He was a small-town kid with a happy home and loving parents. After his mom died, he lost his way and eventually found a surrogate family of ISIS terrorists online. The short life and violent death of Aaron Driver
Aaron Driver was a sunny, easygoing kid with knobby knees and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles obsession. Born in Regina in 1991 to Wayne, a long-haul trucker, and Linda, a stay-at-home mom, he was a late addition to his family. His sister, Eileen, was already 12, and his brother, Rob, was 10. Wayne often spent weeks on the road, and, in his absence, Aaron became inseparable from his mom. He’d do anything to make her happy—clean his room, do his homework, take out the garbage.
Wayne, a devout Christian, had always planned to become a pastor, but he never finished divinity school. Instead, he worked a succession of contract jobs. The Drivers moved around constantly, jumping across Canada from Regina to Kitchener to Port Colborne. On Sundays, they would go to church, then pack a picnic lunch and head to a nearby beach on Lake Erie.
Everything changed when Aaron was seven. Doctors discovered an inoperable tumour in his mom’s brain. Aaron didn’t understand how sick she was until his dad brought him to the hospital to see her undergo radiation. That’s when it sunk in: she wasn’t going to be okay. Aaron grew quiet and withdrawn, spending entire days in the hospital room with his mom.
A few months after Linda was diagnosed, she fell into a coma and never woke up. Aaron was inconsolable. He and his father were suddenly on their own—his older siblings had already moved out—and Aaron found the loneliness unbearable. In the following months, he often refused to get out of bed to go to school. He stopped eating his lunches, telling Wayne that, if he starved himself to death, he could be with his mom in heaven.
When Aaron was nine, his dad met a woman named Monica on a Christian dating site. Aaron seemed to like her at first, but that changed when, several months later, she and Wayne announced they were getting married. Aaron snapped. He raged and screamed, telling his dad nobody would ever replace his mom—and that he wished Wayne had died instead. Wayne took Aaron to a Christian bereavement counsellor, but his son refused to participate. He tried again with a psychiatrist and had to drag Aaron into the office; he sat through the entire appointment in silence. When Wayne brought a family counsellor in for home sessions, Aaron would storm out of the room. Eventually, Wayne stopped trying altogether.
After Wayne and Monica got married, Aaron spent most of his time alone in his room. He never watched TV because he didn’t want to sit with the rest of the family. He wouldn’t attend church, declaring that he hated God. He skipped school and refused to do his chores. When he was 12, he decided he wanted to get away from home, and Wayne agreed to let him move in with his sister, Eileen, and her husband in Petawawa. Eileen quickly found she couldn’t handle her baby brother, with his mood swings and tantrums. She sent him to live with their 22-year-old brother, Rob, in London, Ontario. Almost immediately, Aaron began breaking into people’s homes and cars, stealing CDs and electronics that he could pawn. Barely an adult himself and unable to cope, Rob sent Aaron back to live with his dad after just four months.
By that point, Wayne and Monica had both taken administrative jobs with the Canadian Armed Forces and were stationed in Edmonton. In his new home, Aaron continued to act out. He ran away, often for days at a time. Sometimes he’d go to friends’ houses, but, most of the time, Wayne had no idea where he was. One day, when Aaron was 14, Wayne found disturbing poetry hidden in his son’s room. Aaron had fantasized about stabbing his dad and stepmom in their sleep, placing plastic bags over their heads and strangling them, cutting their brake lines, even burning down the house. They were terrified. Wayne installed a lock on their bedroom door.
After two years in Edmonton, the Drivers were redeployed to London, Ontario. A week before the family was set to leave, Aaron disappeared again. Wayne and Monica spent days searching for him, even enlisting the help of the police, with no luck. Finally, they left without him, then got a call from Edmonton police a week later saying Aaron had been picked up for stealing a lawn mower and joyriding it around town. Aaron grudgingly joined his dad and stepmom in London but soon announced he wanted to live in a group home for troubled teenage boys. To everyone’s surprise, Aaron thrived in the group home. He was a model resident—he did his chores, kept curfew, completed his homework. Two years after he moved in, he began dating a young woman he’d met through friends. Within a few months, they discovered she was pregnant. Aaron was ecstatic. He was young—just 18 at the time—but he was determined to be a good dad.
Aaron saw fatherhood as his chance to build the family he’d always wanted. He dropped out of school and got a job. He and his girlfriend moved into an apartment in London, where they decorated a nursery for the baby. He also began studying the Bible and attending church with Eileen. But something wasn’t right: he wasn’t connecting with Christianity.
Aaron was scouring YouTube for religious debates when he stumbled upon a video of Muslim theologians criticizing Christianity. Fascinated, he fell into a rabbit hole, devouring dozens of YouTube videos about Islam. He was drawn to the Muslim scholars who, he felt, ideologically destroyed their opponents. His new faith developed in an online silo—a DIY religious education filtered through his own search for meaning and redemption. Later, by chance, a Muslim man saw Aaron reading his Quran in a shawarma shop and invited him to attend prayer services at the London Muslim Mosque. Though, by now, Aaron had spent months researching and interpreting Islam, the mosque was the first place he had met other Muslims. He told them he was an orthodox but didn’t elaborate. Soon he was praying five times a day. He gave up bacon, alcohol and secular music. While his girlfriend wasn’t Muslim, she was happy that Aaron had found something that gave him a sense of direction.
The day he was set to take his shahada—the formal testament of faith that would mark his conversion to Islam—his girlfriend went into labour. Their son, Seth, was stillborn, the umbilical cord wound tightly around his neck. Aaron was shattered. Wayne, who had been re-stationed in Winnipeg, flew down for the funeral. Aaron hardly spoke at all over the next few days. He was only 19, gawky and pimple-faced, and already he’d buried his mother and his son. Islam was all he had left. He took his shahada a week later.
Aaron’s relationship with his girlfriend didn’t survive the death of their child. After the breakup, he decided he needed to get away from London and, in 2012, he moved to Winnipeg to live with Wayne and Monica. They found he had changed from the rebellious adolescent they had known—he was respectful, responsible and cordial. Wayne wanted Aaron to embrace Christianity, but he was pleased that his son’s new faith had given him what he craved: a sense of belonging, purpose and community. Aaron Driver had found his family.
It seemed like Aaron was ready to start over. In 2013, at age 22, he enrolled in Jameswood Alternative School; he only needed Grade 12 math and English to get his diploma. He got a job at a gas station, paid Wayne rent every month and made polite conversation at the dinner table. “I wanted us to remain friends,” Wayne says now. “But I knew we’d never be father and son again. That ship had sailed a long time ago.”
Aaron struggled to make friends in Winnipeg. “How can I meet people in this city?” he wrote on Reddit in 2014. “I’m feeling pretty lost, lay it on me.” When he couldn’t find friends in town, he retreated online. Wearing noise-cancelling headphones, he’d spend hours at a time on Twitter and YouTube, as well as a message board for Sunni Muslims, and he was a regular on Facebook groups for Muslims in Winnipeg. “I’m trying to correct the misconceptions and the lies the West is telling about the Islamic State,” he once said.
In Winnipeg, Aaron attended two mosques, but both were progressive, and Aaron’s conservative values didn’t align with their views. He believed that homosexuality was immoral and unhealthy, that the end times were coming and that Muslims should withdraw themselves from Western society.
His radicalization coincided with the dramatic rise of ISIS, a former Al-Qaeda branch that was exiled from the organization in February 2014. Five months later, ISIS declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as head of the resurrected caliphate, an Islamic empire that once spanned from Spain to North Africa, and from the Middle East to South Asia. Under the ISIS caliphate, the only sanctioned religion is fundamentalist Sunni Islam, and the only legitimate law is sharia. Enemies include Shia Muslims, Iran, “puppet” Arab regimes like Egypt and Turkey, Christians, Jews, America, the West and, especially, democracy.
If Al-Qaeda follows a structured corporate model, with one centralized cell at the top, then ISIS is more like Uber. Members operate like digital entrepreneurs, moving freely within a low-maintenance online framework. In 2014, more than 46,000 Twitter accounts supported ISIS, sending out more than 133,000 tweets every day. Many of those accounts originated from Iraq and Syria, and tweeted photos and videos of beheadings, often of Western journalists and aid workers. Aaron followed many of the 76 official ISIS accounts, keeping up with popular Western propagandists.
By late 2014, when social media platforms like Twitter started suspending ISIS accounts, it was too late. Always one step ahead, the organization had moved to messaging apps, such as Kik, WhatsApp and Telegram. These platforms used expiring links and encrypted URLs, allowing their users to evade detection, suspension and, most importantly, identification.
As Aaron’s commitment to ISIS grew, he became a regular on all of these platforms. He later told authorities that ISIS recruiters didn’t lure him—he sought them out. To a kid who had trouble connecting with people after his mother’s death, the righteous online community was seductive. Soon, Aaron was recruiting other lonely, alienated kids like him. One was a teen in the Maritimes who hung out with a rough crowd and did drugs. Another was a 14-year-old in the U.K. who later helped plan support for an ISIS attack against Australian police officers from his bedroom. Aaron taught them how to encrypt their messages and use throwaway email addresses to avoid getting caught.
Online, ISIS supporters refer to themselves as a baqiyah, or ever-lasting family, a concept that appealed to Aaron. In those early months, he was in a constant state of discomfort in Canada; he wanted to be in Syria. But ISIS was expanding beyond its borders in Syria and Iraq—its leaders discovered they could incite violence in the West without having to expend resources to coordinate or organize deadly attacks. Instead of encouraging all of the young jihadists to migrate to Syria, ISIS leaders began urging many of them to wage war on their own soil. The baqiyah answered—and so did Aaron Driver.
Offline, Aaron was a polite kid living under his dad’s roof. Online, he was building a name for himself as Harun Danyal Abdurahman—an Arabic play on Aaron Daniel that roughly translates to “warrior lion.” He operated 12 different Twitter accounts—including @HarunAbdurahman, @Harunorsometin and @HaroonAbdullah—all of which were banned for pro-ISIS activity. He attracted hundreds of followers, including jihadists, journalists and intelligence agency members. Aaron enjoyed the attention. “I like to keep the spies and journos close so I can see what they are up to,” he tweeted. Most of his messages affirmed his dedication to ISIS. “When they attack us, we get stronger, and when they leave us, we grow in number. Victory is for the believers Allahu Akbar,” he wrote. Later, he retweeted: “So proud of all my brothers for making the #IslamicState a reality.” He directed the bulk of his tweets toward injustices in Syria and the West, and what he saw as the ultimate solution: the Islamic State.
Aaron didn’t share much about his beliefs with his family. They knew he was going by the name Harun and that he was attending prayer services at a nearby mosque, but they didn’t know about his involvement with ISIS, and Wayne still hoped Islam was a phase. In July 2014, Wayne and Monica were transferred to Cold Lake, Alberta. Aaron decided to stay behind in Winnipeg, renting a basement apartment from a schoolteacher. He got a job at a distribution warehouse in Winnipeg’s St. James neighbourhood.
Over the next year, he befriended some of ISIS’s most zealous supporters online. He bonded with Elton Simpson, the man who opened fire at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, in 2015—the first ISIS attack on American soil. The two exchanged their last tweets just hours before the shooting, which Simpson signalled with the hashtag #texasattack. Authorities believe that Aaron helped Simpson encrypt his messages, though his involvement was never proven. After the attack, Aaron tweeted, “I think this worked out beautifully.” As his devotion to ISIS intensified, he became convinced that all members of the military were justified targets. “If a country goes to war with another country, or another people or another community, I think that they have to be prepared for things like that to happen,” he once told the CBC. “And when it does happen, they shouldn’t act surprised. They had it coming. They deserved it.”
Every so often, the self-styled jihadi warrior went off-message, and flashes of another Aaron appeared. His Twitter feed featured a surprising number of cute kitten Vines and YouTube videos sprinkled among the hate speech and gleeful gloating. He loved to talk about weight-lifting and workouts, and once advised his followers to take the stairs instead of the escalator because they’d “feel better about it.” He wrote that he loved the smell of fresh-clipped grass. And he showed compassion to those whose families didn’t understand their faith. “Your family,” he tweeted, “can be your most resistant audience for dawah [sharing Islam].”
In February 2015, Wayne was reading a Toronto Star interview with a masked ISIS supporter named Harun Abdurahman. The man refused to provide his real name but told the paper that he lived in Manitoba and had grown up in a Christian military family. He described how, a few months earlier, when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau opened fire on Parliament Hill in the name of ISIS, he’d listened to the story develop on the radio at work, barely containing his excitement. He said that Zehaf-Bibeau was retaliating against the federal government for sending F-18s to Iraq. He believed it was justified.
When Wayne read the interview, he knew immediately that Harun was Aaron. He also knew that the authorities would be looking for the military family in Manitoba whose child had become an ISIS supporter. He tried to call Aaron, but his son wouldn’t pick up. So Wayne called the military police. A few weeks later, he had coffee with a Canadian Security Intelligence Service agent who told him CSIS was on a fact-finding mission focused on his son. The intelligence agency had been monitoring Aaron’s online behaviour since October 2014. He was flagged after he retweeted “Sharpen your knife”—a call from Canadian ISIS supporter John Maguire to his fellow Canuck jihadists. CSIS had been trying to determine how deep in the organization Aaron was and whether there was a chance he’d act on his beliefs.
Wayne was horrified, but he didn’t grasp the extent of Aaron’s loyalty to ISIS, or what that meant, until the agent slid a thick file folder across the coffee-shop table. It contained all of Aaron’s Twitter and Facebook communications. Wayne flipped through the pictures Aaron was liking and sharing: babies in mass graves, beheadings, bombings—one horrific act of violence after another. He made it through about 10 pages before he broke down in tears. As soon as he got home, he called Aaron’s mosque in Winnipeg and asked for help. The mosque tried to arrange meetings with Aaron and paired him with a peer mentor, hoping to deradicalize him. Aaron wouldn’t listen to anybody but his baqiyah.
He knew he was being watched. CSIS was calling his friends, his relatives, an ex-girlfriend, and he’d seen RCMP officers monitoring his house. Aaron welcomed their surveillance. He wholeheartedly embraced ISIS’s culture of martyrdom and had told the Star he’d be comfortable going to prison for speaking his truth. Just before 7 a.m. on June 4, 2015, Aaron was walking to the bus stop on his way to work when he saw a white van speed up toward him on the wrong side of the road. He was arrested by the RCMP on the grounds of suspected terrorist activity.
He was detained at Headingley Correctional Centre and interrogated twice, for three to four hours each time. Over and over, officers grilled Aaron about his Maguire retweet: Why did he do it? What was he thinking? Was he planning an act of violence? Police searched his room and found several books: a biology text, The Great Gatsby, the Bible, Arabic for Dummies and two memoirs—Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Mariatu Kamara’s Bite of the Mango. They also found a hard drive containing a set of instructions detailing how to build a bomb, but it was not enough to charge him.
After eight days, the RCMP released Aaron on bail, stripped him of his passport and sought a peace bond against him. Police often use peace bonds when they believe someone poses a terror threat but lack evidence to charge the individual. The bond consists of a rigorous set of rules: it provides a clear mechanism for police supervision and restricts the suspect’s access to extremist communities. In Aaron’s case, that meant he couldn’t go online. In its application to the judge, the RCMP stated that officers had discovered enough about Aaron to reasonably fear he would “participate in or contribute to, directly or indirectly, the activity of a terrorist group to facilitate or carry out a terrorist activity.” In the days following Aaron’s release, journalists reached out to him for comment. He told them he wasn’t surprised he was targeted. “I think things are going to get worse,” he told the CBC. He predicted more restrictive laws against Muslims, which he believed would radicalize them at a faster rate. “Muslims will be treated in the West like the Jews were treated by the Nazis.” He claimed that he was being punished for criticizing Canada and that he was not a violent guy.
Many activists agreed. Organizations such as the Manitoba Association of Rights and Liberties argued that Aaron shouldn’t have been detained for more than a week with no charges laid and that, given the flimsy evidence and absence of a criminal record, he shouldn’t face pre-emptive punishment for free speech. His right to free speech was being violated, they believed, and that peace bond was a slippery slope toward punishing thought crimes.
His publicly appointed defence lawyer, Leonard Tailleur, got in touch with Lorne Dawson, a professor at the University of Waterloo and the director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society. He wanted Dawson, and his research partner, Amarnath Amarasingam, a fellow at the George Washington University who specializes in domestic radicalization, to assess whether Aaron was a threat. On August 6, 2015, they met Aaron in a public library, where Aaron, in defiance of his bail restrictions, had been on Twitter. They spoke for hours, and Aaron was candid about his radical beliefs. “If we lived in a Muslim country,” he told the researchers, “then anyone who wasn’t a Muslim could be put to death.” When Amarasingam asked him where he would go if his Canadian passport were reinstated, Aaron replied that he wanted to be in Syria. And yet he repeated over and over that he wasn’t a violent person. Amarasingam and Dawson believed him.
On February 2, 2016, Aaron agreed to the peace bond conditions. He was sent to live with his sister, Eileen, her husband and their four children in Strathroy, a small town near London, where he got a job on the assembly line at Meridian Lightweight Technologies, a car parts manufacturer. He was not allowed to use social media; own a cellphone, computer, laptop or tablet; or contact anyone in his baqiyah. Twice a month, he had to report in person to the RCMP in London, and the RCMP could contact him at any time, within reason. For Aaron, being offline was like living in a prison—he told journalists he might as well have stayed in jail.
On the morning of August 10, 2016, the RCMP received a tip from the FBI. The agency had information about a potential terrorist attack in Canada. They sent the RCMP a video still of a man wearing a black North Face balaclava. Around 9:30 a.m., the RCMP shared the screen shot with its divisions across the country. Officers then produced a list of 11 suspects, which was soon narrowed down to five. One police analyst thought he recognized the balaclava; another found a photo of Aaron leaving a Winnipeg courthouse the day his peace bond was issued. He was wearing that same hat, shielding his face from the press and the Manitoba winter. He had the same pale skin and the same smirking hazel eyes.
In the two-minute video, Aaron addressed the camera directly. He adopted a vague Arabic accent, his voice muffled by the balaclava. It was clear he was reading from a prepared script. At one point, a black cat wandered into the frame, but Aaron didn’t bother to re-record his threat. He was an amateur. “O Canada,” he opened, “you received many warnings. You were told many times what will become of those who fight against the Islamic State.” Driver’s eyes darted to the left. He tugged his balaclava. A little swagger. “No, no, by Allah, you still have much to pay for.” His voice rose. He dragged out the word “no” and shook his head in anger. “You still have a heavy debt which has to be paid. You still have Muslim blood on your hands, and, for this, we are thirsty for your blood.” He ended the video with a pledge to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and a vow to answer the call for “jihad in the lands of crusaders.”
By 10:50 a.m., the RCMP had mobilized the London police and the OPP Anti-Terrorism section, as well as officers from their own counter-terrorism unit, to set up surveillance at Eileen’s house on Park Street and at Aaron’s work. Members of the RCMP Explosives Disposal Unit and Emergency Response Team were also deployed. Together, along with members of the Strathroy-Cardoc Police Services, they waited and watched. Questions reverberated throughout the team: What was the threat level? How could they keep everybody on the street safe? How could they keep themselves safe? What was Aaron’s plan? Unsure of Aaron’s target, police warned businesses in downtown London, as well as Metrolinx, the Toronto Police Service, the TTC and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority that there had been a terror threat.
Strathroy cabbie Terry Duffield had started his shift at 6:30 that morning. Around 4 p.m., he received a call from his dispatcher: he had a customer who wanted a ride into London. It was Aaron. In the two years he’d been driving, Duffield had met Aaron many times, ferrying him to work and the grocery store. Aaron was friendly and always paid his fare. Duffield dropped off a passenger and headed straight to Aaron’s house.
When he pulled into the gravel driveway at 4:18 p.m., there was no one waiting. Duffield took out some paperwork and filled out three receipts. Five minutes passed. Just as he was ready to call Aaron, he saw him walking toward the cab, carrying a backpack. Aaron got in the back seat and flung his backpack down beside him.
“Where are we going?”
“Where in London?”
“Downtown. Citi Plaza.”
Duffield said the fare was $55 up front. Aaron handed over the cash, which Duffield tucked inside his money pouch. He put the car in reverse and began backing up, but he heard a man yell “Stop!” Duffield slammed on the brakes, thinking maybe he was about to hit somebody. Instead, he saw the police in his rear-view mirror. “It’s the cops,” he said, turning his head slightly. “I think they’re here to talk to you.” Duffield reached down for his cigarettes, figuring he could take a puff while the police spoke to Driver. That’s when he heard the boom.
Foam from the car seat exploded all over the cab. All Duffield could see was white smoke. Driver had tried to ignite a bomb and succeeded in only partial detonation. The device used the same formula that the RCMP had found on Aaron’s hard drive. It contained 139 ball bearings—if it had detonated correctly, it would have killed or maimed anyone within a seven-foot radius. Duffield’s mind blanked and he started yelling a panicked chorus—“I’m only the driver”—over and over. He remembers a moment of silence. Then the police started yelling. “Hands out! Hands out!” He kicked open the door and did a nose dive onto the gravel driveway. He stayed there, body splayed, not talking, hardly even breathing. Meanwhile, Aaron had pitched his body from the cab, his backpack strapped over his chest, and officers feared a second, deadlier explosion. Suddenly, Duffield heard a pop, pop, pop, pop. Gunfire. Then he heard one of the cops say, “He’s still twitching.” Another pop, then silence. Only a few minutes had passed, but it felt like forever. Aaron had been shot in the chest multiple times. Before he died, he yelled, “Allahu Akbar.”
Across the country, in Cold Lake, Alberta, Wayne was in a Shoppers Drug Mart parking lot, waiting for his wife. He’d spoken to Aaron three weeks before—or at least he had tried. Aaron hadn’t talked to his dad since he’d reported him to military police. The last time he called Aaron, his son had hung up on him. Still, he wasn’t completely in the dark: he received regular updates from Eileen and thought his son was doing well. Aaron had been checking in with the RCMP twice a month, as the peace bond stipulated, and had never missed a meeting. But then Wayne’s cellphone rang. It was Eileen. She could barely get the words out: “Aaron’s dead.” Wayne and Monica went home to pray. That evening, they watched the news, hoping for information.
A joint investigation of the OPP and Strathroy police would later deem the shooting justified, and the Ontario Attorney General’s office agreed: the risk that Aaron would follow through on his threat was too great. The police had to act quickly and decisively.
Aaron left a suicide note addressed to his family, though it offered little insight. In it, he said he loved them, all of them. There is a part of Wayne that believes Aaron didn’t intend to hurt anybody but himself that day—that he was a depressed kid with no way out who wanted to get caught. But it’s only guesswork and a father’s hope. In his final words, Aaron offered no clues about why he set out to become a jihadi suicide bomber on August 10. He told his family only that they wouldn’t understand.
Two days after the shooting, Terry Duffield tried to get back to work. But, as soon as he turned the key to start the ignition, sweat beaded on his forehead. His hands shook. He felt sick, and he called for backup. “I have no desire to ever enter a cab again in this lifetime,” he says. He was diagnosed with PTSD, takes anxiety medication and sees a counsellor twice a month.
Wayne Driver is also struggling to move forward. When he retired from the military last summer, he returned to his dream of becoming a pastor. He enrolled in divinity school and graduated in the fall. Every day, he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and studies for six hours. He devotes one afternoon every week to volunteering at the food bank. He attends a prayer meeting on Tuesdays and a Bible-study group on Thursdays. When his pastor is away, he preaches the Sunday sermon. Like his son, Wayne finds structure and meaning in faith.
He believes Aaron was more than the one action for which he’s now notorious, that he was kind and gentle to those he cared about and that there were people who cared about him. He told me it’s not monsters who are the violent extremists in Canada. It’s the kids next door. On August 18, Wayne buried his son, the boy he could never reach, in the same plot as his mother. It would have been Aaron’s 25th birthday.