Algerian terror attack latest case of Canadian jihadist involvement

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Should we be shocked by allegations that Canadian jihadists might have been involved in the deadly hostage-taking attack on an Algerian natural gas plant?

The Algerian government claims two Canadians of Arab descent were part of the assault on the Sahara desert facility, which ended with 38 workers dead along with more than two dozen of the hostage takers.

“A Canadian was among the militants. He was co-ordinating the attack,” Algeria Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said Monday, naming him only as Chedad, a surname common with Arabs in the region, the National Post reported.

The Canadian government is trying to verify the claims, Foreign Minister John Baird told CTV News.

"We can't confirm the accuracy of these reports," Baird said. "But what we are doing, our embassy in Algiers and our team in Ottawa are working to try to verify these informations and get the names of these alleged Canadians. But we can't report anything official at this time."

“Canadian involvement in overseas terrorism has been growing,” John Thompson of the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute told CTV News.

If the claim of involvement by Canadians is confirmed it's unlikely people here will be very surprised. Canada has had players on both sides of the war on terror from the beginning.

The notorious Khadr family was closely involved with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda before and after the 9/11 terror attacks. Patriarch Ahmed Said Khadr, a bagman for the terror group, was killed by Pakistani forces near the Afghan border in 2003. His four sons were all involved and second-youngest Omar Khadr spent a decade imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for murder before being transferred to Canadian custody last September.

[ Related: Omar Khadr returned to Canada but future uncertain ]

A number of Canadian immigrants have been suspected or charged with aiding terror cells but what flummoxes other Canadians is the lure of Islamic jihad for younger Muslims either born here or raised in Canada from infancy.

Canada's not alone in trying to understand why some Muslim youth become radicalized enough to become involved with jihadists in Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. The problem has surfaced almost everywhere that Muslim communities have settled, including Britain, western Europe, the United States and Australia.

The process starts with appealing to the young's sense of injustice and pointing the finger at Western culture and governments as the villains threatening Islam. From there, some are persuaded by savvy recruiters that it's their duty to play an active role.

Some pundits initially observed somewhat smugly that young Muslims here were less susceptible to Islamists' arguments because the country's multicultural policies have done a better job of integrating immigrants into the mainstream than places like France. Events have proven that view naive at best.

About nine years ago, I reported on two young Vancouver-area men against Russian forces in the brutal Chechnyan war. Both are presumed dead, though only one body was identified. They and a friend were ostensibly visiting in the region were regular visitors to a Vancouver Islamic centre whose leader openly advocated "offensive jihad."

[ Related: CSIS notes 'insider threat' in Islamic extremism ]

As recently as last summer, the National Post reported William Plotnikov, a 23-year-old Canadian Muslim convert from Toronto, had been killed by Russian forces battling Islamists in Dagestan, which borders Chechnya.

Canada's Somali community has been concerned that some of its young men have been lured to Somalia to fight with al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist group that's controlled large swaths of the dystopian African country and terrorized people in neighbouring Kenya.

Their parents are perplexed, the Globe and Mail reported last summer. They see the fighting in their homeland as a tribal war, not a religious one. But the would-be fighters often come in contact with militant viewpoints at their local mosque or via the Internet.

"Al-Shabab is going to take the bright ones: Usually it's clean cut, conscientious well-educated people," a Somali community leader told the Globe.

"That's why you always hear these kids are from good families. These are middle-class kids. That's why it's so shocking. If they can infiltrate these kids then nobody is safe.

"Today, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda, they're an attraction for the young people. In our day it was socialism and injustice … now it's Islam, and the injustice they see is Americans bombarding the children of Palestine and Afghanistan."

[ More Brew: Former Olympic boss John Furlong faces abuse allegations ]

Of course radicalized Muslim youth don't have to go abroad to try to make their mark. Witness the so-called Toronto 18, a group of young men accused of trying to build a huge fertilizer bomb and of planning to attack high-profile targets such as Parliament Hill, where they reportedly wanted to behead the prime minister and other politicians.

The 2006 plot was infiltrated by an informer and the group, often portrayed as bumbling underachievers, was arrested when they took delivery of three tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer for their bomb. Eleven members were convicted or pleaded guilty and sentenced to prison terms.