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The Toronto “Van Incident” and Terrorism in Canada

Summary:
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said that there is no evidence that yesterday’s “van incident,” where Alek Minassian murdered 10 people and injured 15 others on a busy sidewalk with a van, was a terrorist attack.  To count as a terrorist attack, Minassian’s motivations must have been political, religious, or social in nature beyond simply a desire to terrorize or murder others.  Minassian’s motives are so far unclear with much speculation regarding his social awkwardness and possible anti-women opinions but, so far, little surrounding his political or religious opinions.  This could change as police and investigators uncover new facts. Many in media and government, prompted by Minassian’s mass murder, are commenting on terrorism in Canada but with little context.  By using the

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Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said that there is no evidence that yesterday’s “van incident,” where Alek Minassian murdered 10 people and injured 15 others on a busy sidewalk with a van, was a terrorist attack.  To count as a terrorist attack, Minassian’s motivations must have been political, religious, or social in nature beyond simply a desire to terrorize or murder others.  Minassian’s motives are so far unclear with much speculation regarding his social awkwardness and possible anti-women opinions but, so far, little surrounding his political or religious opinions.  This could change as police and investigators uncover new facts.

Many in media and government, prompted by Minassian’s mass murder, are commenting on terrorism in Canada but with little context.  By using the methods employed in my recent terrorism risk analysis for the United States, I’ve found that terrorism is rare in Canada.  Assuming that investigators will eventually find that Minassian’s mass-murder is not terrorism, as they currently claim, then the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on Canadian soil over the last 25 years was about one in 60.4 million per year.  The annual chance of being injured in a terrorist attack on Canadian soil during that time was about one in 7.4 million per year.

Data and Methodology

This post examines 25 years of terrorism on Canadian soil from 1993 through April 23, 2018.  Fatalities and injuries in terrorist attacks are the most important measures of the cost of terrorism. The information sources are the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at the University of Maryland, the RAND Corporation, and others.  I excluded three fatalities counted by the GTD as they were the terrorists themselves.  I further grouped the ideology of the deadly attackers into four broad ideologies: Islamists, Anti-Muslims, anti-government, and Unknown/Other. GTD descriptions of the attackers, news stories, and wikipedia were my guide in grouping the attacks by ideology. The grouping by ideology was easy as there were so few terrorist attacks in Canada from 1993 to the present.  The number of Canadian residents and non-terrorist murders in each year comes from Statistics Canada.

Terrorism Risk in Canada

Terrorists have murdered 14 people on Canadian soil from 1993 through April 23, 2018.  Islamists murdered 3 of the victims, an anti-government terrorist murdered 3, suspected terrorists of an unknown ideology murdered 2, and 6 were murdered by an anti-Muslim terrorist named Alexandre Bissonnette in a shooting at a Quebec mosque last year (Figure 1).  Of the 63 terrorist attacks in Canada during that time, according to a wide definition of the term “terrorist” in the GTD, only 7 resulted in a fatality.  In other words, 89 percent of terrorist attacks in Canada during the last 25 years killed nobody.

Figure 1

Murders in Canadian Terrorist Attacks by the Ideology of the Attacker, 1993-2018

 The Toronto “Van Incident” and Terrorism in Canada

Sources: Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, RAND Corporation, ESRI, and author’s calculations.

Although most of the recorded terrorist attacks targetted small groups in Canada, like Muslims or the police, it is useful to get a sense of the relative danger by looking at the annual chance of being murdered by a terrorist inspired by each ideology.  The annual chance of being murdered by an Islamist in a terrorist attack was the same as that of being murdered by an anti-government terrorist: about one in 281.7 million per year.  The annual chance of being murdered by a terrorist with an unknown ideology was about one in 422.5 million per year.  The greatest risk, but also still tiny, was being murdered by Alexandre Bissonnette in his Mosque attack last year at one in 140.8 million per year over the 25 years. 

There were 114 injuries in terrorist attacks on Canadian soil from 1993 through April 23, 2018 (Table 1).  Terrorists with unknown or other ideologies caused almost 68 percent of those injuries.  Alexandre Bissonnette, the anti-Muslim terrorist, was personally responsible for 17 percent of all injuries in terrorist attacks during this time in Canada.  Islamist terrorists were responsible for about 11 percent of injuries while anti-abortion and anti-government terrorists were responsible for 4 and 2 percent of all injuries, respectively. 

Table 1

Injuries in Canadian Terrorist Attacks by the Ideology of the Attacker, 1993-2018

  Injuries Annual Chance of Being Injured Percent of All Injuries
Unknown/Other

77

1 in 10,973,614

67.5%

Anti-Muslim

19

1 in 44,472,016

16.7%

Islamist

12

1 in 70,414,026

10.5%

Anti-abortion

4

1 in 211,242,077

3.5%

Anti-government

2

1 in 422,484,154

1.8%

Total

114

1 in 7,412,003

100%

Sources: Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, RAND Corporation, ESRI, and author’s calculations.

Comparison to Murder

Fatalities and injuries in terrorist attacks are rare so a relevant comparison to non-terrorist murder puts the terrorism danger into perspective.  There were about 14,807 murders in Canada from 1993 through April 23, 2018.  Because the number of murders is not reported for 2016-2018, I assumed that the number of murders for each of those years was the same as the number in 2015.  The annual chance of being murdered outside of a terrorist attack was about one in 57,000 per year from 1993 through 2018 – about 1,058 times greater than the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack.      

Conclusion

There is a small chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in Canada over the last 25 years.  By comparison, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in the United States over that time was about 25 times greater than in Canada.  Similarly, the annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in Canada also appears to be lower than in Europe.  The chance of being murdered in a non-terrorist murder in Canada was over 1000 times greater.  Alek Minassian’s horrific mass murder does not appear to be a terrorist attack based on the information available at this time, but if it does turn out to be terrorism then it would be the deadliest attack on Canadian soil since December 6, 1989, when Marc Lepine murdered 14 and injured 14 others in an attack inspired by his anti-feminism.  The murder or death of innocent people is tragic no matter the circumstances and the perpetrator should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.  Regardless, Canadians can at least take some comfort in the fact that the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack in Canada is small in absolute terms, relative to the residents of other developed nations, and compared to the chance of being murdered in a non-terrorist homicide.     

Alex Nowrasteh
He is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His popular publications have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and elsewhere. His academic publications have appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the Fletcher Security Review, and Public Choice.

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