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Why a Canadian Court Released an ISIS Supporter

Civil liberties groups came to his defense and his conditions were relaxed. Now he's dead, killed while planning a terror attack.

An RCMP screengrab of one of Driver's terror recordings. Justin Tang/Canadian Press

When Aaron Driver was released on a peace bond back in June 2015, a mere 11 days after the RCMP said they found recipes to make homemade bombs on his computer, he had 25 bail conditions attached to his name. They included wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet, and taking part in "religious counseling." The idea behind those two specific peace bond conditions was that while Driver posed no "imminent threat" to national security, he was a radicalized individual whom authorities needed to keep constant tabs on.


A year later he was dead, killed in a hail of police gunfire while setting off an explosive device.

According to the RCMP, Driver was planning an attack at an "urban center during rush hour." The FBI had alerted Canadian authorities earlier on Wednesday about an "unknown individual that was clearly in the final stages of planning an attack using a homemade explosive device." A deadly encounter ensued in the tiny town of Strathroy, Ontario, as police confronted the 24-year-old while he was in the back of a cab. He set off a bomb while in the back seat, causing police to open fire. It's not known if the explosion or the gunfire killed him.

Police on the scene in Strathroy, Ontario. Dave Chidley/Canadian Press

In theory, it should not have come to this. Peace bonds, are essentially restraining orders that are issued when authorities do not have actual evidence of a crime against an individual, but have sufficient evidence that the said individual might commit a crime. Conditions are imposed on the individual to deter him/her from committing a crime. If those conditions are violated, incarceration serves as the next form of punishment.

In Driver's case however, nothing seemed to be a deterrent. In fact, some argue that the peace bond conditions might have been what pushed him further over the edge.

"The deterrent effect didn't work for Driver; in fact it may have been the various prohibitive conditions of the peace bond that drove him to move from ideological support for terrorism to action," says Wesley Wark, a leading Canadian expert on issues related to intelligence, national security, and terrorism.


However, Driver's peace bond conditions were actually relatively relaxed.

Just over a year before Driver was killed, his lawyer Leonard Tailleur challenged his bail conditions, arguing that they violated his charter rights. Tailluer's claim was echoed by various civil liberties groups, including the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties. At that point in time, MARL argued that there were "serious human rights and civil liberties issues to be considered" in Driver's situation.

Tailleur's challenge was successful. Driver was no longer required to attend religious counseling or be subject to a curfew. Six months later, in February 2016, another victory: Driver no longer had to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet, but was prohibited from using his computer and cellphone.

"I don't think we know whether the peace bond conditions were strict enough—but on hindsight they probably weren't," says Craig Forcese, a professor of Canadian and comparative national security law at the University of Ottawa, and co-author of "False security: The Radicalization of Canadian anti-terrorism."

"There are so many unanswered questions here. If he had worn an electronic bracelet, would his efforts to acquire material to make a bomb have been detected? Why wasn't he more closely monitored? Why was the RCMP's intervention at the eleventh hour?"

Michelle Falk, Executive Director at MARL admits that hindsight is 20-20. "Every piece of evidence we had at that time pointed towards the fact that he wasn't a threat to society. But this was a unique case—Aaron Driver turned out to be a bad apple in the bunch."


Police gather evidence at Driver's residence. Dave Chidley/Canadian Press

The underlying issue when it comes to balancing national security and civil liberties is that every case is different—human beings are complex, and their motivations to commit violence are often not as straightforward as we would like to make them out to be. Aaron Driver had a fraught history—he struggled to operate according to the conventions of Western society, and sought solace and a sense of belonging in an extreme interpretation of Islam. A legal formula that broadly balances individual rights and the safety of Canadians might not work for everyone.

"No one really knows how to do this properly," says Forcese. "We need a bunch of different tools—some legal, some social. The art is trying to figure out how to deploy these tools in a meaningful manner, but the truth is, until we figure that out, we are going to fail."

Wark argues that this so-called "lone wolf" phenomenon is not really a thing. "Lone wolves are not lone—they express their views, especially through social media, have contacts and circles of acquaintances."

Wark believes intelligence is only one way to prevent "lone wolf" attacks—the key deterrent is community support and engagement.

"This is one of the biggest counter-terrorism lessons Canada and other countries have learned—your best eyes and ears are not the bugs and surveillance of popular imagination, but communities, families, and community leaders who share a sense of the threat posed by terrorism and are willing to work with authorities."

At the end of the day, something went wrong in the case of Aaron Driver.

"For whatever reason, something changed with Aaron. He went from being a relatively harmless kid who was making radical statements, to what we would define as a political terrorist. That's a big move. There are very few people that will make that move, and there are even fewer that will be able to detect when the move might happen," says Forcese. "A peace bond will only get you so far."

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