Mohamed-Aslim Zafis was sitting outside a mosque in Toronto’s west end last month when a man approached him and stabbed him in the neck with a knife.
The brazen killing, which police later accused 34-year-old Guilherme (William) von Neutegem of carrying out, sent shockwaves across Canada’s largest city and stirred fears among Muslim and other minority groups experiencing an uptick in racism.
Weeks later, after von Neutegem’s ties to a white supremacist ideology were reported, experts say Zafis’ murder is evidence of a dramatic rise in the number of right-wing hardline groups in Canada and raises questions as to how well Canadian authorities are addressing far-right violence.
“We have over 300 white supremacist groups operating in Canada,” said Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), an advocacy group.
While Toronto police said Zafis’ killing appears to be random, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN) reported that von Neutegem’s social media accounts suggest he is connected to racist and Nazi-inspired occult movements, including a death cult.
Known as 09A (Order of Nine Angles), its believers are told to carry out murders to establish a satanic empire, according to CAHN, an independent organisation that investigates far-right groups in Canada.
CAHN also said members of the group “have been charged for plotting terrorist attacks” in the United States and United Kingdom.
Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said far-right violence is Canada’s largest threat, judging by “the number of active groups, the number of incidents associated with far-right extremists and the broader sympathy with the movement”.
More than 300 right-wing groups defined as extremist are currently operating in Canada, according to research by Perry and Ryan Scrivens, a professor at Michigan State University who was previously based in Canada.
These groups mostly target Muslims and Jews, but also espouse extreme misogyny, anti-LGBTQ+ views and hatred towards people of colour, according to CAHN.
Recently, far-right activist have successfully drawn more people to their views, Perry said – and many of these new followers are middle-aged, employed people who are well educated.
In fact, members of the far-right can be seen at all levels of Canadian society, with the country’s army chief last week issuing a directive to root far-right belief-holders out of the military.
“Some of the narratives are increasingly mainstream: the anti-Muslim narrative, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee. Public opinion polls have shown increasing negative reactions to Islam and to immigration trends,” Perry told Al Jazeera.
“I think those narratives have broadened [in appeal].”
The rise of far-right movements and the potential violence emanating from these groups has raised new questions about what the authorities are doing about it.
Documents released in January suggest that officials with Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and federal police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), are struggling on how to address and define the threat, and explain it to the public.