Serious questions need to be asked in the wake of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) killing of supposed terror suspect Aaron Driver (24), shot by RCMP officers on August 10 following an apparent tip from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). RCMP claim Driver detonated an explosive device in a cab and that he was killed because he had access to another device. Among the questions that require answers are how someone who was on a terror peace bond which restricted his actions and access to the internet could compile information and materials to build a bomb and build it under such conditions. It must also be answered why someone under watch by RCMP as a terror suspect was able to leave his house with two supposed bombs with no intervention beforehand (and after the supposed tip was received).
These questions, and questions about RCMP anti-terror operations more broadly, are particularly pressing given that the killing of Driver comes within a month of a major court decision finding that the RCMP had entrapped two poor people, dealing with mental health and addiction issues, in a phony police created and directed “terror threat.” In that case the RCMP spent millions of dollars in labor and resource to target and prime two poor residents of Surrey, B.C., John Nutall and Amanda Korody, lavishing gifts and attention on them in an attempt to get them to go along with a fake terror plot instigated and planned by the RCMP. The court decision confirmed that the threat came only from the RCMP, who conceived it and provided all of the means to carry it out (the supposed bomb had no detonator), and who manipulated the reluctant and confused couple to go along, even as they offered resistance, for fear of losing the newfound benefits being provided by the RCMP (in meals, companionship, etc.).
Given this context the real, and fundamental, question is why anyone should trust and accept the RCMP version of events. This case has the markings of distortion and deception that mark other so-called anti-terror investigations in the Canadian state context from the Germinal Collective case (even before 9/11) to “Project Thread,” through the “Toronto 18,” to the entrapment of John Nuttall and Amanda Korody. In the Germinal Collective, “Toronto 18” and Nuttall and Korody cases in particular, the police were actively, centrally, involved in the instigating, planning, encouraging, and operationalizing of terror acts that were never carried out (and never would have been in the absence of police). As Shantz (2016) writes, these cases are primarily designed and carried out to give the police justification for continued or expanded resources and to stoke social fear, social phobias (particularly Islamophobia, fear of migrants, and fear of poor people).
The Killing of Aaron Driver
The killing of Aron Driver by RCMP officers apparently began with a tip from the FBI that a person in Canada was possibly planning to carry out a terrorist attack. There have also been reports that the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), which operates the city’s subway, buses, and trolley cars, received a threat against the transit system. In response to the FBI tip, details of which are not known, the RCMP descended upon the home of Aaron Driver, a young man who had been arrested and released on an anti-terror peace bond for attempting to justify the actions of ISIS as acts of self-defense in a time of war. Driver had not been observed or charged for engaging in any activities related to terrorism. He had been targeted solely for his ideas and social media presence.
On the surface the RCMP killing of Aaron Driver, if one is to believe events as the police describe them, is fairly straightforward. On Wednesday, August 10, 2016, the federal RCMP converged on the house in which Aaron Driver was living in the community of Strathroy, a small city of around 20,000 people in southwestern Ontario. Sometime after 4:00 PM police observed Driver leave his residence and enter a taxi waiting in his driveway. Police report that shortly thereafter, as police approached the vehicle, Driver detonated an explosive device injuring himself and causing minor injuries to the taxi operator. The police also claim seeing a second device and responding by shooting Driver, killing him.
So far all of the details provided have come only from the RCMP who have been the only ones to claim to be witnesses to these events. Yet why should we believe the RCMP account? And what sorts of questions need to be asked about it? A closer look at the Driver case leaves many questions hanging in the air.
Punishing Bad Thoughts: The Aaron Driver Case
Of note, Driver had been initially targeted for punishment by police not for any suspected actions but simply for attempting to justify the actions of ISIS in online venues. That is, the police targeting of Aaron Driver was an early effort by the state to criminalize people simply for expressing “bad thoughts”—a repressive policy approach, in violation of civil and human rights, which Conservative and Liberal governments alike have pursued and sought to expand in the Canadian context (on the policing of bad thoughts see Shantz 2014).
Aaron Driver had come to the attention of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in October of 2014 when he was reported to be tweeting support for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria under the online name of Harun Abdurahman. Driver had also justified the 2014 attack on a ceremonial officer at Ottawa’s War Memorial and run to Parliament Hill (seat of federal government) by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, as a military response to Canadian military actions in Iraq and Syria. For this Driver was arrested and brought before the court in Winnipeg.
Driver was released on an anti-terror peace bond. Under its terms he was not allowed to associate with any terrorist organization and was under prohibitions against using a computer or cellphone. Driver was also required to live at a specified address in Strathroy, Ontario and to notify a specified RCMP sergeant should there be any changes in his address (Canadian Press 2016).
The peace bond allows for intermediate constraints on a person’s liberty on the basis of evidence that would not be sufficient to prove an actual terrorism offence (Forcese 2016). As one can see there are real spaces for abuse and unjust application with such an instrument. Indeed the court is unlikely to turn down any request by the federal government to apply an anti-terror peace bond.
And recall that John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, who had spent three years incarcerated under what was nothing other than an RCMP entrapment scheme, were re-arrested mere hours after being released following the finding of entrapment. That was clearly a punitive (and mean-spirited) attempt by the government, and RCMP, to save some face or recoup some losses.
After Driver’s killing his former lawyer, Leonard Tailleur, stated publicly that there was no evidence that the young man was in any way directly affiliated with ISIS or with any other supposed terrorist organization (Canadian Press 2016). He found the claims of police against Driver to not fit with the man’s character as he knew him. According to Tailleur: “It’s shocking. Absolutely shocking, actually. He was generally looked to be low risk as long as there’s certain things that had been dealt with” (quoted in Canadian Press 2016)
Tailleur suggested that the killing of Aaron Driver raises some significant questions. He notes that Driver was almost certainly under regular police surveillance (Canadian Press 2016). In Tailleur’s words: “If he was doing his thing, it was kind of ridiculous because I’m certain he was going to be under scrutiny beyond his peace bond. Police would always monitor his whereabouts … They’d make him a priority” (quoted in Canadian Press 2016). So how could he compile materials and instructions to construct two bombs? How could he leave his house with the two bombs in hand? Why was he not stopped before entering a cab and putting a cabbie at risk?
Even from a liberal perspective many questions arise from the killing of Aaron Driver. Legal scholar Craig Forcese outlines some of these:
“How did someone known to authorities and subject to a peace bond get as far as posing a credible (and perhaps actual) suicide bomb threat?
“Why was the police intervention 11th hour, in the nick of time (and perhaps after it, given that there was a reported explosion causing injury)?
“Given the presence of a weapon and that there was apparently a computer video involved, Driver was in clear violation of his peace bond terms (and so basically automatically subject to imprisonment for up to 4 years). So why was there no arrest much earlier?
“Why was there no public warning?
“All of this is to say: Where was the early detection? Was this a resource issue? Did something go missing? Will be discussing a failure to ‘connect the dots’?” (Forcese 2016)
All of this leads inexorably to the question: “Was the Aaron Driver killing part of yet another entrapment case, like Germinal and like Nuttall and Korody, which somehow went too far or took an unforeseen turn?” Or: “Was it a dangerous game of chicken in which the RCMP miscalculated?” Regardless of one’s view on the matter of this killing by police, it is clear that answers will not be provided by RCMP or CSIS accounts alone.
What Comes of It: Fear Politics and Continuing Repression
To properly understand the real impact and consequences of the RCMP killing of Aaron Driver socially we need only look to current debates over anti-terror laws, particularly the controversial and widely unpopular Anti-Terrorism Act (better known as Bill C-51) initiated by the then-ruling Conservative government prior to the 2016 election, and the recent rebuke of RCMP practices in the Nuttall-Korody decision. This includes a call that emerged immediately in response to the Driver killing to review, and stiffen, terror related peace bonds, the same control mechanisms notably that the government seeks to impose on Nuttall and Korody and for which cause they were re-arrested shortly after their release following the entrapment decision. After the Driver killing the calls are to make the peace bonds even more restrictive and punitive.
The Driver killing comes as critics have been calling for the Liberal government to finally follow through on their election promise, prominent during the campaign, to revise C-51. Now the discussions of possible C-51 revisions will be shadowed by the Driver case and its use by security forces and politicians alike to defend the legislation and perhaps even build upon it.
The cynic will certainly note that on two other occasions in which C-51 and anti-terror laws were set to be debated in federal parliament the discussions were inflamed by highly visible so-called acts of terrorism. Perhaps ironically, the most recent one included the shooting of Canadian Forces soldier Nathan Cirillo by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the online justification of which brought river to the attention of the security apparatus in the first place. It might be noted that, in terms of definitions of terrorism, Zehaf-Bibeau only sought military and government targets and did not target or harm civilians even as he had ample opportunity to do so during his adventure in busy downtown Ottawa.
The reactionary Conservative Party of Canada, authors and shepherds of C-51, have already made this connection of the Driver case to the maintenance of intrusive anti-terror laws explicit. In the words of the Conservative Party’s interim leader Rona Ambrose the morning after Driver was killed:
“I salute and thank the law enforcement and intelligence officers who put their own lives on the line to stop this potential attack on innocent Canadians. Unfortunately, the Liberal government campaigned on a promise to strip these officers of some of the essential investigative and enforcement tools to do this work, which the previous Conservative government provided through Bill C-51, and which have already been wisely used to disrupt terrorist activities nearly two dozen times since last fall. I call on the Liberal government to ensure all of Canada’s security and intelligence services keep the tools they need to do their jobs.” (quoted in Wherry 2016)
Numerous concerns were raised by a broad cross section of the public in Canada immediately upon the announcement of Bill C-51. Concerns were raised that provisions in the legislation criminalize acts of civil disobedience, such as a protest or demonstration because these could be viewed as “unlawful” (in the absence of a permit, or in cases of trespassing, or marches in roadways). Other essential activities, such as a workplace strike or occupation or boycott could be viewed as terrorist acts on the basis that they impact economic structures or practices. Worries have also been stated about provisions that allow for the punishing of bad thoughts or propaganda rather than actual activities related to terrorist acts.
During the federal election of 2015 the Liberal Party, then seeking to succeed the Conservatives as ruling party, promised legislation that would address key concerns within C-51. Yet approaching a year later after taking power the Liberals have still not tabled even proposals on how they might transform C-51, leaving some critics to believe that the election promises were simply appeals for votes on the basis of countering widely unpopular legislation (which seemed emblematic of the authoritarian and repressive Conservative Party approach). The Liberal government has said in general terms that any new legislation would: “guarantee that all Canadian Security Intelligence Service warrants respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; ensure that Canadians are not limited from lawful protests and advocacy; narrow overly broad definitions, such as defining ‘terrorist propaganda’ more clearly;” as well as “limit Communications Security Establishment’s powers by requiring a warrant to engage in the surveillance of Canadians” (quoted in Wherry 2016).
At the same time there is nothing to suggest, despite the intimations of the Conservative Party and their leader Rona Ambrose, that C-51 provisions played or could have played any part in a case like that of Aaron Driver. The RCMP supposedly acted on the basis of a tip coming not from their own surveillance or intelligence but rather from the FBI. In addition Driver was already subject to a terror peace bond which have been in operation since before C-51 took effect. Notably Driver’s legal team mounted a successful challenge which resulted in a Manitoba judge ruling against the provision in C-51 that allowed the courts to mandate religious counselling for an individual on a peace bond (Wherry 2016).
Another line of pursuit for repressive forces in the Canadian context involves calling into question the anti-terror peace bond, not on grounds that it threatens civil liberties and is too broad, but on obverse grounds that it is too lenient. On one hand there are calls for imprisonment of people simply on the basis of the low threshold evidence used in securing the peace bond. This would mean criminalizing bad thoughts, which, in fact, many police and politicians desire anyway. As law professor Craig Forcese suggests: “Incarceration depends, however, on a crime. And our terrorism criminal law already sets the tripwire for terrorism crime very far from actual acts of violence. (None of the two dozen or so persons in prison for post-9/11 terrorism crimes got further than plotting before they were charged and convicted)” (2016). Calls for incarceration on the low level of evidence provided for a peace bond will put many people in prison who pose no material threat to anyone (except perhaps to themselves). It will, however, give an opportunity for expansion of the security, surveillance, and policing apparatus as well as the prison-industrial complex, which is precisely what many police agencies and politicians alike desire.
Furthermore, some hawks will call for greater integration of security and intelligence services. This will include not only calls for tighter integration or greater communication and information transfer between agencies within the Canadian state (among local police forces, the RCMP, CSIS, perhaps the military). It will also include calls for greater integration and/or communication between the Canadian agencies and external agencies like the FBI or MI5. This will be highlighted especially given the apparently lead and crucial role played by the FBI in the Driver affair. Indeed even liberal critics like Forcese have been quick to proclaim that coordination between police and CSIS, as in the Driver case “is welcome” (proclaiming even before all the facts are known that “the system worked” in this case) (see Forcese 2016).
Menacingly the Liberal government has suggested a focus on counter-radicalization strategies. While they have provided not even general notions of what this might entail there are examples from other liberal democracies that open ominous possibilities, including the case in the UK in which legislation requires post-secondary faculty to report to police instances in which students appear to be radicalizing. Notably some have used the Driver example to argue that the so-called religious therapy provision in anti-terror peace bonds, deemed “deprogramming” by the court and struck down, should have been upheld and should now be imposed in future cases.
Following the Aaron Driver killing the Liberal government is clearly open to additions to the apparatus as part of the C-51 discussions. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, addressing questions after the Driver killing said the government will now “consult Canadians about what else they want to see in their national security framework” (quoted in Wherry 2016). What else indeed.
In all of this the RCMP killing of Aaron Driver provides another example of the political production of fear for purposes of state, particularly police, expansion. It provides another opportunity for the dramatization of evil by state authorities at various levels. This can in turn be used to shore up or develop new mechanisms of surveillance, criminalization, and punishment. It can be used to reinforce legislation, like C-51, that faces criticism and possible revision. It can provide the impetus for new, more repressive, legislation. It can be used to increase the flow of resources to agencies like the RCMP. In addition such moments of manipulable terror panic can be used to spread policing practices into other sectors. Such is the case in legislation, as in the UK that seeks to turn professors into spies, snitches, or cops.
All of this must be resisted. Police must always be challenged and countered on their exclusive descriptions of events (and monopoly on knowledge about the circumstances of such cases). Police accounts should never be accepted at face value. There must also be public mobilizations against any and all attempts to expand the security state apparatus. Furthermore, public manipulation of terror panics must be called out and attempts by state and media actors to manufacture social phobias confronted.
Canadian Press. 2016. “FBI Tip Led RCMP to Thwart Possible Terrorist Act by Aaron Driver in Strathroy, Ont.” CBC News. August 10. http://www.cbc.ca/news/terror-threat-arrest-rcmp-1.3715969
Forcese, Craig. 2016. “Aaron Driver Matter: Questions Awaiting Answers.” National Security Law. August 11. http://craigforcese.squarespace.com/national-security-law-blog/2016/8/11/aaron-driver-matter-questions-awaiting-answers.html
Shantz, Jeff. 2016. “Degradation Ceremonies: Fear Discourses, Phobic Production, and the Military Metaphysic in Canada.” In Manufacturing Phobias: The Political Production of Fear in Theory and Practice, Hisham Ramadan and Jeff Shantz (eds.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press
Shantz, Jeff 2014. “Punishing Bad Thoughts: Next Generation Canadian State Repression.” Red Sparks. http://jeffshantz.ca/node/69
Wherry, Aaron. 2016. “What Aaron Driver Means for the Debate on Amending Bill C-51.” CBC News. August 12. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/wherry-aaron-driver-c51-1.3716909