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The U.S. State Department added two Canadians to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) on 13 April. One of them, Tarek Sakr, of Syrian descent, is associated with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which has since been through two rebrands to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) and currently Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The other, Farah Mohamed Shirdon, of Somali background, is a member of the Islamic State (IS).
State gave little information about Sakr other than that he has “conducted sniper training in Syria and periodically travels to Turkey”. Al-Qaeda has strategic depth in Turkey, with networks that, inter alia, shelter fighters, facilitate their movement into Syria, and fundraise.
Sakr was born on 14 March 1987 and his journey to jihad was first exposed in December by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which identified Sakr as part of a group of ten individuals from the Montreal area, who had practiced on a shooting range before seven of them migrated to the Levant between the summers of 2012 and 2013.
It was Sakr, another Quebecer of Algerian extraction, Wassim Boughadou, and a third man who organized these training sessions at the shooting range over several months. Sakr was studying pharmacology; Boughadou was a gym trainer. Two of Sakr’s cousins in Latakia are said to have been killed before he arrived in Syria. Boughadou was arrested last month after he boarded a plane in Adana, Turkey, on suspicion of being an IS member.
The Montreal set are believed to be linked to the kidnapping of two American journalists, Peter Curtis (Theo Padnos) and Matthew Schrier. Curtis and Schrier were taken during a period when the Bashar al-Assad regime and IS’s secret operatives were working in tandem to close down independent reporting in northern Syria. Curtis was kidnapped in October 2012 after he crossed into Syria in pursuit of a story about Austin Tice, an American journalist kidnapped by the Assad regime in August 2012 and held to this day. Curtis later explained that he had been captured by fighters using the Free Syrian Army (FSA) label, before being handed to al-Nusra. Schrier was abducted by al-Nusra in December 2012 and placed in a cell in Hraytan with Curtis in January 2013. Schrier squeezed out of the window of his cell in July 2013 and with the help of FSA-branded rebels was able to escape from the jihadists and get home. After a terrible ordeal, Curtis was freed in a deal mediated by Qatar in August 2014.
Schrier had long believed there was a Canadian—and specifically a Quebec—connection to his kidnapping. Three of the al-Nusra jihadists, who had demanded Schrier’s online passwords, social security numbers, and so on to enable them to rob him, were Quebecois, Schrier was sure from their accents. Upon release, Schrier pieced together the financial activities al-Nusra had undertaken in his name during his seven months in captivity, amounting to $18,000 on his business account before the bank froze it. Al-Nusra bought laptops, tablets, a GPS watch, cameras, memory sticks, cologne and military-style boots. “They even used my iTunes account to download the 69 positions of a Kama Sutra guide from the app store,” Schrier says. Most of this went to addresses on the Turkey-Syria border, but two purchases of electrical goods—on 13 and 16 February 2013—had been sent to an address in Westmount, Quebec. The recipient refused to answer questions about why al-Qaeda had shipped goods to him.
One of the Montreal cell who went to Syria in 2013, after Curtis and Schrier had been kidnapped, was Ismael Habib, a former brother-in-law of Boughadou’s, who is also now in jail in Canada. Habib is charged with attempting to leave Canada to commit terrorist acts and giving false information to obtain a passport. Habib had confessed to undercover agents of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) that he had whipped a prisoner, and there is video of the event. Habib had his passport seized in Turkey in November 2013 after spending some time in Syria. Habib told the RCMP informant that he wanted to return to Syria for jihad. At some point after leaving Syria, Habib came to believe it was his religious duty to join IS, though it is not believed he joined IS while actually in Syria.
The biography State gives of Shirdon, also known as Abu Usama al-Somali, likewise truncated, saying only that he has been in Raqqa since November 2015 and is “a prominent ISIS fighter and recruiter and has also been involved in fundraising”.
Born on 18 April 1993 to a “prominent and well-educated Somali family,” Shirdon’s “father’s brother, Abdi Farah Shirdon, was a former prime minister of Somalia who has survived numerous attempts on his life by al-Shabab,” al-Qaeda’s branch in the country. Shirdon was enrolled in the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology until at least 2012, and was part of a wave of jihadist recruits from Calgary.
Shirdon left Canada on 14 March 2014 and was very quickly utilized as a propagandist-recruiter, appearing in an IS video on 13 April 2014. Shirdon’s appearance was textbook: he burned his passport, narrated a story of leaving comfort for the harships of the caliphate and the true faith, and pledged that attacks were imminent in Canada and the United States.
It was reported that Shirdon had been killed in August 2014, reports that were falsified a month later when Shirdon appeared in a video interview with VICE News. In the interview with VICE founder Shane Smith, Shirdon claimed to be in Mosul, Iraq. The interview itself was a bombastic exercise in sensationalism that, among other things, threatened President Barack Obama by name and said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) were “imbeciles” for failing to spot Shirdon’s extremism during an interview.
In February 2016, a court ruled that VICE national security reporter Ben Makuch had to hand over his communications with Shirdon via Kik instant messenger to enable the government to make its case against Shirdon. VICE fought this on the basis that it set a dangerous precedent in free expression and media terms if journalists had to hand over source material, but the next month an Ontario court upheld the decision.
The RCMP laid six terrorism-related charges against Shirdon on 24 September 2015, including “commission of an indictable offence for a terrorist group,” related to the threats made in the VICE interview. The other charges were for leaving Canada to engage in terrorism, participating in the activities of a terrorist group, two counts of instructing others to carry out terrorism for IS (one related to encouraging people to make hijra, or emigration, to the caliphate; the other inciting terrorist attacks inside the West), and the “commission of an indictable offence for a terrorist group,” related to the April 2014 video. The Canadian authorities said Shirdon was involved in “a combat role and performed other functions for ISIS such as recruiting, fundraising, encouraging others to commit violence, and spreading propaganda”. A red notice was issued shortly afterward for Shirdon with Interpol.