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Judge to decide if Toronto incel attack was act of terror as ex-CSIS analyst says law should be scrapped

With a guilty plea in the case of a deadly incel-inspired attack at a Toronto massage parlour two years ago, it will now be for a judge to decide if the murder was in fact an act of terror.

On Wednesday, the man behind the February 2020 attack at the Crown Spa pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder. A minor at the time, his identity is protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Court heard that the killer looked to the man responsible for Toronto’s deadly van attack as an “inspiration,” that he considered himself an incel or involuntary celibate, and that he stabbed 24-year-old Ashley Noell Arzaga some 40 times with a sword inscribed with the term “thot-slayer” — “thot” being a derogatory term used against women.

On Friday, the Crown called an expert witness who cannot be identified because of a publication ban.

Speaking at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the expert witness said incels generally hold “a lot of anger and contempt for people in the sex work industry” believing them to be “preying on desperate men and exploiting them for money.”

The killer will now undergo a psychiatric evaluation and there will be a pre-sentencing report, which will take at least eight weeks to complete. The case will be back in court Dec. 6 when a date will be set for sentencing in the new year. 

judge to decide if toronto incel attack was act of terror as ex csis analyst says law should be scrapped
Terror charges against the accused were added in the months after the February 2020 killing of 24-year-old Ashley Noell Arzaga, a receptionist at the Crown Spa in Toronto’s west end. (CBC)

The case marks the first time police in Canada have treated an alleged incel-inspired attack as an act of terrorism — the RCMP defining involuntary celibacy an “ideologically motivated violent extremist movement.”

First-degree murder in Canada carries an automatic life sentence with no possibility of parole for 25 years. But with the charges upgraded to include terrorism in the weeks after the attack, it will be up to Justice Suhail Akhtar to determine if that designation should factor into sentencing.

Terrorism label ‘not helpful,’ ex-CSIS analyst says

The Criminal Code defines terrorism as an act carried out “for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” meant to intimidate the public by causing or attempting to cause death or serious bodily harm through violence, endangering health and safety, or disrupting an essential service. 

Ideology isn’t defined in the code, meaning the Crown will now have to demonstrate that being an incel meets the bar. 

But for one former senior strategic terrorism analyst with Canada’s intelligence agency, terrorism shouldn’t be considered a factor in the case.

Phil Gurski, who spent 15 years with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), told CBC News he disagrees with labelling incel-motivated crimes as terrorism, saying Canada’s Criminal Code has provisions for violence fuelled by hate and that prosecutors in the case could have very well pushed to demonstrate the act was a hate crime.

“I don’t know what we gain by calling it terrorism,” Gurski told CBC News.

judge to decide if toronto incel attack was act of terror as ex csis analyst says law should be scrapped 1
Phil Gurski, who spent 15 years with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, tells CBC News he disagrees with labelling incel-motivated crimes as terrorism. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

“It’s not helpful. It doesn’t result in anything different in terms of the Criminal Code and sentencing provisions,” he said, noting that if the Crown succeeds in pushing for an adult sentence, the attacker will face a minimum of 25 years before being eligible for parole. That isn’t likely change even if the judge decides the act was one of terrorism, he says.

His impression of why terror charges were applied in this case: “It’s purely political.”

In fact, the former intelligence analyst told CBC News he now believes Canada’s terror laws, which came into force in December 2001, were a “knee-jerk reaction” to 9/11 and should be scrapped entirely.

‘We could eliminate them tomorrow’

“Obviously, a catastrophic act, you know, 3,000 people dead in, you know, in New York and Washington, incredibly important,” said Gurski. 

But even the Air India bombings of 1985 — considered the worst mass murder in Canadian history — wasn’t prosecuted as terrorism. Neither were the bombings by the separatist group Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) in the ’60s culminating in the October Crisis of 1970, he notes.

Nor were terror charges laid in the deadly van attack of 2018, when Alek Minassian told police his actions were a mission for the incel movement, or in the killing of six men at the Quebec City mosque by Alexandre Bissonette, who had identified Muslims as his target.

In fact, until 2020, all but one of the roughly 60 terrorism charges laid in the past two decades have been against al-Qaeda or ISIS-inspired cases. One other was laid against a man raising funds for a Tamil militant group.

“It certainly is a perception that is is not fair, that the only time that the Cown decides to use the terrorism charges when you happen to be Muslim. And I think that’s a fair, fair point to raise.”

As for past terror investigations, such as the so-called Toronto 18 case of 2006, Gurski says other charges could have easily been applied. 

“I don’t know why they would have elected not to charge them with conspiracy to commit murder. Maybe because it was shortly after 9/11.”

Regardless, he says, expanding the definition isn’t the solution. 

“I don’t want to play catch up,” says Gurski. “Let’s just use the term more wisely going forward, and not just throw it around willy nilly, because we’re trying to make a point politically.”

“Bottom line is that we survived without terrorism laws in the past, we could eliminate them tomorrow.”




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