They pulled up to an Edmonton bus terminal, their Southwestern Ontario childhood homes now more than 3,000 kilometres in the rearview mirror. Like so many Canadians who came before and after them, the pair of teenagers travelled west to Alberta with the hope of a decent job, a chance at prosperity, a shot at a better life.
In 2007, Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej left London, a manufacturing hub with disappearing jobs. Boasting little in savings, they turned to an elementary-school friend, who fronted them money for a deposit on an apartment and drove them around the city handing out résumés. Their dream of achieving some measure of financial stability was met with the reality of employment at places like Applebees, as a cook, and as a gas-station attendant. Those gigs didn’t last long.
Within months, Mr. Katsiroubas, a high-school dropout and convert to Islam, and Mr. Medlej, the elder of the two by a year, found themselves embittered, discouraged by a string of setbacks and confronted with a feeling that the world was conspiring against them.
Somewhere along the line, in London or Edmonton or some other place yet to come to light, the deflation and annoyance morphed into something more than typical teenage angst: In January of this year, Mr. Katsiroubas and Mr. Medlej, both in their early 20s, were found dead in the middle of the Sahara after a terrorist attack on an Algerian gas plant that killed dozens of hostages. They were not victims.
What transformed the two from average teenagers to two men accused of helping organize a violent siege remains a mystery. Similarly murky is the case of a third London man, a friend named Aaron Yoon, who is being held in a Mauritania jail under suspicion he is a jihadi with the hardline Salafist movement.
The Globe and Mail went to their hometown in search of answers, interviewing dozens of friends, neighbours and former classmates, as well as making calls across the country and overseas. The families, for their part, have chosen to guard their privacy; only Mr. Yoon’s older brother spoke out. The men’s upbringings were painted by those who knew them over the years as mostly unremarkable.
But then, of course, something changed.
When Mr. Katsiroubas arrived in Edmonton with Mr. Medlej, he was just a regular teen, according to Basel Alsaadi, Mr. Katsiroubas’ childhood friend from London who was already living in Edmonton. The two newcomers moved into an apartment with a third Londoner named Benjamin Thomas, having parties and girls over “pretty much every night,” Mr. Alsaadi said.
It was not long, though, before Mr. Katsiroubas and Mr. Medlej realized they couldn’t sustain their lifestyle. They resorted to stealing to get by, with court records reportedly showing that both Mr. Medlej and Mr. Thomas pleaded guilty to shoplifting in May, 2007, each slapped with a $1,000 fine. “They felt like others had privileges and that the world was unfair,” Mr. Alsaadi said.
Some of those feelings stemmed from their views on politics. Mr. Medlej, whose parents are believed to be Lebanese, was overheard talking about Lebanese conflicts in the Middle East – particularly its war with Israel in 2006 – saying he felt his people were being taken advantage of, bullied even. “They had an overarching understanding that things were not fair,” Mr. Alsaadi said.
Their living situation was beginning to grate on them, too. Both Muslim, Mr. Katsiroubas and Mr. Medlej grew increasingly annoyed at Mr. Thomas’ drinking and partying with friends at the apartment, Mr. Alsaadi said. Their landlady wasn’t impressed either, and they were soon evicted.
Mr. Alsaadi never thought Mr. Katsiroubas was in any kind of serious trouble until the Canadian Security Intelligence Service approached him – tipped off, according to the CBC, by someone who knew them. “It was alarming,” Mr. Alsaadi said. “I actually told them, ‘What are you guys up to, what’s going on here?’ ”