The digital journal of a Montreal-born jihadist
Sami, born in Montreal, left for Syria in 2013 to join an offical al-Qaeda branch
In the season premiere of Enquête, Radio-Canada’s investigative journalism program follows the digital journal of Sami, a young man in his 20s who left his Montreal home to wage jihad in Syria.
Sami’s Facebook account, now closed, offered a window into his experience and clues to his path toward jihad, the arabic word for resistance.
On April 2, 2013, a photo of Istanbul was posted on the young Montrealer’s Facebook page. Sami (we're withholding his last name) went to Turkey to wage jihad. Easily accessible, the country is the main gateway for foreigners who want to go and fight in Syria.
It was a trip motivated by his return to his Islamic roots, which apparently happened in 2011.
On Twitter, Sami wrote that "Islam should not be a style, but a lifestyle."
At the time, Sami was active on social networks under the pseudonym El Sami, and under his name fighter, Abu Safwan (al Kanadi — or the "Canadian").
On Facebook he posted “They told me: There is only one life, you have to know how to live it. I answered: There is only one death, you have to know how to prepare it.”
On Facebook, Sami also posted things about of several Montreal mosques, including one in Pierrefonds where Enquête met someone who knew Sami “once he became religious.”
“It’s not since his adolescence, but since he’s been an adult. It’s from that point that he changed, because I know that before then, he was not like that,” the man said.
A family member also confirmed that "before he was religious, he never talked about politics. He was raised away from all that.”
But his discourse changed.
In September 2012, Sami posted “Abou Sa’id Al Khoudri (may God bless him) said he heard God’s Messenger … “May those of you who see something reprehensible correct it with your hand! If he cannot correct it with his hand, then correct it with his tongue. If he can’t with his tongue, then with his heart and that is the weakest degree of faith.”
A criminal record
Sami was born in Montreal in 1988. His mother, a Quebecer, and his father, Syrian, divorced shortly afterwards and Sami lived with his father from the age of 18 months.
Enquête had trouble finding anyone who remembered his time at École secondaire Dorval-Jean-XXIII, and he left home at a young age.
His last known address was in Pierrefonds, where Sami went from one job to another. According to Enquête’s investigation, he called his father from time to time to give him an update or when he needed some money.
Someone close to the family said Sami had “many problems”, including drugs and alcohol.
Enquête discovered he also had problems with the law.
In 2010, Sami was involved in a violent assault. Following a fight in a bar, Sami and some accomplices entered the home of a couple by smashing down the door. They attacked the man.
“It was Sami who gave me the most violent swings,” said the victim.
Sami was convicted. The judge said the motive for the attack remained unclear, but he suspected a connection with drug trafficking.
In April 2013, Sami was to appear in court for another charge of assault, but he did not show up. An arrest warrant was subsequently issued.
A religious awakening
Benjamin Ducol, an expert in radicalization and social media and a researcher at Laval University, has interviewed several young jihadists and their families — mainly in France and Belgium.
"In almost all those who go to Syria to join jihadist groups, we always have this phase of religious awakening where people will finally rediscover their religion or will directly convert to Islam,” Ducol said.
“It's a bit of a Do-It-Yourself kind of identity that occurs in these people. They learn the religion quickly — in an extremely superficial way.”
According to the person from the mosque in Pierrefonds, Sami said he left Canada because he was of Syrian origin and was against what President Bashar al-Assad was doing to civilians.
"This represents the first wave of Western volunteer fighters who left around 2012 until early 2013 because the West did nothing to help fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad," said Ducol.
Sami’s Facebook account revealed little information about how he was recruited.
Ducol says social forums which are more discreet than Facebook and Twitter are spaces where aspiring jihadists may come into contact with those who are already on the ground.
"Most of the time, the only guidance they will receive is [to] take a flight to Turkey to get to the border ... And in these border towns, there are a bunch of smugglers, people who are responsible for getting these Western fighters into Syria," Ducol said.
In April 2013, once across the Syrian border, Sami posted pictures in fighter gear, which earned him admirers in Montreal.
"May Allah give you paradise … You're a brother to us," read some comments published on social networks.
Sami ended up with the al-Nusra Front, an official Syrian al-Qaeda branch, but it is unclear what his precise role was within the group. In his first posts, Sami suggested that daily life is good.
“Food is free here and we eat what we want,” read a post on Facebook.
From May to November 2013, Sami's commitment to jihad gained momentum. In January 2014, he posted a video where he is seen burning his Canadian passport -- a gesture some jihadists make online to symbolically break ties with their country of origin.
Clashes between rebel groups
In March 2014, Sami listed on Facebook the battles fought by his brigade in north-western Syria.
Sami’s group, al-Nusra Front, participated in a major offensive against the forces of Bashar al-Assad in the region of Latakia. But the success of his group, was increasingly overshadowed by the rapid rise of the armed group Islamic State.
The group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the creation of a new Islamic state in the regions conquered in Syria and Iraq. He commanded all Muslims to pay allegiance to him and urged jihadists around the world to fight for the cause. On Twitter, some Canadians said they were on their way to Syria to join the armed group, Islamic State.
On Facebook, Sami mentioned the battles between rebel groups. He appeared in a video posted on his Facebook page.
“Men, terrorized, thought they were going to confront the forces of Bashar Al-Assad, no other Muslim rebels,” Sami said.
Just before the summer, Sami posted pictures of medication. He said the supply was low and that his group lacked money.
In August 2014, Sami’s Facebook account shut down.
The Enquête team has since learned Sami moved into a safe house in Antakya, Turkey after convalescing from combat wounds in a hospital.
An al-Nusra Front contact confirmed that he is still with the group and that he has since returned to Syria. But nothing is for certain.
The RCMP has taken an interest in Sami’s case. If he returns to Canada, he could face terrorism charges since al-Nusra Front is considered a terrorist organization.