MONTREAL — A top Islamic leader in Montreal says closer co-operation between police and the Muslim community is needed after the arrests of 10 young people allegedly planning to join the ranks of the Islamic State terror group.
The wave of arrests carried out by the RCMP last Friday brings to more than 20 the number of individuals who have either mysteriously left Canada, been arrested or been charged with terrorism offences in this city since the beginning of the year.
“We have concerns, yes, but no ideas about what is happening. When we see all these claims and no facts, it makes us very much concerned,” said Imam Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal. “If the claims are right it is a very serious concern. If they are wrong it is still a very big concern.”
Little is known about the 10 young people arrested last week other than the RCMP’s claim in a statement released Tuesday that the individuals were picked up at the Montreal airport and suspected of trying to travel abroad to join “jihadist groups.” No charges have been laid, but the investigations are ongoing and authorities have seized their passports.
Const. Érique Gasse, a spokesman for the RCMP in Quebec, would not comment on the ages of the people or published images showing police investigators leading a young man from his family home in handcuffs last Friday evening, and whether that was yet another person arrested in the national security sweep.
Four of those arrested were enrolled at Collège de Maisonneuve, the Montreal junior college said in a statement. That brings to 11 the number of students from the school who have either been charged with terrorism offences or alleged to have travelled abroad with the intention of joining a terrorist organization.
Quebec’s Public Safety Minister, Lise Theriault, said the arrests were triggered by a call from concerned parents who have responded to the instructions of federal, provincial and even municipal governments struggling to respond to the flood of cases.
“We have given this message to parents because what’s important is to be able to alert the authorities to potential cases of radicalization and stop our young people from leaving the country for Syria and the Islamic State,” Theriault told the provincial legislature.
She has also promised legislation that will provide new resources and rules to help officials deal with the phenomenon of radicalization — which would be a first among Canadian provinces.
Recent headlines in Quebec give an impression of Montreal as the national capital of aspiring jihadists. Seven young people, including two girls, fled their homes in mid-January, apparently leaving behind messages that they were bound for Syria and the ranks of the Islamic State. Five of them were enrolled at Collège de Maisonneuve.
The Toronto Star reported just last week that one of them, Imad Rafai, had given the first sign of life on May 4 when he changed his Twitter profile to identify himself as a “soldier of the caliphate.”
In February, the RCMP sought peace bonds against two Montreal men, Merouane Ghalmi and Daniel Minta Darko. The bonds limit their movements with an electronic ankle bracelet and prohibits them from communicating on social media with individuals in Syria.
In mid-April, the RCMP arrested El Mahdi Jamali and his girlfriend, Sabrine Djermane, and charged them with possession of explosive material as well as planning to leave the country to join a foreign terrorist group. The couple, both 18 and enrolled at Collège de Maisonneuve, have pled not guilty.
Days after their arrest Michel Coulombe, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a Senate Committee that there had been a 50-per-cent spike in the number of Canadians who had left for Iraq and Syria in 2015.
That startling statistic does not appear to have translated into a similar spike in the number of police interventions in other parts of the country.
The Mounties won’t say whether there is a more active community of aspiring jihadists in Quebec or perhaps just a police force less willing to give the benefit of the doubt to individuals identified as a national security risk.
“We are watching with all this fear in our hearts,” said Elmenyawi. “If it is real it is a concern for us but if it is the police being more aggressive and taking flimsy evidence and depriving people of their constitutional rights without justification, that would also be a very serious concern.”
One might expect the country’s national police force to be jumpy after the terror attack carried out last fall by Martin Couture-Rouleau in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.
The 24-year-old had twice tried to flee the country and had his passport seized by police. He was later shot dead by local police after he killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, a Canadian Armed Forces member, in a hit-and-run. The Mounties revealed they had met with Couture-Rouleau less than two weeks prior and had seen signs he was changing his life for the better.
The incident, as well as the deadly attack on Parliament Hill two days later, forced the Mounties to shift resources to its anti-terror operations and prompted new laws from the federal government. But Elmenyawi said authorities should be co-ordinating with religious officials who have the credibility to reason with a young person whose mind has been tainted by radical Islam.
One element common to a number of the Quebec cases is a connection to Adil Charkaoui, a man once believed by the federal government to be an Al Qaeda sleeper agent who now runs a weekend Islamic youth group that offers religious instruction and sporting activities.
Elmenyawi, who served as a chaplain at Montreal’s Rivière-des-Prairies detention centre where Charkaoui was held without charge for nearly two years until his February 2005 release, said any lingering suspicion of the man is part of an ongoing “witch hunt” that has been waged against him since 2003.
“I think I know Adil Charkaoui well enough to say this is total nonsense,” he said. “His problem is only one thing — he says what he thinks and he speaks it right out from his mind without any kind of control or giving things a context that might clarify them.”