By Ronald Crelinsten, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Ronald Crelinsten is an expert on terrorism and radicalization and the author of Counterterrorism. He is an associate fellow at the Centre for Global Studies at University of Victoria and Adjunct Professor at Royal Roads University. The views expressed are his own.
Last week's shocking events in Canada's capital, Ottawa, and in St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, near Montreal, Quebec, confirm that the terrorist threat stemming from the Middle East knows no boundaries, and can take many forms. Yet while the Islamic State for Iraq and Syria, currently wreaking havoc in that region, has recently called for low-tech attacks in countries that have joined the U.S. coalition conducting airstrikes against them, this kind of threat is not new.
Back in October 2009, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called for simple attacks with "readily available weapons such as knives, clubs or small improvised explosive devices". A few months later, as Stratfor notes, U.S.-born AQ spokesman Adam Gadahn issued a "A Call to Arms" for "grassroots jihadists" or "lone wolves" to strike targets close by rather than travel abroad, similar to the November 2009 attack by Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. Two months later, Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, attempted to blow up a car in Times Square. And last May, two British citizens of Nigerian descent, ran over off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby in southeast London. They then hacked him to death with knives and a meat cleaver.
Canada has also seen its share of terrorism, including both domestic and international terrorism, homegrown and imported, nationalist and religious, single-issue and revolutionary.
The October Crisis of 1970, when the Quebec Liberation Front kidnapped a British trade commissioner and a Quebec cabinet minister, was the first political kidnapping in North America, and an early example of multiple attacks, long before al Qaeda entered the picture.
Fifteen years later, the Air India bombing was the largest mass-casualty attack in aviation history before 9/11, while in 2006, a complex jihadi plot was foiled by good intelligence and the use of an undercover operative. Back then, a group of young men known as the "Toronto 18" allegedly plotted among other things to attack the Canadian Parliament and behead the prime minister. They were reportedly inspired by the online sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American leader of AQAP killed by a U.S. drone strike in September 2011.
Ironically, it was the threat of foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq to resume the fight at home, not the threat of homegrown terrorism, that in large part prompted the United States and its coalition partners to take military action against ISIS.
But it might surprise many to know that Canada has seen perhaps hundreds of its citizens travel abroad to fight – the official number is 130, though it is probably higher. Dozens have reportedly returned so far, while some 90 individuals are reportedly currently under investigation as potential travel risks abroad or for radicalization at home.
The man who ran over two soldiers with his car last Monday, killing one, had been identified as a travel risk and his passport had been revoked.
Last Wednesday's shooter in Ottawa applied for a passport at the Libyan Embassy on October 2 (his father is Libyan) and, facing delays, cancelled his application. He had also applied for a Canadian passport and was reported to have expressed frustration about delays in that application, days before his deadly assault. All this underscores that we are now faced with the disturbing possibility that revoking passports of jihadi wannabes can have the unintended consequence of them striking at home instead.
It has long been recognized that the lone actor who is not affiliated with any organization, and who self-radicalizes, usually via the Internet, is the most difficult to detect and to prevent from taking action. It is with this reality in mind that many feel that more attacks such as occurred in Canada last week are inevitable.
This Monday, Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney introduced a bill in Parliament to increase the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and promised further anti-terrorism legislation in the future. Whether such changes would effectively address the increased threat of homegrown terrorism remains to be seen and will no doubt be hotly debated in the run-up to next year's federal election.