OTTAWA – Canada has done well to keep young people off the “path to radicalization,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Tuesday amid surprising revelations about the background of two disaffected Ontario men who reportedly played key roles in January’s deadly terrorist siege in Algeria.
Canadian security agencies, with the help of religious groups, have successfully staged numerous interventions as part of “our containment strategy … on domestic radicalization,” Kenney told a news conference in Vancouver.
His remarks followed a CBC News report that identified the two Canadians involved in January’s deadly terrorist attack at an isolated Algerian gas plant: Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, two high school friends from London, Ont.
Neither Kenney, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and the RCMP would comment directly on the report.
But Kenney expounded on the growing threat of homegrown terrorism in Canada, Western Europe and the United States. Police and the Canada Security Intelligence Service often get involved and prevent problems before they happen, he said.
“Frequently, for example, when information is obtained about perhaps a young Canadian who is on the path towards radicalization, often there’s an intervention,” he said.
“Often the police will go and visit his family or perhaps his spiritual leader, and say, this young person is going in the wrong direction. And there’s an effort to make an early intervention.”
The siege in Algeria killed at least 38 hostages and 29 militants, including Medlej and Katsiroubas.
In a report on Tuesday night, CBC said Aaron Yoon, a high school friend also from London, travelled overseas with Medlej and Katsiroubas. The details came after the broadcaster had said earlier that two others from the London area had gone to Algeria with the pair.
CBC said Yoon had somehow ended up in a North African jail before the Algerian attack.
Yoon’s family, however, told CBC that while the young man had indeed travelled overseas with Medlej, he was’t thought to be in jail and was not associated with the Algerian terror plot.
CBC also said Tuesday night that RCMP had been asking questions about all three men in London as recently as June 2012.
During a conference call Tuesday from the United Arab Emirates, Baird was peppered with questions about the initial CBC report – particularly about why the federal government had not been more forthcoming about the case.
“Our intelligence services, our law enforcement agencies have been doing some important work and I think it’s best if I refer you to them for further comment,” Baird said.
Baird instead highlighted his visit to a local Tim Hortons outlet in Abu Dhabi as part of a lengthy tour of the Middle East and Persian Gulf. He did, however, echo Kenney’s broader concerns about homegrown terrorism.
“Obviously, this is a challenge that has happened in many parts of the West, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, elsewhere,” Baird said. “It’s obviously something that deeply concerns us.”
The RCMP says its investigation into Canadian involvement in the attack continues but is refusing to comment further.
The lure of extremism does not necessarily focus exclusively on those who are on society’s margins, Kenney added.
“The typical profile of people who have been subject to this kind of radicalization are not people who are marginalized,” he said.
“These are often people who have grown up with very considerable advantages, including high levels of education.”
CBC said CSIS began asking questions about Medlej and Katsiroubas after a family member contacted authorities in 2007 with concerns about the pair.
Muslim leaders at the mosque in London that was reportedly attended by Katsiroubas – a former Greek Orthodox who converted to Islam – held a news conference Tuesday to distance their community from the attacks.
Munir El-Kassem said no one he has talked to in the community seems to know either man or their families. Their reported actions should not reflect on Islam nor on London, El-Kassem said.
“When something like this happens that puts a religious identity on a terrorist attack we should all come together to denounce that and say faith and terrorism is an oxymoron,” he said.
“They do not exist together.”
If youth are searching for radical ideas they won’t find them in the Muslim community in London, El-Kassem said, noting that misinformation about Islam is rampant on the Internet.
“The fact that they happened to be from London, Ontario, has no bearing on the city or the community itself,” he said.
“We know ourselves and we know the people around us. We are very comfortable that this is a very peaceful community.”
The four-day siege of the natural gas plant ended when the Algerian military stormed the complex.
In the aftermath of the attack, Algeria’s prime minister said two Canadians were among the band of militants who took hundreds of workers hostage – claims Canada couldn’t initially confirm.
Hostages who escaped recalled hearing at least one of the militants speaking English with a North American accent.
Members of the RCMP were sent to Algiers to investigate.
In March, the Mounties first said a Canadian was among those killed in the attack, but wouldn’t say if the remains were discovered among the al-Qaida-linked terrorists or the hostages.
Later in the month, the RCMP said the second Canadian was identified from among the bodies of the men accused of being terrorists.
Canadian intelligence officials have said dozens of Canadians have ventured abroad – or tried to do so – to take part in violent operations.
Christian Leuprecht, a professor at Queen’s University and Royal Military College, said the issue raises the question about whether Canada needs an intelligence service that can operate outside the country.
“The fact that CSIS was allegedly on to them shows that both our security intelligence and deterrence mechanisms are working,” he said in a statement. “But keep in mind, once they leave the country, the CSIS Act makes it very difficult to follow them.
“Perhaps this is yet another good reason to re-start the debate on amending the CSIS Act to give security intelligence more leeway outside of the country.”
- with files from Allison Jones in Toronto
© The Canadian Press, 2013