How the RCMP Dealt With the Media During a Suspected Terror Attack
Police scrambled to control the narrative around Aaron Driver’s death after shooting the terror suspect in 2016, documents show.
Right image: Aaron Driver leaves the Law Courts in Winnipeg, Tuesday, February 2, 2016. | Images via CP.
Canadian federal police scrambled to control the narrative around the death of suspected terrorist Aaron Driver, who was shot and killed by RCMP officers in 2016, documents obtained by VICE show.
Hundreds of documents obtained through an Access to Information request provide a behind-the-scenes look at police efforts to shape the story around the killing of Driver, a 24-year-old Islamic State sympathizer who was under a peace bond with the RCMP at the time of his death. (A peace bond is an order issued by a judge requiring a person to adhere to certain conditions, and is often used where someone shows signs of radicalization, but hasn’t committed any crime.)
Driver was shot and killed after setting off an explosive device in the back of a taxi outside his home in Strathroy, Ontario in August 2016. Based on a tip from the FBI, police believed Driver—who had been on the radar of the RCMP and CSIS since 2014 for posting pro-ISIS messages online—was on his way to set off the explosive device in a public place when they confronted him. As tactical officers moved in, Driver set off the device, injuring himself and the taxi driver before being shot dead by police.
Internal RCMP briefings produced in the hours following the event contain different versions of the events that led to Driver’s killing. Draft press releases and internal emails from during and after the event show police managing the language and characterizations used to describe the operation that preceded his death, shedding light on how police work hard to control the narrative during sensitive events.
Amarnath Amarasingam, an extremism researcher who spoke with Driver several times in the years before his death, said that it would have been “more worthwhile” for police to focus on providing information to the public rather than fretting over the messaging used to describe the event.
“Police spent more time clarifying details to protect themselves, rather than providing useful info to the public,” said Amarasingam, who has seen the new documents. Amarasingam believes that more frequent updates would have helped “reduce confusion” about what was happening.
“There was a lot of confusion around that event. Journalists were messaging me, I tweeted at the time ‘There’s only one guy I know [who might be the suspect], I hope it’s not him,’” Amarasingam said.
A timeline created by the RCMP breaks down how the events of August 10, 2016 unfolded.
At 4:30 a.m., RCMP received a tip from the FBI that an “unknown individual” was in the final stages of planning an attack using a homemade explosive device. FBI described the suspect as a Caucasian male in his mid-twenties and suggested he intended to target an urban area during rush hour, but couldn’t say where he was planning to strike.
By 11 a.m. RCMP had received a copy of a “martyr video” from national security agencies that provided clues as to the suspect’s identity. Around this time, Ontario Provincial Police and officers from nearby Toronto and London decided the suspect could be Driver and set up surveillance at his home and workplace in Strathroy.
Internal RCMP emails reveal the sense of urgency that day.
At 11:13 a.m., RCMP communications advisor Regis Dudley sent an email to spokesperson Harold Pfeiderer with the subject line “Imminent Threat Today for Canada - MUST READ”.
“Hi Harold, [RCMP director] Lia Scanlan has asked me to flag this as super urgent and high priority. We really need lines or direction asap,” Dudely wrote, referring to the need for police to have information ready to respond to media enquiries.
RCMP communications staff then began coordinating the messaging that would be presented to the public.
Internal emails show that media enquiries about a potential terror threat started pouring in to the RCMP around 11:30 a.m. as staff prepared initial responses about the situation. A draft press release titled “RCMP Arrests Individual Planning a Terrorism Attack” was written up with placeholders for the suspect’s name to be added later, and a press conference was scheduled for the next day.
Driver’s arrest didn’t happen. At 4:18 p.m., RCMP officers moved in on Driver as he sat in the back of a taxi outside his home. Driver set off the explosive device he was carrying and was shot dead by police.
At 4:38 p.m., after Driver’s death, emails show RCMP communications staff remained unaware of the latest developments. A staffer wrote a colleague saying that “Ops believe the POI [person of interest] is in a home. This could be short/long term success on arrest, therefore we are going,” they wrote.
At 4:50 p.m. an officer wrote to their colleagues “I can confirm that the POI exited the residence, and is currently in custody-no other details known.” A few minutes later, RCMP staff flagged a tweet sent by a civilian, concerned that it could “affect the operation.”
“!!!A friend works for Canadian forces, a national alert has been sent out about possible terrorist attack. Stay safe” read the tweet.
Media enquiries increased around this time. “Just got another one from CTV news, I directed him toi [sic] NHQ [national headquarters] he said no one answering,” wrote a staff member.
At 6:47 p.m., an officer wrote “Head’s-up… information of the arrest is already circulating publicly,” and noted that police would likely be expected to “provide additional details tonight.” Just after 7 p.m., RCMP issued a press release that didn’t provide any details about Driver’s death but stated that in response to a “potential terrorist threat” police had taken the “proper course of action” to ensure public safety.
(A CTV story from August 10 said police were able to “thwart” a terrorist attack, but provided no details about Driver’s identity or death.)
At that time, staff were drafting a detailed account of Driver’s death. By late in the evening, the goal of the RCMP press conference scheduled for the following day had been settled.
“As discussed, the focus is to position the RCMP as being on top of this from the beginning,” wrote one officer.
As drafts of media talking points were circulated, an officer took issue with saying it was “challenging” for police to identify Driver from pictures where his face was covered.
“Challenging is not a positive word,” they wrote, suggesting it be replaced with “due to the swift efforts of our skilled and experienced investigators” police were able to identify Driver. The final language used in both a press release and a statement by RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson on August 11 removed the word ‘challenging’.
RCMP were careful about how the incident was explained internally. A draft of an internal briefing note for officers prepared the night of Driver’s death stated that officers had “discharged their firearms” during the confrontation. James Mazilia, then in charge of Federal Policing Operations for RCMP, suggested “We may want to hold off on the ‘discharging of firearms’ as it will initiate a number of questions.”
Briefing notes prepared by RCMP Inspector Peter Koersvelt for Commissioner Paulson describe different versions of the events that led to Driver’s death.
A briefing circulated internally by Koersvelt the night of August 10 mostly aligns with the official version of events, stating that Driver exited his house, “put something in a garbage can” and put another item into the taxi before getting in himself, at which point police moved in.
But in a second briefing note circulated internally the night of August 11, Koersvelt wrote that police confronted Driver as he walked toward the taxi.
“RCMP [emergency response team] engaged Driver, who then threw an object into the taxi. A small explosion inside the taxi followed,” the briefing reads. It states that Driver then exhibited threatening behavior and refused to follow commands before being shot.
Another briefing note circulated internally and copied to RCMP’s national security criminal operations team prepared and circulated by an unknown party earlier in the day of August 11 stated that Driver was in the taxi when officers approached, but that Driver reached for “an unknown item while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’” when he was shot.
Amarasingam said that in his view it’s “bizarre” that police wrote up several different versions of Driver’s death. He pointed out that the most reliable reporting would come from those on the ground and cited Terry Duffield, the taxi driver who believed he was put in danger by the RCMP’s actions that day. (Duffield says Driver was in the taxi when police approached.)
At the first official press conference held after Driver’s death on August 11, RCMP said that Driver had set off the device in the back of the taxi, settling once and for all the official version of events.
Amarasingam said Driver was unique among “ISIS fanboys” because he was one of the first openly pro-ISIS Canadians, talking openly on social media about his support for the terror group and giving interviews to media. Driver was Caucasian, which Amarasingam said Driver believed gave him an “advantage over Muslims and refugees” in that he could talk “more publicly [about ISIS] without consequences, because he was white.”
Amarasingam said Driver’s attempted attack surprised him.
“I had just texted with him a month or two before the attack. He had a job, friends… he seemed isolated, but OK,” Amarasingam said.
But he noted that despite appearing stable, Driver was still posting regularly on social media about ISIS. “Even after the peace bond, he never quieted down.”