Sunday, April 7, 2013

Canadian tale of three high school friends who converted to Islam and the two who died as jihadists in the desert of Algeria

The journey from school chums to full blown jihadists, Canadian style.  If there were programs in mosques nationwide to teach how jihad is wrong, maybe this kind of thing could be averted.

From the National Post April 6 by Adrian Humphreys, Stewart Bell, Maiya Keidan and Tom Blackwell

How three Canadians graduated from a rebellious high school friendship to the world of Islamist terrorism
The distressed family of Ali Medlej explained the unexpected death of their son by saying he was killed in a car accident. The truth, as they — and the world — now knows, is more ghastly and perplexing: The young London man died perpetrating January’s terrorist attack on an Algerian gas plant.The violent end of Ali Medlej, along with Xristos Katsiroubas, his chum from school whom he helped convert to Islam, came not in a car, but in the North African desert in an attack that left 37 hostages dead, most of them incinerated in an explosion that likely also purposely killed the Canadian attackers.

That was their startling end.

Now everyone, even those close to the young men, wonder where their dark odyssey began.
While the geography is somewhat clear — from London to Edmonton to Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and, ultimately, to the ill-fated gas plant in In Amenas, Algeria — it is the psychological journey, from suburban rascals to jihadi commandos, that leaves friends befuddled.

The men, along with Aaron Yoon, who was convicted in Mauritania last year of membership in a terrorist group, were all part of a larger group of friends, mostly Muslim, at London South Collegiate Institute, a high school in the southwestern Ontario city.

The boys emerged from adolescence immersed in twin obsessions with Islam and hip-hop music.

And if those influences offer a cultural contrast, the lives of the three men portray a similar duality, said family, many friends and former schoolmates, some of whom were close to one or more of the men since kindergarten.

Ali, with most of those in his clique, for instance, devoutly attended prayers but also, while in Grade 12, got into trouble for taking a fake gun to a neighbouring school to settle a dispute with a student there, friends said. And although dying in a bloody al-Qaeda attack, in Grade 9, he once mocked the Taliban.

Xristos, in turn, was a late convert to Islam after being raised in a Greek-Canadian Orthodox Christian home and, with the zeal of a new convert, announced he was to be called Mustafa.

“Xris [prounounced Chris] was a much more serious Muslim than Ali,” said Justin VanderTuin, 24, who was on the high school football team with Ali. “Ali certainly was not. He was a kid who drank and smoked, but I never saw Xris with any of those things.”

And Aaron, a Korean-Canadian Catholic who also converted in his teens, under influence from Ali, shunned schoolwork and reading but ended up studying the Koran and Arabic at an Islamic centre in North Africa.

“I was surprised when I read about Aaron studying Islamic texts — Aaron, study?” said a former classmate at Cartier Public School. “He could never even remember when Confederation was.”

The circumstances of these young men — who were in many ways ordinary and in others extraordinary — do not make for a clean portrait to be drawn; just as it makes it more important for investigators, and the community, to understand what went wrong.

Read it all

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