Though unprecedented, Wednesday's attack on the Canadian Parliament was, in many ways, only a matter of time. The country has no shortage of people who have been swayed by extremist movements and who are thus a security risk. On a broader geopolitical level, such incidents underscore the challenges that Western nations will have in terms of fighting radical non-state actors overseas while maintaining security and democracy at home.
A gunman identified as a suspected jihadist opened fire at the war memorial in the Canadian capital, killing a soldier. Moments later, the shooter was able to make his way into the nearby Parliament building, where he traded fire with policemen not far from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's location before the Parliament's sergeant-at-arms shot the gunman dead. Authorities in Ottawa described the situation as "ongoing" and "fluid." It is unclear if the attacker acted alone or if a second attacker was involved, and Ottawa police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other agencies are still conducting searches. A day earlier, a man identified as a radicalized Muslim convert rammed his vehicle into two soldiers in a suburb of Montreal. These incidents take place days after Canada raised its threat level from low to medium for the first time since August 2010 in the wake of increased chatter among jihadist groups about an attack on Canadian soil. Moreover, these incidents occurred as Canadian military forces in the Middle East participated in operations against the Islamic State.
Last month, the Islamic State's official spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, issued a message calling on followers to attack soldiers and noncombatants from Western countries. His list of target countries included Canada. "Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him," al-Adnani said.
The details of Wednesday's attack are sketchy, and it is not clear if the attacker was a homegrown lone wolf, part of a domestic group or tied to transnational jihadist networks. Although the attacker did not exhibit sophisticated terrorist tradecraft, he does represent the fear that Western citizens attracted to radical Islam could carry out attacks in the West. Western nations have been concerned about the potential for such a trend for 13 years, ever since the Sept. 11 attacks. However, the rise of the Islamic State has brought this issue to a new level, given that many nationals from Western countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State.
Challenges for the West
Western nations have a dual challenge: working with regional partners in the Middle East to combat groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda while ensuring a spillover of the war does not occur at home. Fighting transnational jihadism in the Middle East is a major undertaking in itself, given the geopolitics of the region. The situation on the domestic front has its own complications.
The domestic security situation involves dealing with citizens or permanent residents who either are from Muslim countries or are indigenous Western Muslims who are interested in situations in the Middle East. Transnational jihadists are interested in attacks in the West because they engender a level of mistrust between Western states and their Muslim citizens. This suspicion leads to security measures that appear to target Muslim communities whose members are already struggling with issues of identity and finding their place within the national mainstream. While most Muslims in the West are law-abiding citizens, a non-trivial number are still attracted to radical agendas.
Law enforcement agencies are thus caught between the need to ensure security and the need to avoid eroding civil liberties. Many Western countries in recent years have initiated programs to counter violent extremism, but they are in their nascent stages. Maintaining security at home while fighting jihadists abroad will require Western governments to understand the strategic intent behind these unsophisticated attacks.