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G7 security ministers gathered in Toronto discuss ‘soft targets’ and online radicalization after van attack

The scene that unfolded on a Toronto street Monday is something straight out of a counter-terrorism officer’s worst nightmares.

Security analysts call them “soft targets” — unsecured public spaces where a lone attacker can do maximum damage. 

The incident — in which man drove a van into a number of pedestrians killing 10 of them and injuring 15 — is now etched into a long series of similar tragedies around the globe. 

Those kinds of scenarios are on the agenda Tuesday for the G7 security ministers meeting in Toronto, along with other recent attacks in public spaces by terrorists.

Government officials briefed on the investigation say that, so far, the suspect in the van attack is not associated with any organized terrorist group and does not represent a larger threat to national security.

The message was reinforced from the top down Tuesday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to reassure the country.

Trudeau gives his condolences for the victims and their families 1:21

“Obviously, all Canadians continue and will continue to have questions about why this happened, what could possibly be the motives behind it,” he said in the foyer of the House of Commons. “As was indicated last night, at this time we have no reason to suspect that there is any national security element to this attack, but obviously, the investigations continue.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale delivered the same message to the G7 ministers, many of whom personally expressed their sympathy to him before the opening of Tuesday’s meeting.

He spoke privately at length with U.S. Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Italy’s Marco Minniti.

Ben Wallace, Britain’s minister of state for security, spoke glowingly about the RCMP and Canada’s security services, but his public remarks were cutoff as journalists were hustled out of the room by organizers.

Before the closed-door session, Goodale took to describing the incident as a “very large homicide investigation” and heaped praise on first responders.

“Police officers and first responders are amazing people, as we all know within our respective jurisdictions,” he said.

“They do truly remarkable work, and we are grateful to them for their exceptional efforts in cases of emergency.”

Regardless of how that probe unfolds, the event is a reminder of the enormous challenges involved in securing ordinary public venues from extraordinary threats.

“The work of government and ministers obviously goes on,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said not long after Monday’s attack. “This is a very sad day for the people of Toronto and the people of Canada.”

Trucks as weapons

The use of trucks and vans as deadly weapons has become more common. Almost two years ago, a 19 tonne cargo truck deliberately slammed into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, killing 86 people. The driver, a French resident of Tunisian origin, died in an exchange of gunfire with police.

ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack, as it did for a similar attack in Berlin less than six months later, which took the lives of 12 people.

“Kill me,” the man can be heard yelling as Toronto police arrested him 1:29

Another van attack hit Barcelona, Spain last summer; 14 died in that incident along the city’s popular Las Ramblas tourist walkway.

Last fall, a man drove 20 blocks through Lower Manhattan and used a truck to ram into people on a pedestrian and bicycle path, killing eight and injuring 11.

Federal officials continue to monitor a call by ISIS for its followers to use vehicles as weapons in ‘lone wolf’ attacks — even though the extremist group has been defeated on the battlefield and is now scattered throughout its former territory and beyond.

Some of those followers are now returning to western nations.

CSIS chief to brief G7 ministers

Those so-called “terrorist travellers” were the focus of talks involving G7 security and foreign ministers on Monday, Goodale said.

“Now that their focus is less riveted upon Syria and Iraq, there is a very large question about, where will they go?,” he said. “We discussed issues around how do we make sure we know the answer to that question.”

Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault is expected to brief the security ministers from the world’s leading industrialized democracies Tuesday.

The role the internet plays in terrorist recruitment and messaging is expected to be a dominant topic at the G7 meeting, which is being held in advance of the full G7 leaders summit in Charlevoix, Quebec in early June.

Tech industry leaders, under the umbrella of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, will meet with the ministers Tuesday.

Almost all of the online heavyweights — Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube — are taking part in the forum.

The companies declared last December their joint determination to “curb the spread” of terrorist content online. They’re also examining how technologies can be exploited for violent purposes.

Goodale said he is expecting to hear some concrete proposals.

“The focus is what they and we can do together to counter terrorist use of the world wide web,” he said.

CBC | Politics News