SAINT-JEAN-SUR-RICHELIEU, Quebec (AP) — A young convert to Islam who killed a Canadian soldier in a hit-and-run had been on the radar of federal investigators, who feared he had jihadist ambitions and seized his passport when he tried to travel to Turkey, authorities said Tuesday.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said the attack Monday was “clearly linked to terrorist ideology.” Quebec Police spokesman Guy Lapointe said the act was deliberate and that one of the two soldiers was in uniform.
Police said the suspect, Martin Couture-Rouleau, called 911 to report his hit-and-run as police chased him in the Quebec city of Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu. He later was shot dead by police after his car flipped over into a ditch and he brandished a knife as he exited his car. A second soldier suffered minor injuries in the attack.
Couture-Rouleau, 25, was one of 90 people in the country suspected of intending to join fights abroad or who have returned from overseas, according to Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Bob Paulson.
He first came to attention of authorities in June because of Facebook postings that showed he had become radicalized and wanted to leave the country to fight, said Royal Canadian Mounted Police Supt. Martine Fontaine.
Police seized his passport at the airport in July when he tried to travel to Turkey, Fontaine said. He was arrested and questioned but there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him with a crime, she said.
Fontaine said police subsequently met with him several times, including as recently as Oct. 9, when she said he indicated that wanted to take steps to change. They also met his parents and the imam of his mosque and tried to exert a positive influence over him.
“Many interventions with him were carried out to try and avoid the tragic events,” Fontaine said. “It’s very difficult when someone is planning an act alone and there is no obvious preparation involved and used a vehicle as a weapon.”
She said they couldn’t arrest him for having radical thoughts.
It was not known whether Couture-Rouleau had any ties to Islamic militant groups.
“He was part of our investigative efforts to try and identify those people who might commit a criminal act travelling abroad for terrorist purposes,” Paulson said.
Canada raised its domestic terror threat level from low to medium Tuesday due to “an increase in general chatter from radical Islamist organizations like ISIL, al-Qaida, al-Shabab and others who pose a clear threat to Canadians,” said Jean-Christophe de Le Rue, a spokesman for the public safety minister.
“This increase is not the result of a specific threat,” de Le Rue said.
Nobody answered the door at Couture-Rouleau’s single story white brick home in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, where he lives with his father.
Neighbor Daniel Fortin said he had known Couture-Rouleau since he was a child.
Fortin said over the past year or so, he grew out his beard and began wearing loose-fitting Muslim clothing but that he never felt threatened by him. Fortin said Couture-Roleau’s father was worried as he became increasingly radicalized and “tried everything,” to help him.
A Quebec business data base shows he started a water-pressure cleaning company in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in 2012 with two other people.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the slain soldier, 53-year-old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, was a 28-year veteran with “distinguished service.”
“This was a despicable act of violence that strikes against not just this soldier and his colleagues but frankly against our very values as a civilized democracy,” Harper said in Parliament.
Lapointe said the suspect sat in his car in the parking lot outside a veterans’ support center for at least two hours before the hit and run. He said the other soldier is in stable condition with minor injuries.
The case is similar to one in London last year in which an al-Qaida-inspired extremist and another man ran over a soldier with a car before hacking the off-duty soldier to death.
Images of Michael Adebolajo, 29, holding a butcher knife and cleaver with bloodied hands in the moments after the May 2013 killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby shocked people around the world and sparked fears of Islamist terrorism in Britain.
The Islamic State group has urged supporters to carry out attacks against Western countries, including Canada, that are participating in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the militants who have taken over large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. Eight Canadian fighter jets, including two spares, are set to depart for the region Tuesday.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf condemned the attack and said they have been in touch with Canadian officials.
“We deplore acts of violence toward military and law enforcement, and stand ready to assist our Canadian partners as they investigate this act,” Harf said.