The mother of the gunman who brought terror to the heart of the Canadian capital offered a tearful apology to her countrymen yesterday and to the family of the soldier he shot in the back.
“Can you ever explain something like this?” asked Susan Bibeau, as politicians gathered at the war memorial where Corporal Nathan Cirillo was shot, and police provided the fullest account yet of the methods and motives of the man who invaded the heart of government, armed with a lever-action Winchester rifle.
Commissioner Bob Paulson, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had been in Ottawa since the beginning of this month to apply for a passport.
Although he had told a close friend that he planned to visit Libya, Mr Paulson said that his mother had told them that he was planning to travel to Syria.
The commissioner said that Zehaf-Bibeau was not one of the 93 people who were considered high-risk and barred from travel, but he was subject to an investigation by officials who were considering his application, apparently because of his criminal history.
“I think his passport figured predominantly in his mind, I think it was central to what was driving him,” Mr Paulson said, adding that the gunman’s motive for the attack was still not clear.
They did not believe he had direct links to terrorism, but an email from Zehaf-Bibeau “was found in the hard drive of someone whom we have charged with a terrorist-related offence”.
In Ottawa he had been staying at a homeless shelter, where residents said he had been asking for help to find a car.
“The car I think was an anchor, in terms of his focus,” said Mr Paulson, before hinting that Zehaf-Bibeau may have had broader plans than a rampage through the centre of Ottawa. “He seems to have had intentions for this car but what these were we don’t know.”
Nor were police sure how he managed to acquire a rifle — his criminal record for drug offences prohibited him from owning a firearm. “The source of that gun is a focus of the investigation,” said Mr Paulson.
Ms Bibeau is a government official from Montreal who worked at the Canadian immigration and refugee board and is nowm deputy chairwoman of its immigration division. Her husband is Bulgasem Zehaf, a Libyan businessman.
Neighbours have said they were good parents, that they sent their son to a private high school, and that he had appeared to be a normal, if slightly rowdy, teenager.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Ms Bibeau said she and her husband wept for the relatives of the murdered soldier and not for their son, and they wished to “apologise for all the pain, fright and chaos he created. We have no explanation to offer. I am mad at our son, I don’t understand and part of me wants to hate him at this time,” she said.
“I, his mother, spoke with him last week over lunch, I had not seen him for over five years before that. So I have very little insight to offer.”
Zehaf-Bibeau was a troubled adult with a string of convictions and a few short stints in jail. He had moved to western Canada, where he worked as a miner and a labourer. In 2011 he attended a mosque in Burnaby, east of Vancouver, and became friends with Dave Bathurst, whose father runs a landscaping company.
Mr Bathhurst told the Globe and Mail newspaper that his friend did not seem violent, or extreme, though he did recall a conversation in which Zehaf-Bibeau said “the devil is after him”. He spoke of demons.
Mr Bathurst thought he “must have been mentally ill”. He said Zehaf-Bibeau’s behaviour at the local mosque, where he was last seen worshipping six weeks ago, had become “erratic” and the elders were alarmed.
He had a psychiatric evaluation after he was charged with a robbery in December 2011.
Mr Bathurst said he had expressed the desire to travel to Libya to study but that he had urged Zehaf-Bibeau to stick to books and not to get involved in “something else”.
He also said his friend knew Hasibullah Yusufzai, who has been charged with travelling to Syria to join a terrorist group and who remains at large. It was not clear if this was the man referred to by Commissioner Paulson.
Mr Paulson said they had not discovered a link between Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau, a Muslim convert, who ran over and killed a soldier on Monday.
Couture-Rouleau had a Twitter account on which he followed users associated with Islamic State (Isis). One of these appears to have posted the first photo of Zehaf-Bibeau, after his rampage through parliament, although there is still no evidence of a link between the two cases.
Standing beside the war memorial, Paul Dewar, the shadow minister for foreign affairs, said that Canada would now look to its allies, including Britain, for guidance on how to deal with extremists in its own society.