One person’s criminal may be another’s terrorist

Alexandre Bissonnette was not charged with terrorism although his attack in Quebec has all the elements of a terror act.

A man cries while he prays at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City
A man cries while he prays at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre where Bissonnette killed six people [Mathieu Belanger/Reuters]

Within 24 hours of the Quebec City mosque attack killing six and wounding nineteen, the 27-year-old suspect, Alexandre Bissonnette, stood in court charged with murder and attempted murder. 

PM Justin Trudeau and others called it terrorism. But why is there no mention of terrorism or hate in the criminal charges?

The Criminal Code defines terrorism as an act committed, entirely or in part, for political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause that has “the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public with regard to its security.”

In this case, there are plenty of reports documenting the 27-year-old Laval University student’s journey from a moderate conservative to someone with far-right sympathies and connections. And there is no doubt that Bissonnette’s victims, Muslims, were terrorised.

There is still a possibility that charges of terrorism may follow because prosecutors are still reviewing evidence. Ultimately, it’s their call.

‘Onerous to prove’

Prosecutors have told the media that they have charged Bissonnette with the offences for which they have evidence to convict. Terrorism is more onerous to prove than regular crimes, in part because critical parts of the charges rely on motive and other factors.

If the crown believes that the evidence against a suspect is solid, then adding terrorism charges may unnecessarily complicate the case from a strictly legal perspective. Understandably, establishing intent to kill is much easier than proving the motivation behind the action.

But, assuming the evidence exists, prosecutors will undoubtedly introduce the hate angle during the sentencing stage to seek an enhancement of the ultimate sentence, if he is found guilty.

Yet, many are cautioning against charging him with terrorism. In fact, some even contend that there is “no real purpose” to pursuing such charges beyond the symbolism because it would have little, if any, impact on the sentence.

I agree. Moreover, being a critic of the anti-terror regime, I also believe the law should be scrapped. That said, until and unless that happens, Bissonnette should be charged with terrorism.

As long as we have the law in place, to paraphrase PM Trudeau with a twist, a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist. The degree of caution argued above is rarely exercised when suspects are Muslims. In such instances, the terrorism label is used with relative ease, without regard to the devastating impact on both the community and individual members.

‘Terror’ vs ‘murder’

As Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Faisal Bhabha told CBC, it’s impossible to ignore the social and political context in which such decisions are made. He further contends that “men of colour, and Muslim men, in particular, are more likely to face terror charges than white male mass shooters …”

Bissonnette must be charged with terrorism for the sake of public perception and to challenge the falsehood that only Muslims commit terrorism.


Indeed, the selective use is evident from even a cursory review of a handful of recent cases. A simple Google search will also reveal that numerous Muslim men were charged with terrorism offences, sometimes with tenuous or imagined connections to terror. Meanwhile, non-Muslims get a pass.

Let’s go back to 2013. Despite evidence disclosing an elaborate plan to send a political message by killing staff and blowing up the Veterans Affairs building in Calgary, discharged ex-military intelligence operative Glen Gieschen was not charged with terrorism.

The Calgary Herald reported that he had building plans and specifications on his mobile and laptop. The paper also reported that he had “surveillance videos and photographs … and a detailed attack plan including equipment and armaments to be used, military assault apparel … and strategies to complete the attack …”

Yet, ill-conceived and even amateurish initiatives by Muslims get much greater attention and the label “terrorism”. 

In 2014, crimes committed by Martin Couture-Rouleau (who rammed his car into two soldiers, killing one) and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau (who shot and killed a soldier) are not presented just as the crimes of two individuals. Despite being assessed with chronic psychological problems, as converts to Islam their crimes were attributable to their religious worldview and were labelled terrorist acts.

At the same time, Justin Bourque, who shot five RCMP officers and killed three, has been merely called a murderer. The fact that Bourque grew up in a “religious fanatic” environment and believed that he was “a soldier of Jesus Christ” was never used to link him to a broader community or to frame his violence as terrorism. Bourque even told police he was rebelling against the oppressive government. Bourque’s psychiatric assessment concluded that he was fit to stand trial, and he was convicted and sentenced.

Challenging public perceptions

In 2015, an alleged plot to cause mass casualty at the Halifax Shopping Centre on Valentine’s Day was foiled by police who found three long-barreled rifles and suspect James Gamble dead of self-inflicted wounds. Two other suspects, Randall Shepherd and Lindsay Souvannarath, were arrested. Shepherd pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, while Souvannarath will stand trial in May 2017.

Nova Scotia RCMP Commanding Officer, Brian Brennan, told reporters the suspects were “a group of individuals that had some beliefs and were willing to carry out violent acts against citizens”.

OPINION: Why the Quebec mosque shooting happened

Justice Minister Peter MacKay said that this was “a group of murderous misfits that were … prepared to wreak havoc and mayhem on our community.” He added that the “attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism.”

Racist and Nazi political “beliefs” are apparently not serious enough. In fact, mainstream media outlets only noted these in passing. Independent media even dug up that at least one of the alleged plotters had “a long-time infatuation with fascist and white supremacist ideas.”

It appears that white supremacist terrorism tastes less bitter than “Islamic” terrorism.

Muslims bear the brunt of the anti-terror legislation and the stigma associated with it. Bissonnette must be charged with terrorism for the sake of public perception and to challenge the falsehood that only Muslims commit terrorism. Otherwise, terrorism will only be a dysphemism restricted to refer to crimes committed by “others.” 

Faisal Kutty is an Associate Professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana, an Adjunct Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University and serves as counsel to KSM Law.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.