Report of Canadian among Nairobi mall attackers renews concern about foreign jihadists

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Report of Canadian among Nairobi mall attackers renews concern about foreign jihadists

Speculation that a Canadian may have been among the attackers in Nairobi's Westgate Mall massacre has renewed angst about the ability of foreign terror groups to lure recruits from Western countries.

The National Post said there were unconfirmed reports that a 24-year-old Ontario man was one of more than a dozen gunmen from the Somali-based al-Shabaab group to attack the high-end shopping centre, singling out non-Muslims for death.

A tweet purported to come from al-Shabaab's press office posted a list of those it claimed had attacked the mall that included the Ontario man. Since the publishing of that list, Ottawa has issued a statement saying there is no evidence that a Canadian attacker participated in the assault, but the problem of radical groups seeking recruits in Western nations is still a very real one. Their list also included three Americans, a Briton and a Finnish citizen, according to the Times of Israel, citing Associated Press and CNN.

More than 60 people have been reported killed in the attack, which began Saturday. At least two Canadians died and shooting continued Monday as Kenyan security forces tried to clear the sprawling shopping centre and free hostages.

There were conflicting news reports on whether the al-Shabaab Twitter account, since deleted, was real or fake. Canadian authorities are reportedly investigating.

“We are aware of the reports but do not comment on operational matters of national security,” Rick Roth, the spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said in a statement emailed to the Post and other news outlets Sunday.

“Our government will provide its full support to any investigation of a terrorist act that does or may include Canadian citizens. Terrorists, regardless of their citizenship, must be punished for their cowardice and depravity.”

Whether or not the report is borne out, it's thrust the issue of foreign-born jihadists back into the spotlight.

[ Related: Uncertain reception awaits for Aaron Yoon's return to Canada ]

The Post noted at least 20 Canadians are thought to have left Canada to join al-Shabaab, an Islamist group battling for control of Somalia that is affiliated with al-Qaida.

The RCMP is investigating the role of two Canadians who were thought to be part of an Islamist attack on an Algerian natural gas plant last January that resulted in the deaths of 37 hostages when the military tried to retake the facility.

Xris Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, high school buddies from London, Ont., were identified among the dead attackers.

The Toronto Star reported last week that Medlej, who was born in Beirut, was identified as a key player in the attack according to a report by Norwegian oil company Statoil, which had a stake in the gas plant. The RCMP and CSIS would not comment, the Star said.

A third Canadian pal of the two attackers in Algeria, Aaron Yoon, had been imprisoned in Mauritania since December 2011 on suspicion of involvement with a terrorist group. He was released in July and has since returned to Canada.

A number of Canadians are thought to be Syria fighting alongside extremists in the civil war there.

The Toronto Star reported last month that at least 100 Canadians, mainly from Ontario and Alberta, had travelled to Syria in the last year, some to topple the despotic regime of Bashar Assad but others because they see it as a front in a global jihad.

CSIS chief Richard Fadden warned a senate committee on national security and defence earlier this year that Canadians are involved in every al Qaeda-linked group, CBC News reported at the time.

[ Related: How do middle-class Canadian kids become international terrorists? ]

"CSIS is currently aware of dozens of Canadians — many in their early 20s — who have travelled or attempted to travel overseas to engage in terrorism-related activities in recent years," Fadden told the committee in February.

Canadians are attracted to such groups for a variety of reasons, he said.

"You have a range of people who want to seem self-important among their own groups, to other people who are motivated by a deep sense of religious wrongdoing," Fadden told the committee.

"I think in the middle, where we’ve found most of the people, it’s largely individuals who feel that the Muslim world is under attack and that somehow Canada is contributing to that."

[ Related: Former Toronto pizza deliveryman turned Somali militant has falling out with fighters ]

While foreigners have ended up fighting in Africa and the Middle East, the concern lingers that they could go back to their home countries to put their training and experience into practice.

Alabama-born Omar Mammami, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Mansour Al Amriki, spent time in Toronto before journeying to Somalia to join al-Shabaab. In an online memoir, Hammami waxed nostalgically about becoming addicted to Tim Horton's coffee and using the weird Canadian money.

al-Shabaab later ostracized Hammami essentially for being a whiny pain in the butt. Earlier this month he was reported killed by rivals, though the death was not confirmed.

Perhaps the most notorious foreign Islamist was Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico from Yemeni immigrant parents. He was considered to have played a role in radicalizing American Muslims including Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist now on trial for gunning down 13 people on the Ft. Hood army base in 2009.

Al-Awlaki died in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.