Toronto, Canada – Mohamed-Aslim Zafis was sitting outside a mosque in Toronto’s west end last month when a man approached him and stabbed him in the neck with a knife.
The brazen killing, which police later accused 34-year-old Guilherme (William) von Neutegem of carrying out, sent shockwaves across Canada’s largest city and stirred fears among Muslim and other minority groups experiencing an uptick in racism.
Weeks later, after von Neutegem’s ties to a white supremacist ideology were reported, experts say Zafis’ murder is evidence of a dramatic rise in the number of right-wing hardline groups in Canada and raises questions as to how well Canadian authorities are addressing far-right violence.
“We have over 300 white supremacist groups operating in Canada,” said Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), an advocacy group.
“That’s why, when we see things like what happened to our brother Mohamed Zafis, with his killing being at the hands of a man who has connections to neo-Nazi white supremacy, we are shocked but we are not surprised,” Farooq told Al Jazeera.
While Toronto police said Zafis’ killing appears to be random, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN) reported that von Neutegem’s social media accounts suggest he is connected to racist and Nazi-inspired occult movements, including a death cult.
Known as 09A (Order of Nine Angles), its believers are told to carry out murders to establish a satanic empire, according to CAHN, an independent organisation that investigates far-right groups in Canada.
CAHN also said members of the group “have been charged for plotting terrorist attacks” in the United States and United Kingdom.
Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said far-right violence is Canada’s largest threat, judging by “the number of active groups, the number of incidents associated with far-right extremists and the broader sympathy with the movement”.
More than 300 right-wing groups defined as extremist are currently operating in Canada, according to research by Perry and Ryan Scrivens, a professor at Michigan State University who was previously based in Canada.
These groups mostly target Muslims and Jews, but also espouse extreme misogyny, anti-LGBTQ+ views and hatred towards people of colour, according to CAHN.
Recently, far-right activist have successfully drawn more people to their views, Perry said – and many of these new followers are middle-aged, employed people who are well educated.
In fact, members of the far-right can be seen at all levels of Canadian society, with the country’s army chief last week issuing a directive to root far-right belief-holders out of the military.
“Some of the narratives are increasingly mainstream: the anti-Muslim narrative, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee. Public opinion polls have shown increasing negative reactions to Islam and to immigration trends,” Perry told Al Jazeera.
“I think those narratives have broadened [in appeal].”
The rise of far-right movements and the potential violence emanating from these groups has raised new questions about what the authorities are doing about it.
Documents released in January suggest that officials with Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and federal police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), are struggling on how to address and define the threat, and explain it to the public.
The Canadian Press news agency, citing secret briefing notes obtained through an Access to Information Act request, reported that officials discussed including right-wing extremist groups on Canada’s national list of terror organisations for the first time.
Perry said that CSIS and the RCMP in some parts of the country “are just beginning to catch up to the growing [trend]” of right-wing incitement – which is especially important since a report released in June found that Canada produces more online hate content than anywhere else in the world.
The report by UK-based think-tank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, found that Canadians were involved in more than 6,600 right-wing extremist channels online. Muslims were found to be the most common target of posts containing explicit hate speech.
A spokesman for CSIS, John Townsend, told Al Jazeera in an email that the agency works “closely with government and law enforcement partners on the threat posed by violent extremism in all its forms and takes the necessary steps to protect Canadians and Canada’s national interests”.
Townsend referred to CSIS’s latest public report (PDF) for 2019 to illustrate the agency’s plan.
That report includes one page on “Canadian Extremist Travellers” who have travelled to support “extremist activities” in countries such as Syria and Iraq, and one paragraph on “xenophobic violence”, including white supremacy and neo-Nazism.
In June 2019, Canada for the first time placed right-wing group Blood & Honour and its armed branch Combat 18 to its list of outlawed “terrorist entities”. The groups have conducted murders and bombings, Canada’s public safety ministry said.
More action needed
While this is a “positive step”, Farooq at NCCM said he does not believe Canadian officials are taking the threat of white supremacist violence seriously enough. He said he wants other white supremacist militias like the Three Percenters to be outlawed, as well.
“[It] simply wouldn’t be acceptable if we said that there were 300 radical terror groups operating that were associated with other kinds of racial identities or religious identities,” Farooq said, referring to the hundreds of right-wing groups in Canada.
“The reality is that we have organisations right now like the Three Percenters that do active firearms training, that actively build bombs, mobilise, have hundreds of members that train in person and thousands of members online.”
The mosque where Zafis was murdered has since reopened and an online fundraising campaign has been launched to raise about $18,800 ($25,000 Canadian) to reinforce security at the mosque and to provide mental health support to congregants.
Muslim community leaders have called on the police to investigate the killing as a hate crime – a step they said was necessary to prevent similar acts of violence.
One of the most notorious recent cases of far-right violence in Canada is the case of Alexandre Bissonnette, who killed six Muslim men as they prayed at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017.
The judge who sentenced Bissonnette to life in prison last year identified his motive as a “visceral hatred toward Muslim immigrants”, but the 27-year-old was never charged with terrorism for his deadly rampage.
The decision not to levy terrorism charges against Bissonnette poured salt into the wounds of many members of Muslim communities across Canada, who condemned what they saw as a clear double standard.
“There is a pattern of discrimination … against Muslims, racialised minorities, when it comes to terrorism charges and we’re beginning to see that pattern more and more today,” said Anver Emon, a professor of law and history at the University of Toronto.
Emon told Al Jazeera that “the way the government frames the very issue of terrorism, it makes it very clear that only Muslims, Arabs and racialised minorities ought to be the principal focus of terrorism for government regulation and prosecution.”
Emon pointed to a 2015 risk assessment by Canada’s finance ministry on anti-terrorism financing. The ministry said at that time that 10 organisations posed the greatest threat: eight were Muslim or Arab, one was Sikh and the other was Tamil, Emon said.
“It would seem to me that the very phenomenon of terrorism is only associated with racialised minorities and predominantly Muslims,” he said.
“If you take that logic and you apply it to the entirety of the government, which is what that model does, it’s hardly surprising that we live in a Canadian culture where the white lone gunman is not seen as a terrorist.”