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What Is Terrorism? Attacks in Canada and Belgium Reflect Uncertain Definition

Why are the restaurant bombers not considered terrorists by Canada?

Part of the reason may lie in simple geography and recent history. Unlike Europe, Canada has not suffered the repeated attacks attributed to extremist groups like the Islamic State, and the police may be less likely to assume such a possibility without more facts.

Although the targeted restaurant was Indian, suggesting a possibly ethnic-based bias attack, experts cautioned that the identities of the assailants and their motives remained unclear.

“Until you know who did it, it’s problematic to be categorized as a terrorist attack,” said Victor Asal, a political-science professor at the University at Albany-SUNY and a researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

What Is Terrorism? Attacks in Canada and Belgium Reflect Uncertain Definition
What Is Terrorism? Attacks in Canada and Belgium Reflect Uncertain Definition

“If it’s going to be terrorism it’s got to be politically or ideologically motivated,” he said. “If I’m killing you because you sleep with my wife, that’s not terrorism.”

Why was the Belgium attack almost immediately assumed to be terrorism?

While few details were immediately available about the masked bombers in the Canada attack, much was known about the assailant in Belgium, a 35-year-old Belgian prisoner with a history of assault, drug and theft offenses who had been granted a 48-hour leave. Officials in Belgium said Wednesday that he might have been converted by Islamist extremist cellmates. And the Islamic State militant group belatedly exalted him as a martyred disciple.

Nonetheless, terrorism experts were not all convinced. Some theorized that the assailant was a career criminal who might have used the guise of adherence to Islamist extremism to justify the attack.

“It looks like an act of terrorism, but here’s where things get a bit murky,” said Brian M. Jenkins, a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation. “He may or may not have been radicalized in prison. People are complicated — invariably there is a variety of motivations.”

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