OTTAWA – An early-morning tip from FBI investigators triggered a “race against time” Wednesday as police scrambled to identify and locate a balaclava-wearing would-be suicide bomber they feared was on the verge of killing innocent Canadians.
Within three hours, they felt they had found their man: Aaron Driver, 24, a known terrorist sympathizer who was living in the southwestern Ontario town of Strathroy, Ont., under court-imposed conditions.
The tip included a screen shot of a video of Driver, 24, and a warning that he was planning to detonate a homemade explosive device in an urban centre during morning or afternoon rush hour, said RCMP deputy commissioner Mike Cabana.
“It was a race against time,” Cabana told a news conference Thursday in Ottawa. “We had no other information, other than the existence of a threat that could impact Canadians.”
The warning was Canada-wide and made no mention of a specific city, said RCMP assistant commissioner Jennifer Strachan, who praised investigators for identifying Driver quickly enough to prevent him from carrying out the attack.
Several hours later, as the afternoon rush hour was ramping up, RCMP confronted the suspect as he fled the house into the back seat of a waiting taxi, where an improvised explosive device suddenly detonated, injuring the cab driver.
Driver himself was killed in the fracas, either by the explosion or police gunfire, Strachan said.
“If he had gotten out of that residence before we got there, the scenario would have ended a lot differently.”
In the video, aired during the news conference, a masked Driver addresses the camera directly as he rails against western “enemies of Islam” and warns that the only solution would be the “spilling of your blood.”
Cabana also said Thursday that the ongoing investigation has led police to a “secondary location” in the city of London, Ont., not far from Strathroy, where Driver had been living with his sister.
Driver had been under a court order not to associate with any terrorist organization, among other restrictions.
Transit agencies in Toronto say they warned of a security threat before Wednesday’s deadly confrontation, as were National Defence personnel in Ottawa.
In February, Driver’s lawyer and the Crown agreed to a peace bond stating there are “reasonable grounds to fear that he may participate, contribute directly or indirectly in the activity of a terrorist group.”
The RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and other police and security agencies were also involved in the operation.
On Thursday morning, a spokesman for the Toronto Transit Commission said the agency was made aware of a terror threat investigation early the previous day, but noted that it had no specifics attached.
Brad Ross said that as a precaution a “vigilance notice” was issued to all staff encouraging them to say something if they saw something of concern. He said such notices are commonly issued after security incidents around the world or if the TTC is advised of threats closer to home.
He added the information the TTC was given Wednesday was “very general about a credible threat that was being investigated by police but it had no location, it didn’t even say a city as far as I know.”
A spokeswoman for Metrolinx, the Ontario government agency which runs the Greater Toronto Area’s regional transit lines, says it was also advised of a security threat.
Anne Marie Aikins says the agency raised its level of vigilance and worked closely with national, provincial and local forces in response.
In tiny Strathroy, a neighbour of Driver’s said he couldn’t recall ever seeing the man around town. But he said Wednesday’s incident — and the discovery that a terror suspect lived only a stone’s throw away — hit “a little too close to home.”
“For me, having two kids and my wife and a possible terrorist … sympathizer down the street, it’s kind of … it’s a little crazy.”
Last year, federal authorities were so suspicious Driver might have ties to a terrorist group that he bounced in and out of jails and courtrooms for months, all without any actual charges ever being laid — and he had no criminal record at the time.
In June 2015, Driver was first picked up in Winnipeg. Published reports at the time suggested Driver posted messages on social media that praised terrorist activities, including the attack on Parliament Hill in October 2014 by Michael Zehaf Bibeau.
Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University who studies radicalization and terrorism, maintained in 2015 that Driver posted for several months on social media about disliking Canada and about a desire to move overseas.
Mounties applied for a peace bond that could impose limits on Driver’s activities, alleging in provincial court documents that investigators believed he might help with terrorist group activities.
When Driver was released later that month, he was ordered to comply with 18 different conditions, including wearing a GPS tracking device.