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CANADA LAYS TERROR CHARGES AGAINST VIOLENT ACTS OF ISLAMOPHOBIA

Updated: Aug 5

Hunter Engelhart, Ian Kemp, NORTHCOM Team; Chelsey Addy, Sophie Provins, Extremism Team

Week of Monday, June 28, 2021


United Against Islamophobia[1]


The June 6, 2021, vehicular attack against a Muslim family out for a walk in the city of London located in Ontario, Canada has resulted in the prosecution laying terrorism charges.[2] Nathaniel Veltman, 20 years old, killed four members of the Afzaal family, Salman Afzaal, his wife Madiha, their daughter Yumna, and the children's grandmother, with his truck in what police say, was a targeted attack due to the family’s Muslim faith.[3] This is the first time Canada’s anti-terrorism laws have been used to prosecute any act of Islamophobia.[4] To date, 55 individuals have been charged with terrorism offenses under Canada’s Criminal Code, yet a significant majority of them were connected to international terrorist organizations, or inspired by them, and were not homegrown.[5] It is very likely that this case will set a precedent and shape how future acts of Islamophobia are prosecuted in Canada by removing the rarity of prosecutors laying terror charges and influencing public opinion on the issue. Despite this, Crown Prosecutors, or government prosecutors, are faced with the difficult task of investigating terrorist motives, something they were unable to accomplish in the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting;[6] this could mean that although this case sets a precedent, it will not necessarily result in cases of potential Islamophobia including terrorism charges.


In Section 83.01 of Canada’s criminal code, terrorism is defined as an act that is committed for political, religious, or ideological purposes with the intent of intimidating the public about the country’s and public security.[7] Actions that are recognized under the criminal code include death or bodily harm with the use of violence, endangering a person’s life, risks directed towards a person’s life, significant property damage, or interference of essential services, facilities, or systems.[8] As Canada is under the Commonwealth of the Queen, and British Common law is the foundation of Canada’s criminal code, it should be noted that the British Terrorism Act (2006) defines terrorism as the use and threat of action that is made to influence the government or intimidate the public to advance a political, religious or ideological cause.[9] It is highly likely that prosecutors use definitions found within the criminal code as a framework when deciding the types of charges to be laid in a case. Clarification of the law needs to be determined immediately upon charges that are filed to provide a clear understanding of the circumstances at hand, especially since the act of terrorism has yet to have a universally agreed-upon definition.


Veltman was originally charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder by the London Police Service and the Crown prosecutor’s office.[10] A week after the initial charges were cited, the charges were amended by the federal prosecutor’s office to include the counts of terrorism alleging that the crime was committed for political, religious, or ideological purposes to intimidate the public or a segment of the public.[11] This attack has been deemed the largest mass killing in London’s history.[12] The fact that the largest mass killing was an act of violent Islamophobia is significant because it exemplifies the rise of hate crimes seen in the NORTHCOM region.[13] On June 10, 2021, Veltman made a court appearance without a lawyer present but was given time to find one, and on June 14, 2021 charges were revised to include terrorism. The case is subject to a publication ban, resulting in a lack of information that can be relayed or disseminated by the media until the criminal proceedings conclude.[14] A publication ban is put in part due to the safety of the defendant during proceedings as it is likely many members of the Muslim community and community at large feel a great deal of animosity towards Veltman. Because of the additional terrorism charges that were added, it reveals to the public, as well as terrorist organizations that these acts will not go unpunished or the individuals committing the crimes will not be charged with anything less than terrorism in Canada. This kind of trial will likely result in a large public following that will likely encourage other countries to follow suit with terrorism charges against individuals who incite fear and violence. This kind of attack on a community that has yet to see a heinous crime, as London has, will most likely have demonstrations or protests against and for the Muslim community that will cause conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims globally.


In Canada, the mandatory sentence for any adult convicted of murder is a life sentence, with the ability to apply for parole after a minimum of 25 years of their sentence for first-degree murder, and 10-25 years for second-degree murder as decided by the courts. There is no set request of sentencing when it comes to terrorism charges, although most of the time, terrorism charges run concurrently with previous charges filed (in this case, murder). It is most likely that the prosecutor’s office will petition for a life sentence for the additional terrorism charges that were added or it may also be likely that the prosecutor’s office will request that the terrorist charge run concurrent, allowing the defendant to serve all the charges at the same time, with the murder charges, should Veltman be found guilty.


This attack is the first of its kind in London, Ontario, and is a serious cause for concern regarding further hate crimes towards the Muslim community. Canada has recently been adding terrorist groups and organizations at a faster rate than normal, adding 13 groups since January 2021, when the insurrection occurred at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. In 2001, Canada created and enacted a new terrorism law that allowed federal prosecutors to charge individuals that acted on terroristic threats or plans towards the public. The June 2021 attack exemplifies putting the Canadian Terrorism Act into use. It is likely that the government of Canada and more specifically the Ministry of Public Safety is taking terrorism-related offenses more seriously, enacting legislation to combat terrorism and facilitating the prosecution of such offenses.


In 2017, a Mosque just outside of Quebec City was the scene of another violent act of Islamophobia; Alexandre Bissonette entered the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre and opened fire, killing six worshipers and gravely injuring five.[15] This incident is of historic significance because prosecutors did not pursue terrorism charges and demonstrate the significance of the June 2021 attack. It is likely that prosecutors could not lay terror charges due to meeting the stringent burden of “terrorist motive,” something difficult to prove for lone-wolf attackers without a group affiliation.[16] Bissonette expressed white nationalist sentiments online prior to the attack, but none expressed violent intent; it was highly unlikely that the prosecution could link the two beyond a reasonable doubt. With Veltman being charged with terrorism offenses in the June 2021 attack, it likely indicates that Crown Prosecutors can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Veltman had terror motives. It is highly unlikely that prosecutors would lay a charge that they did not have reasonable confidence in proving in court. It is likely that prosecutors have the necessary evidence for a strong terror case against Veltman, this is in contrast to Bissonette’s case.


Bissonette was not charged with terrorism offenses and his sentencing was reduced, further signifying a shift in prosecution between the two incidents. Quebec’s Court of Appeal ruled Bissonette’s two consecutive life sentences as cruel and unusual, thereby reducing his sentence to one life term, making him eligible for parole after 25 years served.[17] This sentence reduction likely had significant impacts on the Muslim community as well as how violent acts of Islamophobia were prosecuted prior to the June 2021 attack. It likely signaled to Canadian Muslims that the justice system treats attacks on their faith as any other crime, leaving them feeling vulnerable. The 2017 attack could have likely fortified the legal status quo in place until June of 2021 in where acts of violent Islamophobia are met with murder charges regardless of motivations. The significance of historic major acts of violent Islamophobia not being met with terror charges implies that prosecutors are now willing to take the risk of proving terrorist intent, unlike in the past. It is likely that public opinion, including pressure from minority communities, and access to an attacker’s social media and internet history support this change in prosecution.


Throughout the world in 2021, hate crimes have increased including against the Muslim community.[18] In the United States (US) and Canada, crimes that have included hate speech, slurs, physical attacks, vandalism, and death threats have targeted the Muslim faith and places of worship, which have spurred global protests to stop the violence. Thousands of people marched around 7km from where the Afzaal family were killed in Ontario, Canada on June 11, 2021. In Paris, France, activists gathered on February 14, 2021, to demand that the French government abandon the bill aimed at Islamist extremists but threatened to turn Muslims into potential suspects. Hate crimes will likely continue throughout Canada and the US due to the lack of legal ramifications for individuals committing hate crimes. Due to the lack of consequence, animosity between Muslims and other communities will likely continue and cause more hate crimes to occur.


It is likely that there will be a response from right-wing groups to the use of terror charges. Far-right groups, particularly those of a Neo-Nazi ideology, strongly believe in the Great Replacement theory that argues that White people are being replaced by those of other races and cultures. Muslim communities have already been the target of right-wing extremist groups’ attacks, as well as lone-wolf actors acting in the name of the right-wing ideology. The Canadian Government has increased the number of groups that they identify as terrorist groups; it is likely that, as groups respond to the Islamophobia charges, more groups will be added to the list of terrorist groups in Canada.


The Proud Boys’ Canadian division dissolved itself in May 2021, despite having been the founding cell of the group. They had been designated a terrorist group by the Canadian Government only a couple of months earlier in February and had been identified as the biggest threat to Canadian national security. However, Proud Boys members are highly likely to continue believing in its ideology, increasing the likelihood that they join other ideologically aligned groups. The use of terror charges for the first time is likely to accelerate former members seeking new groups to join and to act upon their ideology by committing acts of terror. The Proud Boys are a right-wing extremist group, and therefore are likely to target Jewish communities, as well as Black individuals or ethnic minorities. Popular tactics of the group included harassment, picketing, and violence, all of which are likely to be conducted by former members.


Veltman’s terrorism charge is a major step in enhancing the perceived security of Candian Muslims, and will almost certainly impact future prosecutions. This charge shows the Muslim community that the Canadian Government values them and will protect them, but it also works as a deterrent to mitigate/ prevent future attacks against Muslim people. Now that the precedent has been set for ideologically charged attacks against the Muslim community, the Canadian justice system will now be more likely to charge perpetrators who carry out similar attacks. If it proves to be successful and Veltman is successfully prosecuted under the law, it will pave the way for other cases to be activated and other terror acts of Islamophobia to be properly tried and charged. This will revolutionize how acts of terror are prosecuted, and although there would likely be an initial spike in acts of Islamophobia, it would lead to a long-term deterrent and therefore safety within the Muslim community in Canada. This is beneficial to Muslims because in the past the government has been wary to label similar attacks as terrorism and giving the attacker a terrorism charge. It is likely to make the Canadian Parliament passed legislation focused on violent acts against Muslims in Canada to prevent future attacks. However, if this act does not successfully get prosecuted and Veltman is found to be innocent, it will further limit the use of the law. This will ensure that acts of terror conducted due to Islamophobia remain unconvicted and therefore there will be no requirement to prove this in the court of law.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to monitor acts of Islamophobia across Canada and how they are prosecuted. CTG’s NORTHCOM Team specializes in the region and will continue to produce relevant reports to ensure that all individuals are informed about the evolving situation. CTG’s Extremism Team will continue to monitor for the evolution of new terror groups and ideologies as they emerge across Canada, particularly for known former Proud Boys members. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats Crimes and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers and Threat Hunters use open-source intelligence (OSINT) to monitor and provide 24/7 analysis utilizing unbiased sources to ensure that all information used is accurate.

__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]United Against Islamophobia” by michael_swan licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Terror charges against London, Ont. attack suspect could be Canadian legal milestone, CTV News, June 2021, https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/terror-charges-against-london-ont-attack-suspect-could-be-canadian-legal-milestone-1.5470920

[3] Ibid

[4] The terrorism charge filed in the London attack is the first of its kind in Canada, The Conversation, June 2021, https://theconversation.com/the-terrorism-charge-filed-in-the-london-attack-is-the-first-of-its-kind-in-canada-162739

[5] Ibid

[6] Quebec City mosque shooter: Canada court reduces sentence, BBC, November 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55095956

[7] Memorializing the Victims of Terrorism, Department of Justice, January 2015, https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/victim/rr09_6/p3.html

[8] Criminal Code, Government of Canada, Justice Laws Website, June 2021, https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-46/page-13.html

[9] Ibid

[10] The terrorism charge filed in the London attack is the first of its kind in Canada, The Conversation, June 2021, https://theconversation.com/the-terrorism-charge-filed-in-the-london-attack-is-the-first-of-its-kind-in-canada-162739

[11] Ibid

[12] Man suspected of killing Canadian Muslim family was motivated by hate -police, Reuters, June 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/four-killed-by-car-were-victims-anti-islamic-hate-crime-canada-police-2021-06-07/

[13] Leaders react to rise in antisemitic, anti-Muslim hate crimes in U.S., NBC, May 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/now/video/leaders-react-to-rise-in-antisemitic-anti-muslim-hate-crimes-in-u-s-113335365881

[14] Ibid

[15] Quebec City mosque shooter: Canada court reduces sentence, BBC, November 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55095956

[16] Terror charges unlikely in Quebec City mosque shooting: lawyer, CTV News, February 2017 https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/terror-charges-unlikely-in-quebec-city-mosque-shooting-lawyer-1.3274551

[17] Quebec City mosque shooter: Canada court reduces sentence, BBC, November 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55095956

[18] Leaders react to rise in antisemitic, anti-Muslim hate crimes in U.S., NBC, May 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/now/video/leaders-react-to-rise-in-antisemitic-anti-muslim-hate-crimes-in-u-s-113335365881

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