Prosecutors are invoking Canada’s criminal terrorism laws against the accused perpetrator in the Islamophobic attack in London, Ont., departing from a 20-year-pattern of prosecuting chiefly Islamic extremists as terrorists. On June 6, police arrested 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman and later charged him with four counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. This week, terrorism charges were added.

Salman Afzaal, his wife Madiha, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna and Salman’s mother, Talat, 74, were killed while waiting at a crosswalk when a truck drove off the road and ran them down. Fayez, the 9-year-old son of Salman and Madiha, has been released from hospital and is expected to recover from his physical injuries. The family had been out for an evening stroll.

Police said the driver planned the attack and targeted the victims because of their Islamic faith. Being found guilty of murder carries a 25-year-sentence. Adding a terror offence charge may not ultimately add years to a prison sentence. But, in this case, the decision to lay terror charges is about more than punishing the offender, it is about punishing racism. More than that, it’s about labelling racially motivated violence as a terrorist act.

Muslim families and communities have suffered under Canada’s terrorism laws in ways non-Muslim Canadians have not. Islamophobic attacks like the June 6 murders in London are no longer surprising in a country whose prosecutions target Muslim terror offenders but rarely those attackers who target Muslims. So far, Canada has convicted only Muslims of terror offences. Legal scholars have criticized law enforcement for racially profiling Muslims in terror investigations.

In 2001, Canada swiftly enacted terror laws that responded to Islamic extremist terror attacks in the United States. These laws describe terrorism as any act intended to kill or hurt someone (or damage property) for “a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause.” The act must be connected to a terrorist group. The intent to intimidate segments of society is also an element of the criminal terrorism definition

In the 20 years since, Canada has convicted only Muslim offenders of terror offences. Muslim individuals were tortured abroad after being monitored by Canadian anti-terror investigators. The National Council of Canadian Muslims documented patterns of anti-Islamic violence across Canada. In 2017, an attacker stormed a Quebec City mosque, killing six people and injuring many more.

In the next weeks and months, investigators will look for evidence to connect the truck driver to terrorist groups, whether those groups are loosely organized online Islamophobic communities or more serious federally listed Islamophobic terrorist groups like the Proud Boys.

Canada has convicted only Muslims of terror offences when there are proven links to terrorist groups. The Criminal Code terror law, Section 83, was enacted in response to the types of international terror networks that came to light in the wake of 9/11. Lone actors have since proven challenging to prosecute.

In 2018, Ontario lawyers prosecuted Muslim offender Ayanle Hassan Ali for attacking soldiers and civilians at a Toronto military recruitment office.

Police said Ali acted out his political and religious ideologies of his own volition, and not in connection with a terrorist group. Ontario’s lawyers argued Ali could be both the person who commits violence for the benefit of a terrorist group, and the terrorist group itself – an argument used to satisfy the terrorism offence section under Section 83.2 in the Criminal Code. In other words, they argued one person inspired by terrorist ideology who attacked someone in pursuit of that ideology could be a terrorist.

In May 2018, Superior Court Justice Ian MacDonnell acquitted him of the terror group charge. At the same time, MacDonnell found the mentally ill Ali not criminally responsible for offences that included attempted murder and assault with a weapon.

In 2019, Ontario prosecuted a Muslim woman named Rehab Dughmosh, who identified as a jihadist, and who swung a golf club and then a knife at Canadian Tire employees in Toronto before she was disarmed and restrained. Like Ali, Dughmosh acted alone. Like Ali, she also had mental health problems. In this case, lawyers proved she intended to benefit the terrorist group ISIS because she carried its flag and declared she was acting for ISIS. This was enough proof to meet the terrorism offence threshold, even though she was a lone actor and not formally connected to ISIS.

In 2020, a 17-year-old youth attacked women at a Toronto massage parlour, killing one. The young man’s identity, including his ethnicity, is protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Prosecutors upgraded his murder charges with terrorism charges because they argue that he acted to benefit the online “incel” (involuntary celibate) community that promotes violence against women. This case has not yet proceeded to trial.

What these cases tell us is the prosecutors can charge lone actors like the London truck driver with terror offences as long as they can prove he was acting to benefit a group that aims to carry out terrorist attacks. There are public reports the truck driver was wearing a swastika, according to interviews with the taxi driver who spoke to the truck driver as police arrived and arrested him.

The driver’s lawyers have not indicated whether they will raise the driver’s mental fitness for trial or as a defence against the charges.

The public may not learn what prompts investigators to decide whether to lay terror charges because in a terrorism trial, the prosecution commonly bars the public from hearing evidence that can compromise national security.

The Muslim community in London and across Canada will publicly and privately grieve this tragedy.

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Sarah Niman
Sarah Niman studied terrorism law at the University of Ottawa. She is a recent faculty of law graduate and current articling student. She is also a freelance journalist and Gladue Report writer for the courts.

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