The grandfather of Mustafa al-Gharib, a Halifax-born Muslim convert who was killed in Syria during rebel infighting, says he's most upset by the Canadian government's lack of intervention in his grandson's case.
Al-Gharib, born in Nova Scotia as Damian Clairmont, was an Acadian who spent his first years in Wedgeport and Yarmouth in the southwestern part of the province. His family moved to Calgary when he was seven.
Gerry Boudreau, speaking from his home in Dordogne, France, said his grandson was being watched by Canadian security officials but was still allowed to leave the country for Syria in November 2012.
"The thing that upsets me the most about it all is the fact — we found out later — that he was being watched by the security services in Canada for a period of time and nobody did anything to stop him from going," Boudreau told CBC News.
"The federal government is more interested in covering up the fact that this has happened than helping security services do something about it — probably as upset about that as anything."
- Syria's civil war: key facts, important players
- Syria rebel clashes leave nearly 500 dead, activists say
Boudreau said he believes it all started in Calgary, where someone approached al-Gharib about converting to Islam.
Al-Gharib converted to Islam following a two-year period of personal anguish in his teens that included him dropping out of high school, a diagnosis for bipolar disorder and a suicide attempt at age 17.
Boudreau admits his grandson had some problems.
"The first response we had was that it might be good for him to find something that made him at peace with the world," he said Thursday.
"It became apparent later on that this is part of the recruitment process of trying to convert them and then convince them that they should go and join the battle in Syria."
Boudreau said al-Gharib went to Syria two years ago, though not directly. Al-Gharib and other "recruits" — as Bourdreau calls them — travelled from Calgary to Turkey. Turkey offers reasonably easy access to Syria.
"I'm just really upset at the cavalier attitude that the Canadian government has taken to the recruiting of young people in Canada — not just the ones on Calgary, there have been others," he said.
From troubled teen to extremist
Boudreau said his grandson was an active boy with an interest in sports. Boudreau took him skating every Sunday. He said he used to sing to him as a boy.
Growing up, neither al-Gharib nor his family was particularly religious, said Boudreau. He said the last time he saw his grandson was when he was 17.
"He was interested in a lot of things. He didn't like school very much, spending time reading, educating himself. [He had] a lot of opinions at 17," said Boudreau.
"Even when he started adopting the Islam religion, the first thing that I thought was if he finds something, if it makes him feel better — all the best. But I got messages later on that he was becoming a bit angry and that he was saying that anybody who wasn't following the Islamic traditions was doing something wrong."
Al-Gharib lied to his family
After his conversion to Islam, al-Gharib told his family he wanted to go to Egypt to study to be an imam — an Islamic scholar and prayer leader. That was a lie, said Boudreau.
"When he left, that's what he told us. It turned out he went to Syria and he had agreed to join a group of the rebels," he said.
Several weeks after his departure, CSIS contacted his mother and told her al-Gharib had in fact not gone to Egypt, but flew to Istanbul and made his way into Syria shortly after, where he joined up with an extremist group.
Al-Gharib was reportedly fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel group consisting of largely foreign extremists. Jabhat al-Nusra was designated a terrorist group by the Canadian government in November.
CSIS told his mother that it had been watching al-Gharib before he left, but it was unable to stop him from leaving.
According to sources in Syria and Canada, al-Gharib was injured in battle and subsequently captured and killed by an unknown faction of the Free Syrian Army forces in the city of Aleppo.
Boudreau said as far as he knows, the last conversation al-Gharib had with his mother was in June. His grandson called to explain himself.
"Contact became more infrequent because we think that the people who were responsible for recruiting him didn't particularly want him speaking with people outside the area so the contacts became less and less frequent," said Boudreau.
Boudreau said his daughter, al-Gharib's mother, is taking the news as well as one could expect.
"She is handling it remarkably well, considering everything that has gone on. She has other children so she has to, obviously, try to be strong for them," he said.
"It's hard to explain to a 9 year old that he's lost his big brother."