Due to increased tensions in the Middle East and consequently greater pressure to recruit foreigners, Canadians heading to fight on behalf of Islamic terrorists have increased exponentially in the last few years.
That said, investigators into recruitment in Canada have been particularly busy, and the results of these investigations are not always as cut-and-dry as one might expect.
One mosque in Calgary that was highlighted as a hub for radicalization closed its doors indefinitely on Friday, following pressure from the community to do so. This move comes three years after CBC News identified Salman Ashrafi, Damian Clairmont and others who all attended the mosque and left Canada to fight alongside Jihadi extremist organizations in Syria and Iraq.
The mosque in question was located in a downtown Calgary neighbourhood at 8th and 8th Avenue. Investigators determined that Canadians going overseas to contribute to terrorist efforts often do so in clusters — suggesting that the decision to go is very much based on relationships with other potential radicalized individuals.
Sadly, mosques are sometimes the site at which these individuals connect and continue to radicalize, making the work of Muslim advocacy organizations and attempts to curb islamophobia particularly difficult.
The imam of the 8th Ave. mosque, Navaid Aziz, identified no regrets over the decision to close the mosque, promising that the community would start fresh in a new location. He is hopeful that this will assist efforts to curb radicalization and the onboarding of Canadian into the ranks of ISIS. He maintains that the community feels a profound sense of relief given that they do not want to be associated with the radicalization that happened at the previous location.
Initially, he recalled the mosque being a very positive place:
“It was a place I taught and gave lectures. I performed people’s marriages. We celebrated people’s births in this mosque.”
But that changed dramatically over a very short period of time, when it was discovered that radicalization was happening within its doors.
He describes this experience as being similar to having a dark cloud constantly hovering overhead, and explains that at first, he wanted to lock himself away and never emerge.
“Then there was this dark element that lingered over it, that overshadowed and overpowered all of these amazing experiences over something I had no control over, something I had nothing to do with. Once that negative incident happened, that was so powerful, that outshined all of the positivity.”
He articulated to the CBC that he felt personally responsible in some ways for what occurred within the mosque, but that he “could never infiltrate that circle” to stop it. Unfortunately, he also described how there is a lack of training and resources in regards to curbing the radicalization.
In total, seven Canadian-born Muslim converts are believed to have been radicalized at the 8th Ave. mosque, though they left Canada many months apart. Six of these seven have since been confirmed dead. The remaining Calgarian fighting with Islamic militants is Farah Shirdon, and he too may be deceased. It was determined he had been radicalized and joined the Jihadi forces when he appeared in one of their YouTube videos in 2014.
In the video, Shirdon tore apart his Canadian passport and set it aflame, threatening:
“We are coming and we will destroy you by the will of God.”
Aziz told the CBC he knew Shirdon better than most of the attendants of the 8th Avenue mosque, and that he was extremely disturbed when he saw the footage:
“When you think of that moment of where he takes the Canadian passport, tears it up and throws it into the flames, for me that is such a scene out of a Hollywood movie. It was such a dark moment for me.”
In response, in the middle of March, he organized a conference in Calgary entitled “Stronger Together” which brought together hundreds of Muslims so that they could brainstorm and work together to generate practical solutions.
Aziz in some ways seemed to feel fairly powerless when it came to the radicalization that occurred within the mosque, and while he understood why he was suspect, he says he “didn’t appreciate the lack of clarity.”
He was detained for multiple hours anytime he tried to leave and re-enter Canada, and was told on multiple occasions his file had been flagged. He claims that at the time, he wanted desperately to speak with investigators or other Canadian officials to obtain help, but that he felt it wasn’t possible.
“I saw them a couple of times, but I never saw anything first-hand that would arouse my suspicion. In front of me nothing ever happened. I could never infiltrate that circle. Eventually, I find out that they’re gone.”
Aziz asserts that he co-operated with authories for months while they completed their investigation. Following this, he was asked to serve as a Muslim chaplain for the Calgary Police Service, which he has done since.
“I said I would love to do it. I want to help people. I want to make the world a better place.”
It seems that Calgary is now actively working to prevent radicalization — to reach those who are particularly vulnerable or subject to that form of propaganda — before it’s too late. Nader Khalil of the RCMP and Constable Kim MacDonald of the Calgary Police diversity resource team identify the value of people like Aziz collaborating with law enforcement efforts. They assert that Muslim parents come to him if they have concerns, and in this way, he can act as a much-needed point of contact between the Muslim community, law enforcement officials, and anti-terrorism officials in order to to de-escalate/monitor such cases.
Watch the news coverage discussing Shirdon’s potential death, and to view commentary on the influx of Westerners into the ranks of ISIS:
Feature Image screenshot via YouTube.