Making Canadian jihadis (National Post July 11, 2007)

Making Canadian jihadis

Barbara Kay, National Post
Published: Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Montreal has proved a particularly alluring logistical base for francophone Islamists. Forty minutes from the U.S., it boasts a large airport, multiple bridges and a bustling port, all attractive targets. Over the last decade, about 20 Montrealers have been involved in terrorist plots. Some, like the former Montrealer Abdellah Ouzghar, convicted in absentia of abetting terrorism in France, but awaiting our sluggish judiciary's imprimatur on his extradition (the delay has aroused angry incredulity in France's special anti-terrorism judicial branch), still move about in virtually complete freedom.

Who are these people? Of course we know a great many facts about terror suspects in Canada once their activities bring them into the spotlight. But we rarely have the opportunity to look behind the mug shots, to find out how they got that way, what drove them to such extremes of hatred that they are prepared to terrorize innocent people in a country that has extended them the hand of tolerance, freedom and human rights in such lavish measure.

We know it is "Islamism" that is the driving force, but how does the actual process of radicalization work? In a recently published book, Montrealistan, by a transplanted French journalist, Fabrice de Pierrebourg, who has been following the trajectories of up to 30 hard-core jihadists for many years, we are educated in the formation of a jihadist: how he is drawn to radicalization, and in particular what he hears in the mosques he attends and the Internet chat rooms he obsessively surfs.

De Pierrebourg comes by his interest in terrorism honestly enough. On Sept. 17, 1986, de Pierrebourg found himself metres away from probable death or grave injury in a terrorist bombing in Paris. He witnessed the horrors of blood-drenched bodies, ripped-off limbs and fear-maddened children: "That day I really came to know terrorism," he says. Intellectually galvanized by the experience, de Pierrebourg embarked on an investigative tour of jihadist habitats, studying the players and the strategies in frequent trips to Lebanon, Russia, Bosnia and the North African countries from which many Montreal jihadists, the eventual cynosure of his curiosity, derive. (Terrorist profiler Marc Sageman identifies North African Islamists as more terror-prone than others.)

The most dangerous jihadis, de Pierrebourg tells us, are converts, who are hyper-zealous in their wish to ingratiate themselves (the phenomenon is called by experts the "zeal of the neophyte"), and, more important, psychologically adrift from their former lives. "Karim", a recent convert who spoke freely and candidly with the author, spends a lot of time in Islamist chat rooms. He reads stuff like: "Canada, an enemy country and evil because it fights our comrades in Afghanistan ? " and "Martyr operations, those they call suicide operations, are the weapon God gives to the poor to combat the strong?concerning the deaths of children, they are only collateral damage."

Karim considers Montreal a totally debauched city. "The result is that I find myself isolated." In November, 2005, he took his frustration to the Web in a message titled, "Can a Muslim be happy?" He chronicles his problems: "I am a bit depressed ? no music, no Christian or Jewish friends [allowed] ? warned against playing video games ?no mixed soccer games ? no friends because they go to bars, clubs, movies, etc. ? " His Internet "friend" replies: "Salam, brother, I advise you to take up jihad, if nothing is holding you back. Choose your death for Allah's satisfaction ?"

De Pierrebourg technique of interspersing jihadists' histories with the process of how they got that way in their own words creates an intimacy with a world we couldn't possibly otherwise know. His sources are a mix of government documents, hard-won personal interviews with terror suspects (he occasionally exchanges e-mails with Ahmed Ressam, the would-be millennial bomber, in his U.S. jail cell), testimony from terror experts and candid, on-the-record statements by CSIS and RCMP higher-ups, as well as anti-terror agents in the U.S., some very disquieting: David Cohen, the commissioner charged with intelligence-gathering for the New York Police Department (NYPD), who follows the Montreal scene closely, says, "The anti-terror agents of the NYPD know things that the Surete du Quebec is ignoring ?"

When Montrealistan was first published, I thought I might wait for the English edition for an easier read. I was surprised to learn that so far de Pierrebourg has not been approached by any English publisher. That is a shame. Perhaps they have been misled by the title, for in spite of cultural and operational differences between jihadists of Montreal and other Canadian cities, in its reconstruction of the journey from average Muslim to fanatic jihadist, this book could be entitled "Canuckistan." It is a compelling, ground-breaking read, and should be made available to all Canadians.

© National Post 2007