To the men who attended the Al-Salaam mosque in this suburb of Vancouver, he was a regular known simply as “long beard.” Except for the flowing beard that stretched to his belt and his choice of loose traditional garb, little is remembered about the quiet 25-year-old.
RCMP announced on Wednesday they had charged Hasibullah Yusufzai with travelling for the purpose of terrorism, alleging the B.C. resident had joined a terrorist group in Syria. No one at Al-Salaam recognized Mr. Yusufzai from photographs that were shown in the media that day.
The five-year-old photos showed an athlete, clean-shaven and muscular, with an easy smile and diverse group of friends, who is said to have drank, smoked and driven fast motorcycles.
The next day, people at Al-Salaam learned that the man they knew as “long beard” was the man in the pictures.
Many at the mosque in Burnaby are now wondering what happened to Mr. Yusufzai, whose family fled war-torn Afghanistan two decades ago. “This boggles the mind,” says David Ali, speaking for the B.C. Muslim Association, which helps operate the Al-Salaam mosque.
“He never did anything wrong in this mosque, so it was very hard to keep an eye on him,” he said. “This really isn’t good.”
Those who knew him when he attended Byrne Creek Secondary School in Burnaby cannot believe the person known as “long beard” could be the man they knew as Hasib. A fitness buff, Mr. Yusufzai was a wrestler who qualified for the provincial championships in the 70-kilogram class twice in two years.
The man’s first social media presence, which ceased in 2009, shows pictures and videos of motorcycles and a bare-chested climb to the granite peak of the Chief, a gruelling but popular hike overlooking Squamish, B.C. There are few indications of religion, only the mild-mannered and sweet athlete described by friends at the time.
According to Mr. Yusufzai’s neighbours, the young man’s appearance and behaviour changed after 2009. He remained a courteous and friendly neighbour, but began to grow his beard, wear Islamic dress and mention “jihad” in conversation, a neighbour said.
In 2010, he was involved in a motorcycle accident in New Westminster, B.C. In a lawsuit he filed against the driver of the vehicle that he struck, Mr. Yusufzai claimed he was no longer able to work or perform chores at home. Neither of the lawyers involved in the case have responded to repeated requests for comment from The Globe and Mail.
In spite of his claim, Mr. Yusufzai continued working as a security guard and keeping fit, according to his employer. He lived with his family in a hardscrabble housing project in Burnaby that caters to refugees and recent immigrants. A fence surrounds the 15 apartment buildings, with cameras and signs warning against trespassing. The inside of the buildings are worn, with old carpeting.
As of Friday, the nameplate “Yusufzai” was torn off the family’s unit.
By 2012, a second Hasib Yusufzai emerges online. On Facebook, the muscular photos are replaced by political cartoons highly critical of the United States and supportive of terrorist organizations. Notes posted on the page by someone identifying himself as Mr. Yusufzai explain Muslims should not celebrate birthdays. The author engages in discussions about the lagging levels of faith among Canadian Muslims.
While Mr. Yusufzai’s family has been hesitant to speak about the allegations made by the RCMP, his brother has told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Yusufzai is working in a restaurant in Turkey and communicates frequently with the family. “He’s harmless,” he said.
A woman who said she is Mr. Yusufzai’s sister told CTV her brother split his time between work and the mosque until he disappeared early this year. A spokesman for Concord Security, Mr. Yusufzai’s employer since 2009, said he did not appear for work one day.
Despite being on a no-fly list, the RCMP said Mr. Yusufzai left Canada on Jan. 21, 2014, for Syria.
Canada’s intelligence service says 130 Canadians have gone to fight for terrorist groups in the Middle East and Africa. Many who knew Mr. Yusufzai cannot believe he is in Syria and have no idea what might have made him want to go fight.