By Phillip Swarts – The Washington TimesÂ
OTTAWA, CANADA – A gunman who reportedly was a recent convert to Islam launched an attack Wednesday in Ottawa, killing one soldier guarding a war memorial before barging into the capital city’s Parliament amid a hail of gunfire and spawning increased vigilance in Washington and Ottawa, where officials wondered how he managed to get into the government building armed.
The Canadian soldier, identified as Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, was the second killed in three days in an attack by a young Muslim convert. A hit-and-run that left one soldier dead and another injured Monday has been deemed a terrorist attack by Canadian officials.
The Islamic State, which has seized large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, has called on Muslims to launch attacks in Western countries that have joined the U.S.-led coalition to combat the terrorists. Canadian officials said there was no evidence that the gunman had ties to Islamic extremism, but the investigation was in the early stages.
“But let there be no misunderstanding: We will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a TV address to his nation.
In Ottawa on Wednesday, members of Parliament said they owed their lives to Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, who fatally shot the gunman just outside the caucus rooms where lawmakers were barricading themselves.
A Canadian official identified the dead gunman as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, and an Ottawa hospital said it was treating two other victims from both attacks.
The attacker killed Cpl. Cirillo, 24, at the National War Memorial, gunning down the soldier at point-blank range just before 10 a.m. as he stood watch at the site, a 70-foot granite tomb featuring bronze sculptures memorializing Canada’s World War I soldiers. This detail prompted heightened security at similar American sites.
In the U.S., the Pentagon increased security at Arlington National Cemetery, and authorities heightened the alert at federal buildings, though there was no evidence of a specific threat.
“We don’t yet have all the information about what motivated the shooting. We don’t yet have all the information about whether this was part of a broader network or plan,” President Obama said at the White House hours after a telephone call with Mr. Harper. “But it emphasizes the degree to which we have to remain vigilant.”
Mr. Harper, in his evening address, said the attacks will “lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts” to fight terrorists, work with allies and keep the country safe.
He said Monday’s attack was by an “ISIL-inspired terrorist,” and said of Wednesday’s shooting that, “in the days to come, we will learn about the terrorist and any accomplices he may have had.”
Zehaf-Bibeau, the gunman, had a lengthy criminal history involving convictions for drug trafficking in Montreal, robbery in Vancouver, assault and weapons offenses as well as other crimes.
He was born in Quebec as Michael Joseph Hall but recently converted to Islam, CBS reported.
Canada agreed last week to support the U.S. effort to combat the Islamic State and raised its domestic terrorism level from low to medium Tuesday because of what authorities said was an increase in chatter among extremists.
While official details of the attacks were sketchy, witnesses told Canadian media that a man wearing a black scarf and carrying a long gun killed the soldier, who was standing guard at the National War Memorial.
“I looked out the window and saw a shooter, a man dressed all in black with a kerchief over his nose and mouth and something over his head as well, holding a rifle and shooting an honor guard in front of the cenotaph point-blank twice,” Tony Zobl, 35, told The Canadian Press news agency.
The attacker then headed to Parliament, where video captured police advancing and then the sound of dozens of shots being fired.
“How somebody gets a rifle walking down the Hall of Honor [or] inside the Library of Parliament will be an interesting piece of investigation,” said John McKay, a member of Parliament.
Police initially said there may have been a third shooting location at a nearby mall but later discounted that report. Authorities also were initially on the lookout for other gunmen, though they had lifted the lockdown on Parliament by late evening.
Mr. Harper called the shootings “a despicable act” and said it is important for the government to continue functioning during such crises.
He was scheduled to participate in several public events with Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in Toronto on Wednesday, but those events were canceled following the shootings. Miss Yousafzai was shot by the Islamist Taliban militia in Pakistan for advocating schooling for girls.
“This is a sad and tragic day for our city and our country,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command â€” known by the acronym NORAD â€” increased its security alert level in response to the shootings and told pilots to be on alert for possible attacks.
“NORAD taking appropriate and prudent steps to ensure adequate posture to respond quickly to any incidents involving aviation in Canada,” the agency tweeted Wednesday.
Security experts have become increasingly concerned about “lone wolf” attacks carried out by a single radicalized individual. Experts said that while the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, likely does not currently have the ability to carry out large-scale attacks like al Qaeda, the radical group is encouraging single individuals to launch terror attacks in their own countries.
On Monday, Martin Couture-Rouleau, a 25-year-old convert to Islam, killed a Canadian soldier and injured another in a hit-and-run in the Quebec city of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, authorities said. Couture-Rouleau was shot dead by police after a car chase.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson said Tuesday that the hit-and-run driver was known to authorities and recently had his passport seized. He was one of 90 suspected extremists in the country who intended to join fights abroad or who have returned from overseas.
“He was part of our investigative efforts to try and identify those people who might commit a criminal act traveling abroad for terrorist purposes,” Commissioner Paulson said.
Mr. Harper said the slain soldier in that case, 53-year-old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, was a 28-year veteran with “distinguished service.”
The case is similar to one in London last year in which an al Qaeda-inspired extremist and another man ran over an off-duty soldier with a car before hacking him to death.