Identities of 2 Quebec men who fought in Syria revealed
RCMP investigating group of 10 men who trained, prayed at Montreal-area shooting range
An investigation by Radio-Canada's Enquête has uncovered the identities of a group of 10 young Quebecers who secretly joined militants in Syria to fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime.
The group was made up of friends who often gathered at a Montreal-area shooting range to practise before seven of them left for the Middle East between the summers of 2012 and 2013, Radio-Canada has learned.
According to witnesses, the young men brought two firearms to the shooting range. One of them was an imitation Soviet semi-automatic carbine, called an SKS, similar to the one used by rebels in Syria.
Some of the young men trained at the shooting range over a period of several months, two to three times a week.
Several of them are believed to have been converts to Islam. Witnesses said that during their practice sessions, they would interrupt their shooting to pray.
Comment triggers police monitoring
Radio-Canada learned that after one of those practices, a client overheard one of the men say he was unhappy the targets weren't non-believers.
The owners of the centre were notified about that incident and contacted authorities, who launched an investigation.
After that, police were present during the men's practices. The RCMP started monitoring several of the men with electronic surveillance, following some of them closely — in some cases, day and night.
CBC learned, in collaboration with Enquête, that members of the group were the first wave of Quebecers to leave the country to fight in Syria.
Some of them are believed to have joined the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group that fights against Assad and collaborates with radical Islamists with links to al-Qaeda.
At the time of their departure, the youngest Quebecer was just 17 and the oldest was 26.
They are now being investigated by the RCMP, suspected of terrorist acts linked to the kidnapping and extortion of two Americans in Syria.
Wassim Boughadou and Tarek Sakr
Quebecers Wassim Boughadou and Tarek Sakr were two members of that group who, along with one other man, organized the practices at the shooting range.
Boughadou, whose parents were born in Algeria, was a trainer at a gym.
Sakr, a pharmacology student, has family ties to Syria. According to Enquête's sources, two of Sakr's cousins were killed in Latakia, a region of Syria that was wracked by violence at the start of the conflict.
In the summer of 2015, the RCMP carried out search warrants at the pair's home and at the homes of two other members of the group.
Link to hostages?
Neither Boughadou nor Sakr could be reached for comment. They are believed to still be travelling around Turkey, and Syria, and Boughadou may have spent time with ISIS.
Other members of the group are back in Quebec and are still under investigation.
Police investigators suspect the group of Montreal men committed terrorist acts linked to the kidnapping and extortion of two Americans in Syria — Theo Padnos and Matthew Schrier.
CBC News has previously reported that following his escape, Schrier uncovered information possibly linking one of his masked captors to a Westmount address in Montreal.
Schrier told CBC News that he noticed the men's distinct accents and that he and Padnos were convinced that two of their jailers were Canadians.
There were some who were much more radical … who won't be coming back.- Friend of one of the Quebec Islamists
Schrier said during his imprisonment he was asked to hand over his passwords and social security number. Later, he learned that his credit card was used to buy two Samsung tablets, delivered to an address in Westmount.
According to Radio-Canada's investigation, the two tablets may have ended up in the hands of Wassim Boughadou.
The RCMP have not laid any charges against any of the Montreal men in connection with Schrier's case, and Radio-Canada/CBC has no proof that any of them were in Padnos and Schrier's cells when they were being held captive.
Ismael Habib on trial
Ismael Habib is another one of the young men who trained at the shooting range.
He left Quebec in 2013, after the kidnapping of the two American hostages.
He is now on trial in Montreal on charges of attempting to leave Canada to commit terrorist acts and of giving false information to obtain a passport.
Witnesses at that trial have testified that Habib confessed to them about having spent time in Syria and wanting to go back. Video presented as court evidence shows Habib whipping a man, who, according to police testimony, Habib said was a Syrian prisoner. The undercover agent said Habib told him the video was shot in Syria.
Since his return to Canada, Habib is believed to have received threats from his former brother-in-law Wassim Boughadou.
Victims of manipulation?
Radio-Canada's Enquête repeatedly asked the young men who have returned to Quebec for interviews.
All refused, except for one, who wrote the following response:
"I reiterate that I have nothing to do with the crimes that were committed against Schrier and Padnos … I find that it's unfair to associate my face with this just because of a shooting range where there was no question of joining a terrorist group nor of committing a crime."
Someone close to one of the 10 men, who agreed to an interview with Radio-Canada on condition of anonymity, said the young men are more victims than anything else.
"They left, I think, with good intentions, to do their duty as Muslims," he said. "But I think that they were manipulated."
"There were some who were much more radical," he added. They are still overseas, he said, and "won't be coming back."
translated by CBC's Jaela Bernstien, with files from Gaétan Pouliot