Around the time Mr. Yoon is believed to have converted and the other two returned from Edmonton disgruntled at an “unfair” world, two Canadian diplomats – Robert Fowler and Louis Guay – disappeared while on a mission in Niger. They were held hostage for four months by the men of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the man believed to be behind the Algeria hostage-taking.
Mr. Yoon’s brother firmly rejects the notion that Mr. Yoon had become radicalized – or that he journeyed to North Africa for any reason other than to join friends, initially in Morocco.
It turns out that Mr. Yoon left for Mauritania in May, 2011, to study Arabic in the capital, Nouakchott, according to Amnesty International. Just seven months into his African trip, he was arrested as a terror suspect, and by July, 2012, he was sentenced to two years in jail and a fine, said an Amnesty International researcher, Gaëtan Mootoo.
News of this third Londoner’s detention went unnoticed because it was published in a little-known Arabic-language publication. In a July 29, 2012, article, the Mauritanian magazine El Hourriya reported that a Canadian named Haroun Yoon was in custody on suspicions that he was a jihadi with the radical Salafist movement.
That summer, Mr. Mootoo visited Mr. Yoon, but the Canadian said he didn’t want the human-rights group to lobby on his behalf. “He didn’t want Amnesty to campaign for him so I have to respect that,” Mr. Mootoo said in a telephone interview Friday from Paris.
The fate of Mr. Yoon’s friends took longer to emerge. They had ended up with the militants of Mr. Belmokhtar, who had kidnapped the Canadian diplomats four years before. Having splintered from AQIM, Mr. Belmokhtar’s group now called themselves the Al-Mulathameen brigade and “Those Who Sign with Blood.”
Travelling from northern Mali to Algeria via the Libyan desert, the two Canadians and other militants arrived at the In Amenas gas field just before dawn on Jan. 16. They fired at two buses of workers, then stormed the living quarters, dragging out workers, targeting Westerners, killing those who tried to escape and rigging others with explosives.
The following evening, a member of Those Who Sign with Blood called a Mauritanian news agency, Agence Nouakchott d’Information, and revealed that the terrorist commando included militants from Canada. The bloody raid ended with a standoff with Algerian security forces and the death of 38 hostages and 29 terrorists.
Survivors told reporters one of the terrorists had fair hair and spoke fluent English. While the Algerian prime minister quickly alleged that two Canadians played a key role in the hostage taking, it would only be in March that the RCMP confirmed their nationality and this week that the police force acknowledged Mr. Medlej and Mr. Katsiroubas had died there.
For Mr. Yoon, freedom may come by the end of this year since his sentence is up in December, Mr. Mootoo said, adding that the Canadian is being held in relatively decent surroundings, has regular meals and is able to pray.
In an interview Friday night with the CBC from his cell in Mauritania, Mr. Yoon denied the allegations against him and said he was shocked at the news his friends were involved in the attack. He also complained of maltreatment, saying, “I’ve been beaten, I’ve been tortured, and I’m still sick, and I still don’t see any medical attention, I don’t see any help from the Canadian government in my release.”
Mr. Yoon’s older brother said he spoke with him many times over the phone, as recently as last weekend, when he gained assurances that “everything was fine.”
“I hope Aaron comes back and clears all of this up,” he said. “We’re waiting for his call.”
With reports from Colin Freeze, Rich Cash and Daniel Leblanc