MONTREAL - The attack Wednesday on Parliament Hill cast a tragic pall over the country but also overshadowed what appears to be a much clearer case of homegrown radical terrorism that played out just 48 hours earlier south of Montreal.
The actions of the Ottawa gunman, longtime drug addict and petty criminal Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, have garnered the lion’s share of worldwide jihadi celebration this week for having breached the heart of Canadian democracy and killing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo.
But it was the progression of Martin “Ahmad” Couture-Rouleau from struggling entrepreneur to aspiring Islamic State fighter over the last 18 months that followed the more classical path of radicalization.
After his power washing business foundered, 25-year-old Couture-Rouleau filled the void with a new-found religion that appears to have been nurtured and ultimately perverted by Internet propaganda about Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to his Facebook and Twitter accounts, which he registered under the names “Ahmed Rouleau” and “Abu Ibrahim AlCanadi.”
That fact fuels one of the tougher battles that Canadian Muslim leaders are facing in their bid to defend their religion against violent stereotypes and prejudice that risk growing in the wake of a deadly week.
“At the end of the day, individuals that are bad are bad,” said Samer Mazjoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum in Montreal. “Why can’t Muslims have insane individuals? When these actions are done by others, they say he is insane . . . Why, as a Muslim Canadian, do we always say right away it was a terrorist act?”
Couture-Rouleau’s friends in his hometown of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., say he discovered Islam after a dark period in his life, but they have denied that he was mentally ill. They described him this week to the Star and other media as having the convert’s religious fervour, but an undeniable persuasion.
Radio-Canada has reported that a half-dozen of Couture-Rouleau’s friends were also convinced to convert to Islam and that he also offered to pay their airfare to travel with him to Afghanistan in recent months, which they declined.
A young man in Pakistan who said he was friends with Couture-Rouleau told the Star Friday that the Quebecer had attempted to travel to Pakistan last February but was prevented from boarding the airplane. Later he became determined to travel to Iraq. Why?
“To fight for ISIS,” the Pakistani man, who requested anonymity, said in a Facebook exchange. “It’s simple.”
The RCMP confirmed this week that they had seized Couture-Rouleau’s passport when he had attempted to travel to Turkey in July and placed him on their list of 93 “high-risk travellers.” Despite worries over his expressions of grievance online and his apparent sympathies for the Islamic State, prosecutors decided there wasn’t enough evidence to lay charges against him either for planning foreign travel to participate in terrorism or having already taken part in terrorist activity.
As they worked with him over the summer and into the fall, there was even reason for optimism, said RCMP Supt. Martine Fontaine. In a final Oct. 9 meeting, which included the police as well as a local imam, he seemed less strident.
“He said he wanted to perhaps take steps to change things in his life,” Fontaine said this week.
Neither Couture-Rouleau’s friends nor his family (his father saw him just hours before the deadly hit and run) can explain his actions. That was acknowledged by the family of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in a statement expressing their shock and sadness.
Vincent, 53, was killed Monday when Couture-Rouleau struck him and another member of the military with his car in a St-Jean-sur-Richelieu parking lot.
“Our thoughts also go to the Couture-Rouleau family who are living through a difficult time,” said the statement.
Couture-Rouleau was fatally shot Monday by Quebec provincial police following a high-speed car chase after the hit-and-run.
The difficulty explaining such a tragic, violent incident also highlights the problem the larger Muslim community in Canada, particularly its leadership, faces with such rogue elements bent on violence.
When family or friends come forward to report troubling signs, Toronto imam Yusuf Badat, vice-chair of the Canadian Council of Imams, says Muslim leaders will try to intervene. But they can do only so much.
“We try to counter their narratives and their arguments, and many times we find out that this individual has been part of a gang or some drug community,” Badat said in an interview.
“We refer them to certain agencies, we try to intervene, we inform the authorities that we’re working with this individual — we try to prevent any disaster. But if these individuals have something going on in their mind and they’re disenfranchised or they don’t want to listen to us, we become helpless.”
There is a lot of work that also goes on behind the scenes. Badat said the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service called him on Wednesday to arrange a meeting for next week where he hopes they can discuss how to work together more closely on the issues that were brought to the fore by the carnage this week.
He added that every day in the community there are mentors and leaders who are helping, guiding and counselling Muslim youth to follow a straight path. There are also others, such as Toronto’s Muhammad Robert Heft, who specializes in intervening with radicalized youth through his Muslim support group, Paradise Forever.
While Heft was out of the country this week, he has been providing a running commentary of his thoughts on his Facebook page in which he weighed in, without naming names, on the two young men who lifted terrorism back to the top of the Canadian political agenda.
“I found that the biggest losers in society were the perfect so-called jihadists because they already have criminal behaviour, hate authority and have no respect for society,” he wrote. “They never submitted to Islam but took the most controversial parts of it and exploited them for their own personal gain.”