, and Kawam is alleged to have made statements shortly after the incident about having done it for the terror group.
Phil Gurski, a retired Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) strategic analyst with 32 years of experience and a specialization in Islamic terrorism, said prosecutors will need to prove motive beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The prosecution has to do more than prove the act was carried out, it has to prove why it was carried out,” he said.
“Under the Criminal Code, an act of terrorism has to be carried out for ideological, political or religious reasons. That’s often very very difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Because of the challenge in proving motive in terrorism, Gurski said authorities sometimes elect to proceed simply with murder or attempted murder charges, which are easier to prove.
Gurski pointed to the 2017 attack in Edmonton which saw a police officer stabbed and several people run over with a U-Haul vehicle. Police found an Islamic State flag in the front seat of the vehicle, and police maintain that the attack was terrorism.
However, attacker Abdulahi Hasan Sharif was ultimately charged with multiple counts of attempted murder, criminal flight causing bodily harm and dangerous driving.
After Sharif was sentenced to 28 years in prison in 2019, Alberta INSET head Supt. Stacey Talbot said the decision to proceed with those charges came after talks with prosecutors and “in the best interest of the administration of justice.”
Gurski said he expects Kawam to face lengthy interviews, and that police have already seized all of his digital devices searching for ISIS propaganda or communications with potential terrorists. They’ll also have searched his home looking for propaganda, he said, noting that ISIS is known for being prolific at publishing recruiting material.
“I think there will be quite a long road for the RCMP to determine A) was this truly an act of terrorism, B) if so, what were his links to other members of the Islamic state,” he said.
“And most importantly, are there others in Canadian society who may be familiar to this person … was he in touch with like-minded Canadians who could carry out attacks like this elsewhere in the country?”
While the terror links have yet to be proven, Gurski said ISIS remains far more active than many people realize.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump declared the group defeated in 2018, but Gurski said despite the loss of the territory it considered its “caliphate” the organization still operates in dozens of countries.
Late last month, RCMP announced the arrest of a Montreal post-secondary student on terrorism allegations linked to ISIS, following a tip from the FBI.
Mohamed Amine Assal, 18, was arrested on a terrorism peace bond. RCMP allege he promoted “violent jihad,” translated ISIS materials and counseled an online contact on explosives.
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