Weeks after Hasibullah Yusufzai is alleged to have left Vancouver to fight for an Islamist group in Syria, federal investigators were still asking leaders at a Burnaby, B.C., mosque who could have radicalized the man they had expressed concern about for at least two years.
On July 17, Mr. Yusufzai became the first Canadian charged under a 2013 law criminalizing travel for the purposes of terrorism. No announcement of the charges was made by the RCMP at the time and the allegations escaped public notice for nearly a week.
Directors at the al-Salaam mosque now say they are puzzled and frustrated by the alleged jihadi’s ability to evade authorities.
“They had noticed something about him that had set off alarms, but then how in the world did they let him leave?” said Aasim Rashid, who was approached in 2012 by Canadian intelligence officers and told that Mr. Yusufzai was a person of interest.
No one at al-Salaam knew anything about the then-23-year-old security guard and fitness buff. All Mr. Rashid could tell authorities was that the man was quiet and withdrawn.
Mr. Yusufzai continued to pray at the mosque without incident until Jan. 21, the day the Burnaby man is alleged to have left for Syria. Intelligence officers appeared at the mosque within a few weeks with questions.
“They wanted to know if there were people here who were having a negative influence on him and others,” said Mr. Rashid, a spokesman for the B.C. Muslim Association.
Another mosque is facing a similar situation in Ontario. On Monday, the president of Windsor’s Islamic Association put out a statement after media reports that allege Ahmad Waseem travelled to fight in Syria at the end of 2013.
“No member of this community is known to be a recruiter or a motivator for people to take up armed struggle in Syria or elsewhere, for that matter. In fact, this notion is firmly discouraged, as it is against the very principles we stand for,” wrote Khalid Raana.
The al-Salaam mosque is a modern complex in Burnaby where more than 1,000 can gather for a single prayer. Local leaders pride themselves on openness, pointing to a code of conduct forbidding discrimination posted near the door. The mosque’s directors raised eyebrows in 2008 when they invited recruiters from the Canadian Armed Forces to a town hall.
After years of vigilance, the charges against Mr. Yusufzai came as a shock to those at the mosque. Local director David Ali says that community leaders could have helped stop Mr. Yusufzai from “falling through the cracks” had they received more information over the past three years.
“We’ve had a good relationship with the RCMP for some time. During the Afghanistan war we were on the lookout for people in the long dress, the big beard and the turban. We just watched them to make sure they weren’t Taliban,” he said.