Screencap of Shane Smith and Abu Usamah via YouTube.
In a recent interview that spread far and wide, social media's most famous jihadist, Calgary-born Abu Usamah, spoke with VICE co-founder and CEO Shane Smith. It was a follow-up to an earlier conversation I had with Usamah in May, and through the course of their conversation, the confident jihadist threatened America, said the White House would one day fly the flag of the Islamic State, and declared that IS planned to launch an attack on New York City.
Shortly after Smith’s back-and-forth, I reached out to Usamah—who is widely believed to be 21 year-old Farah Mohamed Shirdon from Calgary—to specifically discuss Canada. In our conversation over the chat platform Kik Messenger, he told me Canadians are not immune to attack by IS.
“Canadians at home shall face the brunt of the retaliation,” he told me via text. “If you are in this crusader alliance against Islam and Muslims you shall see your streets filled with blood Inshaa Allah.”
Canada has already committed special forces instructors to train Kurdish Peshmerga fighters—a group in active rivalry with IS in Iraq.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said American officials asked him to commit more to the war efforts against IS, and on Friday, he outlined a bombing campaign involving up to 10 aircraft, including six Canadian CF-18 fighters and 600 personnel. This week, the government plans to hold a vote in Parliament on the military operation against IS.
“Blood has to flow," said Usamah, identifying himself under his Kik messenger pseudonym. “Attack us in our homes, we shall do the same.” When asked if attacks were planned in his native Calgary or elsewhere in Canada, Usamah laughed it off: “Lol bye. I can’t be bothered to speak to journalists anymore.”
Usamah’s bravado also made it difficult to decipher legitimate threats from hyperbole, which makes it tough to know how serious the domestic threat to Canadians really is.
I asked CSIS about Abu Usamah's statements and a spokesperson told me they "won’t be engaging in this story," referring me to past statements on concerns the intelligence agency has for exported Canadian terrorists.
"CSIS has publicly expressed alarm... about the increasing number of Canadian citizens or residents who leave the country to participate in terrorist activities abroad," read the statement.
As of yet, Canada is one of the few western countries that has avoided a terrorist attack. Our intelligence agencies foiled homegrown Islamic militants known as the Toronto 18 in 2006 from carrying out a beheading and execution plan involving high profile Canadian politicians, while another planned bombing attack against a Canadian VIA rail train was foiled by the RCMP (with possible help from CSIS and CSEC).
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former CSIS intelligence officer, told me tireless work from intelligence agencies is to thank for Canada's immaculate record thus far. Nonetheless, we need to remain vigilant, especially in the face of IS' emerging threats.
“We cannot joke with [threats], or put our heads in the sand and say ‘it’s not going to happen here we’re the good guys,’” said Juneau-Katsuya. “Because we’re not identified as the good guys anymore. We’re identified as part of the coalition. Our Prime Minister has been quite vocal… We must assume there’s a threat.”
Given that planned attacks by IS linked militants in western nations have already occurred—like the recently foiled attacks in Australia—the former CSIS agent said there’s no question Canada can easily be a target.
“We don’t necessarily have any open information that they currently have sleeping agents in Canada,” said Katsuya. “That said, we know they have been capable of recruiting. So if they’re capable of recruiting people who have left the country to fight with them, we might assume they’re capable of telling new recruits to ‘stay put, we’re going to tell you what to do in Canada.’”
Juneau-Katsuya maintains radicalized lone wolves living in Canada, inspired by Usamah and IS at large, are the unpredictable ace-in-the-hole CSIS has worried about for years. Those types of attacks are best characterized by the Boston bombers—terrorists who likely act outside of the operational confines of professional jihadist networks, but are informed by similar ideologies. Lone wolves are also incredibly difficult to track; as they’re not known affiliates of surveilled targets that would arouse suspicion.
Usamah bragging about his new Twitter account.
While al-Qaeda executed high profile attacks in New York, London, and Mumbai, what separates IS from their predecessors is their willingness to pull off horrific small-scale acts, like beheadings, that generates fear without requiring elaborate planning.
“The ISIS strategy is to hit everybody in their zone of comfort and security, and plant insecurity instead,” said Juneau-Katsuya, something he said was evident in how the group has maintained a reign of terror in their zones of occupation in Iraq and Syria.
It's clear that militants with IS consider the new bombing campaigns carried out by American and allied forces as direct intervention against Islam, and are soliciting their own military response by targeting Western assets. With Canada entering the latest Iraqi campaign, you can expect the Great North to pop up in more threatening videos from militants the world over. Whether or not that translates into legitimate on the ground threats remains to be seen.
Amidst the hellfire and Tomahawk missiles raining down on IS targets this week, it's hard to imagine these bombing campaigns aren't slowing down IS operations—or inciting payback.
But threats to Americans and Canadians really means one thing: projecting strength and crafting a narrative of fear. Consider how that tactic was employed to great success against Iraqi forces in June. Tweeted images of beheadings and mass executions made Iraqi soldiers nervous, with some infamously abandoning their positions and shedding their military uniforms as IS advanced. Fear in the western world could force governmenst to spend big on anti-terror operations, or force the average citizen to avoid going on planes.
In August, news of Usamah’s supposed death spread across the Twitterverse of jihadists in Syria, as many considered it to be fact, only for Usamah to re-emerge online a month later. (He responded to my messages stating that he was indeed alive, over a month after I attempted to confirm it with him personally.)
We were unable to confirm Abu Usamah’s identity independently, but his Kik account is well-known to be linked to his active online profile.
As for Usamah in the immediate term, he told me not long ago that he’s safe and sound in Mosul, Iraq, where locals, he claims, love him.
“Everyone loves us…. cant wait til (the US) piss off 2 million sunnis and (they) pick up guns. Looooool,” he said.