Police Won’t Say Why Attack on Muslim Family was ‘Hate-Motivated’ and It’s Creating Conspiracies

Authorities remain tight-lipped about what evidence led them to quickly conclude the killing of a Muslim family in London, Ontario, was hate-motivated.
Members of the Muslim community and supporters light candles and place flowers at a memorial on Tuesday in London, Ontario.
Members of the Muslim community and supporters light candles and place
flowers at a memorial on Tuesday in London, Ontario. (Photo by IanWillms/Getty Images)

London police’s decision to withhold information surrounding the alleged murder of a Muslim family is causing conspiracies to spread and allowing extremists to write the narratives.

On Sunday, three generations of a Muslim family waiting at a London, Ontario, intersection were killed after a man driving a black pickup truck ran them down. Salman Afzaal, 46, Madiha Salman, 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, and Salman’s 74-year-old mother, Talat, were killed. The youngest in the family, Fayez, 9, is currently recovering in hospital.

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Seven kilometres away, in a mall parking lot, police arrested 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman and charged him with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder. A taxi driver witnessed Veltman laugh as he was arrested and may have had a swastika on his shirt, the driver’s employer told VICE World News. Police have not confirmed this information.

On Monday, police announced they had found evidence that led them to believe the attack was “hate-motivated.” But then they stopped releasing any information regarding the case and, despite multiple requests, have yet to describe what the evidence was.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made headlines when he declared the killing of the family was “a terrorist attack” in a House of Commons speech the day after the attacks.

“Their lives were taken in a brutal, cowardly, brazen act of violence,” he said. “This killing was no accident. This was a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred, in the heart of one of our communities.”

On Thursday, Defence Minister Bill Blair told the CBC the killing was “clearly hate-motivated”and “racist” and confirmed it is being “actively investigated as a terrorist act by the police authorities.” Blair did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication. 

At no point was the public informed, even in the broadest sense, of what sort of evidence driving these statements is. The lack of transparency is not surprising for Canadian authorities, who are notorious for providing the public and media with as little information as possible. That doesn’t make it less harmful, says the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a nonprofit that monitors hate groups.

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“The information void is causing bad actors and commentators to offer up explanations which amount to disinformation,” said deputy director Elizabeth Simons. “We’ve seen a lot of conspiracy theories from bad actors, such as claims that the attack is a false flag, in order to push through online harms legislation and kill free speech.

“It’s natural to try and make sense of horrific events, and the vacuum could also lead well-intentioned people to draw specious connections.”

Do you have information about Nathaniel Veltman? We’d love to hear from you. You can contact Mack Lamoureux securely on Wire at @mlamoureux, or by email at mack.lamoureux@vice.com

One well-known conspiracy theorist has already put out a video in which he attempted to sway his followers that the lack of evidence is proof the politicians are cynically using the situation to “gain more control.” Other conspiracies regard Veltman being a “patsy” set up by the government to push a Islamophobic narrative in order to steal people’s rights. In other, darker areas of the internet, neo-Nazis have have turned Veltman into one of their “saints”—someone who has killed for the neo-Nazi cause.

Marc-André Argentino, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, told VICE World News, “individuals are not only presented as heroes, but act as symbol and figurehead to refer to and justify the rightness of violent acts in the eyes of adherents and parts of a wider public.” 

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“The lack of information around an investigation, though important for law enforcement and due process, does have secondary effects in extremist circles, whereby threat actors get to craft and dominate the narrative in their ecosystems,” he said.

In interviews with Global News and the CBC, London police Chief Steve Williams said police “had the information early on that supported the evidence that this was a hate-motivated incident, that it was intentional, and that this family was targeted.”

But now that charges have been laid, he said police “have to be careful about what information we release.”

“We know that the steps we take are going to be scrutinized, and we don’t get any redos. We only have one shot to get this right,” said Williams. “One thing we have to do is keep our eye on the ball and play the long game.”

Williams told Global News police are currently investigating Veltman’s online footprints. That statement, paired with the context it was information they found early on that led them to the conclusion it was a hate crime, indicates the evidence may have been found on his person or in his truck at the time of the arrest.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network said it has spoken to Veltman’s colleagues and friends and conducted a full-scale look into his profile online but has yet to find anything that explains his actions. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to start answering that question until the police are more forthcoming,” Simons said.

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London police said they won’t provide any more information on the case as “the matter is currently before the courts.” 

Lawyer Caryma Sa’d told VICE World News she understands why the public doesn’t simply take the authorities’ word as gospel. Sa’d said the police have a fair bit of discretion when it comes to what and how much information they provide to the public. There could be several reasons why they’re holding back, she said, including not wanting to invite copycat killers or wanting the killings to become a trial in the court of public opinion. 

She said, as best she could see it, the decision was “discretionary.”

“It seems to me that in other high-profile cases, we do get information that the public has the right to know,” said S’ad. “The lack of information can be harmful and damaging in and of itself and that can also cause harm to the communities where the validity of what happened is being cast into doubt. That’s extremely traumatizing.”

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