With bodies strewn along Yonge Street, a dented van that had been used as a weapon and a dramatic arrest captured on video, Monday’s attack in Toronto looked much like terrorism.
But a former classmate of Minassian’s said he believed the afternoon attack that left 10 dead and 14 injured had more to do with mental health than terrorism.
“He wasn’t a terrorist, in my opinion,” Dominic Reynolds said in an interview. “People are jumping to all kinds of conclusion when the main focus should be on mental health and why he did it.”
“He made that post,” he said of the Facebook message. “I’m not God and I don’t know what happened with his mind. I don’t know what he thought about in that time period.
Ex-classmate says Toronto van attack suspect was socially awkward
“But people are now saying how it’s a gender thing and I’m just like, ‘No, it’s not a gender thing.’ Focus on mental health. There’s a lot of people with mental illnesses here and they’re not being helped properly.”
The Minassian he knew at Thornlea Secondary School was a quiet student who was not aggressive, never raised his voice, had poor motor skills and spent his time on the computer.
“He was in the special needs program,” Reynolds said. “He always had a helper. He was always on the computer or you’d see him in the hallway making certain noises, like meowing and hugging himself.”
A former classmate said Minassian had attended 16th Avenue Public School, an elementary school in Richmond Hill. He was in a special education class and had his own assistant.
“She was a lady in her 40s and she was just specifically for Alek, and she would, you know, when he would get really excited or hyperactive in class she would kind of hold his hand, calm him down,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified.
“He was different from other kids. We all knew that but nobody really excluded him from anything.”
She said Minassian would tic. “Like he would have a bunch of spams, especially with his hands, and he would kind of make weird noises, kind of like meowing or hissing, or if someone kind of bugged him then he would make those noises. But other than that he seemed pretty happy, I would say.”
Several former classmates have noted that Minassian did not speak and would imitate a cat, sometimes licking the back of his hands. “He would do it all the time,” Reynolds said.
“I think it was his way of coping,” said Reza Fakhteh, another Thornlea graduate. “I would assume it’s his idea of trying to cope with not knowing how to interact with people.”
Psychologist Oren Amitay said the cat-like behaviour suggested “somebody who is trying to fit in, because that’s what everyone wants to do, but doesn’t have the social wherewithal to know that what he’s doing isn’t appropriate.”
Those who struggle to interact with others will often find fields where they don’t have to do so, he said.
Following high school, Minassian studied computer software at Seneca College between 2011 and 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile. He wrote online about working at the school’s Centre for Development of Open Technology.
He was listed as a research assistant for two professors at the Seneca School of Information and Communications Technology. Neither responded to interview requests.
WATCH: More details known about Toronto van attack suspect Alek Minassian
In a 2013 blog post, he wrote that he had started his first day at the centre but the message was entirely technical in nature. In 2014, he was listed as working on a project that involved using Bluetooth technology for a “blood pressure/weight scale.”
He joined the military last August but asked to be released after just 16 days without completing basic training, the Department of National Defence said. He left the Canadian Armed Forces on Oct. 25.
What made him rent a Ryder panel van north of Toronto on Monday morning and drive it down Yonge Street, mounting the sidewalk to deliberately hit pedestrians, remains unknown.
“It’s usually a conflation of a bunch of events,” Amitay said. “It’s a sense of desperation, of just anger, of feeling that the world has wronged you, or a certain segment of the world has wronged you, and wanting to lash out at them or others.”
Police are investigating what they called his “cryptic” Facebook post, in which he referred to himself as “Private (Recruit) Minassian” and spoke about the “Incel Rebellion.”
An Incel is an involuntarily celibate man. “All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger,” the message concluded. Rodger killed six people in California in 2014 and left a manifesto expressing his inability to find a girlfriend and hatred of women.
“It’s really surreal, it doesn’t make sense still,” Fakhteh said. “He’s so innocent in high school and you never … like the idea that he would premeditate and plan something like this to this degree is, like, unbelievable.”
“So, yeah, I don’t’ know, I’m trying to reconcile it I guess.”