The man accused of using a large knife to attack personnel at a Canadian Forces recruitment centre in Toronto has been described by those who knew him as a "nice person" who didn't cause trouble, but someone whose mental health had deteriorated.

Ayanle Hassan Ali, a 27-year-old born in Montreal who has lived in Toronto from the age of two, faces nine criminal charges including three counts of attempted murder in the wake of Monday's attack, which sent two members of the military to hospital with minor injuries.

Police allege Ali said, "Allah told me to do this, Allah told me to come here and kill people," during the rampage, and they say they are looking into the possibility that the violence was an act of terrorism.

The public saw Ali twice on Tuesday — once as he slumped down to avoid journalists' cameras on his way into the courthouse and once inside, where he hung his head during the proceedings. He made no attempt to explain his actions.

Michael Burke, Ali's lawyer, told reporters his client seems "very, very upset."

"You can imagine he's probably pretty scared right now," Burke said.

The lawyer said he hasn't requested a mental health assessment at this point, though he didn't rule it out, and he declined to tell reporters anything about Ali's beliefs or personal history.

In court, Burke said Ali has no criminal record.

Ali studied at University of Calgary

In Rexdale, police guarded the Albion Road townhouse Ali had shared with his mother and younger sister. Neighbours said Ali mostly kept to himself, though he did go to a nearby mosque to pray two or three times a week. 

Toronto stabbing suspect

Ayanle Hassan Ali, 27, said nothing at his first court appearance on Tuesday. Ali faces nine charges in connection with a knife attack at a Canadian Forces recruitment centre in Toronto. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

"He was a nice person," said Suhail Patel, the mosque's caretaker, who said he was shocked to hear about the attack.

"We never had a problem with him … he comes here, prays, and he never had a problem with anybody here."

Sources in the Somali community described Ali as a bright young man who briefly studied at the University of Calgary before moving back to Toronto. Friends told CBC News that he briefly studied engineering at U of C. However, the university says he was registered in open studies classes and was never admitted to a specific program.

After that, sources said, his mental health deteriorated and he became increasingly isolated.

On Wednesday, officials at Toronto's Pearson airport — Canada's busiest air hub — confirmed Ali worked there on behalf of a third-party tenant and had a restricted area identification card from December 2008 to March 2009.

The airport authority didn't say what company Ali worked for or in what capacity.

Motives unclear

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said police are looking into the possibility that Ali had been radicalized somehow, but said it's too early in the investigation to draw any conclusions.

Saunders also urged the public not to link the attack with the Muslim faith, bluntly stating he doesn't want to see any "Islamaphobia nonsense" in the city.

Phil Gurski, a former CSIS analyst, told CBC News that soldiers and military recruitment centres have become targets for extremist groups, but said it's too soon to know whether Ali was connected to such a group.

Gurski said that while Canada's security agencies track many potential risks, you can't keep an eye on everyone.

"It will be interesting to in the days to come whether this person had actually crossed any of the trip wires," he said.

Ali is set to appear in court again on Friday. 


  • An earlier version of this story said friends told CBC that Ayanle Hassan Ali briefly studied engineering at the University of Calgary. However, the university says he was registered in open studies and was never admitted to a specific program.
    Mar 16, 2016 12:45 PM ET