Alek Minassian, the lone suspect in the Toronto van attack that police said “definitely appeared deliberate,” has been charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder after 10 pedestrians were killed and more than a dozen others were injured.
But many are questioning why terrorism charges haven’t been laid against the 25-year-old.
While the mass killing in Canada resembles deadly vehicle assaults by Islamic State supporters in the U.S. and Europe, Canadian officials have said it does not present a threat to national security. Police have not released any information on Minassian’s motive, citing ongoing court proceedings.
However, in a widely discussed Facebook post on Minassian’s page just before the attack, Minassian invoked “incels” — a misogynistic online community that blames their celibacy on women. Minassian’s Facebook post declared: “all hail Supreme Gentleman” in reference to Elliott Rodger, the man who murdered six women in California in 2014 as a punishment for rejecting him, according to a manifesto Rodger wrote before the killing spree.
“Incels are just a part of the broader alt-right and manosphere ideological stance — racist, sexist, xenophobic, nationalistic,” Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and co-director of a study on Western foreign fighters, told VICE News.
He added that the movement “definitely has an ideological framework.”
But whether or not Minassian’s alleged attack can be considered an act of terrorism depends on how much his actions were driven by that ideology, explained Amarasingam .
Ryan Scrivens, a post-doctoral fellow at Concordia University who focuses on right-wing extremism, echoes this.
“If Minassian targeted women specifically, then I'd be comfortable saying it fits the legal standard for a terror charge,” said Scrivens.
Police told reporters on Tuesday that the Yonge and Finch victims were predominantly young women, whom Minassian didn’t know. But according to witness accounts, he mounted the sidewalk and began plowing into people indiscriminately, hitting everything in his path, making the possibility of laying terror charges a lot more complicated.
“The fact that there are no terror charges is indicative of the fact that motive is not only hard to know, but hard to prove,” said Amarasingam.
“And it's kind of a waste of time when it comes to the prosecution. They have verifiable facts in front of them that they can use to prosecute. There is no reason, other than optics at this point, to try their luck in court on a terrorism charge, which may be unprovable.
Stephanie Carvin, a Carleton University professor and former national security analyst, also doesn’t believe the case meets the legal standard for terror charges.
“The authors of our terrorism legislation had in mind organized groups with clear ideologies,” she said. “This has been a serious problem for prosecuting groups that are inspired by right wing extremism, anti-government ideologies, fringe internet groups and conspiracy theories. There is no listed entity or coherent ideology.”
“The major difference in this case is that terrorism charges are more useful when you catch someone before they act,” she added. “Afterwards, if you can get them on murder charges, it doesn't make much of a sentencing difference. In fact, proving terrorism charges after the fact can be really draining in terms of resources at a time when you may already be under pressure in the aftermath of an attack.”
According to media reports citing people who knew Minassian, he would freeze up around women and couldn’t speak to any women except for his own mother. Former classmates described him as someone who didn’t have any serious religious or political convictions or violent tendencies, but was socially awkward and good with computers.
Alexandre Bissonnette, who shot and killed six Muslims in a Quebec City mosque last year when he was 27, was never charged with terrorism charges either. He pleaded guilty last month, and therefore never went to trial.
At his ongoing sentencing hearing, it was revealed that Bissonnette opposed welcoming refugees fleeing the U.S. for Canada, and President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Bissonnette also Googled Elliott Rodger before he attacked the mosque, the court heard.
Justin Bourque, who openly expressed his disdain for authorities before shooting five RCMP officers and killing three in 2014 was convicted of murder and attempted murder, and could not have been sentenced for a longer period of time even if terrorism charges had been laid.
To lay terrorism charges against Minassian, police would have to prove that his actions were carried out for some ideological, political or religious motivation with the intention of intimidating the public. They’d also have to establish that he was mentally capable of understanding his crime.
“There's no evidence of any political, religious or ideological motive,” said Amarnath. “So, why struggle in court to try to find it and prove it, when they have a bunch of attempted murder charges already?”
Minassian will return to court on May 10.