An alarming number of radicalized Canadians are joining foreign jihadi groups abroad, prompting calls for intervention as other Western nations boost efforts to stop their citizens from waging attacks at home or on foreign soil.

CBC News has learned of as many as two dozen Calgarians who, in the last two years, departed for Syria to join extremist rebel groups.

France intercepted four people suspected of trying to recruit militants to fight in Syria last week, following the arrest of a French citizen who joined a militant group in Syria and then returned to carry out a deadly shooting at a Jewish museum in Brussels last month.

In April, Bosnia introduced a 10-year prison sentence for citizens caught fighting in foreign wars — a move aimed at curbing recruitment for the Syrian conflict.

'Nobody is internally motivated to die. It’s going to be externally motivated, so you can prevent that by understanding the motivations behind it.' — Mahdi Qasqas, Calgary Muslim youth leader

That same month, British counterterrorism police appealed to Muslim women in a national campaign to dissuade male relatives from going to Syria to fight alongside extremist Islamist groups there. Some suspected jihadis have been detained at the airport upon landing in the U.K.

But critics say there has been little public outreach in Canada to stop the radicalization from happening here, before young men leave these shores. Such pre-emptive measures may be overdue.

Mahdi Qasqas, a Calgary Muslim youth leader and psychologist, says early intervention is key to preventing young men from going overseas to kill themselves and others.

Increased radicalization

“If a mother calls and says, ‘My son needs help,’ how will I look at it? Criminal perspective? Call the police. Risk to self-harm? We have to admit to hospital,” Qasqas said. “If she says, ‘Look, I’m seeing some warning signs.’ If your child listen to other people more than you? Then it’s time to connect him to a mentor.”

Belgium Shooting

A surveillance camera frame grab shows a man shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels on May 24. French citizen Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, was arrested in southern France last week and is suspected of being the gunman. (Belgian Federal Police/Associated Press)

A prominent Calgary imam, Sayed Soharwardy, told CBC News he strongly believes that increased radicalization of young local men is happening at a "faster pace now” than a decade ago. He wonders why more potential jihadis have not been stopped at airports before even stepping foot on a battlefield.

“I am convinced that the intelligence people know who is recruiting, who is going overseas, who is fighting there,” the cleric said. "If they do not know every one of them, they know some of them.”

A major question is who is influencing these young men, and leading them toward becoming suicide bombers such as Salman Ashrafi, who killed at least 46 people in a 2013 Iraq suicide attack.

The attack was carried out on behalf of the extremist group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria), a group so violent it has even been condemned by Al-Qaeda.

'Externally motivated'

Qasqas also wants to find out who is planting extremist seeds.

“Nobody is internally motivated to die,” he said. “It’s going to be externally motivated, so you can prevent that by understanding the motivations behind it.”

In Ottawa on Wednesday, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander offered a warning to potential violent extremists.

“If you’re a dual national and you commit an act of terrorism in Canada or abroad, you will lose your Canadian citizenship,” he said.


Mahdi Qas, a Calgary Muslim youth leader and psychologist, says young Muslim men who might be vulnerable to drifting toward extremist views tend to be lonely souls who feel a strong sense of injustice. (CBC)

Whether that will be enough of a deterrent is hard to know.

Some have shrugged off the issue of exporting radicalized militants to foreign battlefields, reasoning that Canadians who leave here to fight elsewhere and die are not necessarily this country’s problem.

That may have been the feeling among many Belgians, too, until May 24, when 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche opened fire at a Belgian Jewish museum, killing three people. The suspected French jihadi recently spent a year in Syria.

Like France, Belgium is sounding the alarm on homegrown citizen jihadists. Last month, it hosted an international conference on how to tackle the problem.

While the answers aren’t immediately clear, a public conversation is starting, and to Muslims and non-Muslims alike in Canada, that is an important step.

With files from Nazim Baksh, Adrienne Arsenault