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Sohail Qureshi credits a compassionate Jordanian intelligence officer with turning his life around. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
Sohail Qureshi credits a compassionate Jordanian intelligence officer with turning his life around. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

‘I wanted to join the insurgency but nothing ever happened’ Add to ...

It was such a letdown. After years of anticipation back home in Alberta and weeks of wandering around Afghanistan, Sohail Qureshi had finally connected with the Taliban in war-torn Helmand Province – only to find himself in a terrorist training camp that he says was more “like a social party.”

The aspiring jihadi and recent computer-science graduate from the University of Calgary spent a month at the base north of Kandahar, where conditions were, as he puts it, “pretty ghetto” – no working toilets and a blanket on the ground for a bunk. He expected to receive combat training and profound Islamic inspiration. Instead, the Taliban spent their time eating, mingling in the marketplace, fixing radios and tending to the poppy fields for the next opium harvest.

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“I wanted to join the insurgency,” Mr. Qureshi recalls, “but nothing ever happened.”

So he left, heading to Kabul, the capital, in search of action. Instead, he was arrested, questioned and, when the authorities couldn’t make a case against him, shipped home to Canada.

Five years later, in the wake of reports from Algeria that two Canadians took part in, if not led, the al-Qaeda attack on a massive gas plant last month that left at least 37 hostages and 29 militants dead, Mr. Qureshi says he feels fortunate he didn’t meet a similar fate.

Despite repeated efforts to join the fray, “it seems destiny deemed that my life was not to end in such a manner,” explains the man once called “little bin Laden” by his neighbours. He has done an about-face, he says, and now wants to have “a positive, rather than negative, impact on the world.”

Mr. Qureshi’s views were so extreme that he was considered a top terrorist threat in Canada before landing in an Afghan prison and, later, being scooped up while trying to join the insurgency in Iraq. Yet he was never tried for terrorism; instead, he eventually was shown the error of his ways in the least likely of places: a Jordanian interrogation room.

Now 29 and living in Ottawa, he is jumping between jobs and dabbling in poetry as he tries to find his place in Canada.

“I could be in some remote prison somewhere.… I might be dead. So many things could have happened,” he says, explaining his decision to end his long silence in an attempt to inspire others contemplating a radical path. “That’s the last poem I wrote – Lucky. I am so lucky.”

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How many homegrown terrorists has Canada produced?

Security officials recently told a parliamentary committee that the threat of terrorism has not diminished, and the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has estimated that 45 to 60 Canadian citizens have gone to Somalia, Yemen and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for terrorist training. This week, Ottawa confirmed that a Canadian dual national, who resided in Lebanon, is connected to the bombing of a bus loaded with Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last July, killing seven.

The best-known offender is Omar Khadr. The Toronto-born man has made headlines since being captured in 2002 during a firefight in Afghanistan, accused of killing a U.S. soldier and shipped to Guatanamo Bay. He was convicted and returned to serve his sentence in a Canadian prison where, now 26, he has been since September.

In 2006, 18 young men were arrested in Toronto as part of a domestic bomb plot. Some cases were dropped, but most went to prison, as did Tahawwur Rana, the Pakistani-born Canadian sentenced last month in Chicago to 14 years for his role in plotting an attack, which never happened, on a Copenhagen newspaper.

For all the young extremists heading overseas, Toronto Muslim leader Muhammad Robert Heft, who has worked with the Mounties and other agencies to combat radicalism, says “everyone believes you can just go over” and start fighting. In fact, foreign recruits generally require local contacts to connect with insurgents, he says.

Even then, Canadian intelligence officials try to keep track of them. Mr. Qureshi certainly attracted their attention, sporting a long beard and shalwar kameez (tunic with loose pants) and spouting anti-West rhetoric, including his desire to engage in holy war. He is clean-shaven now, favouring pressed slacks and dress shirts, but his move last spring to a basement apartment not far from 24 Sussex Drive, the Prime Minister’s residence, prompted security officers to pay a visit. They didn’t say much at the time about his case publicly, but in private they deemed him a top-level threat.

He says he is a changed man. “This whole story is not just about going from a terrorist to a citizen, but going from someone who’s a prisoner to someone who’s free,” he says.

Born in England, he moved to Canada as a child, first to Saskatchewan, then to Calgary at age 15. While studying computer science at university, he tired of what he calls a “thug life” and turned to the Internet. “That’s when I looked to religion and went deep and deep and deep,” he says of a faith that was so literal and extreme that it was all-consuming.

His parents – father Zia is a family physician of Pakistani descent, and mother Mahin is of Iranian heritage – were alarmed by his transformation into a fledgling jihadi. They sought the advice of a local imam, who told their son to “stand down,” but the situation grew so volatile that police were alerted.

Finally, a year after graduating in 2006, he left his family’s comfortable two-storey home in suburban northwest Calgary en route to Pakistan.

He had no plan or contact but was eager to reach Afghanistan. After a carpet salesman guided him to Kabul, he made his way to Kandahar and then Lashkar Gah, capital of volatile Helmand Province, before heading north to Musa Qala, where he cruised the markets until he met the Taliban.

After his unhappy stay in the poppy-growing camp, he went back to Pakistan but then crossed the border again and was picked up by police while in a taxi to Kabul. Tossed into the crowded Policharki prison, Mr. Qureshi says, he was terrified: “Are they going to torture the hell out me?”

He made up stories when pressed to confess, but says he wasn’t abused. Finally, despite allegations that he had been part of an international terrorist network, a would-be suicide bomber, a spy or a mule moving money, he found himself in court being told he had served his sentence for “some visa issue.” In October, 2007, he returned to Canada with a Mountie escort.

He was unrepentant even as he claimed to be innocent. “I deny the allegations made against me; however, the allegation made against me is terrorism from the point of view of those in the West, whose hands are still fresh with Muslim blood,” he told The Globe and Mail that November.

Back with his family (he has an older sister and younger brother) as men in vehicles equipped with cameras kept watch on their home, he worked at odd jobs – as a janitor and security guard – but still dreamed of the jihad. Diving even deeper into religion, he moved out of the house again, obtained a passport from Britain, his birthplace, and in July, 2009, got on a plane to Jordan, determined to join the Iraqi insurgency.

“In both cases – Afghanistan and Iraq – I went on pure faith,” he says.

When he landed in Amman, officers with Jordan’s General Intelligence Department were waiting and took away his new passport. Either “they knew what I was there for,” he says, or the fact that he was “pretty frightened” arose suspicion.

After several days of questioning, he was put in a room with someone new, an intelligence officer in his early 30s who, rather than peering into his eyes and making him feel like an “idiot,” gently asked what had motivated his visit.

Seeing the man almost as a big brother, he revealed the truth – and received something quite unlike the response of his parents and the imam, which he says was “more like a fearful warning to me, rather than a sincere ‘I care about you.’ ” Instead, Mr. Qureshi recalls, “he’s like, ‘What are you doing? You’re smarter than this.’ He didn’t say it condescendingly or mockingly like other intelligence people did. He said it more like mano a mano – man to man. “When he said that, I looked at myself kind of shamefully. ‘What am I doing?’ ”

Again his luck held and, despite confessing, he was sent home. But this time, “I knew I was going to live my life differently.”

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The chemistry with his Jordanian “big brother” seems remarkable, but it might not be that uncommon, says former hostage negotiator George Kohlrieser. A psychologist and professor at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, he has written extensively about how compassion can override destructive behaviour. He has seen desperate people ready to kill themselves or their hostages suddenly give up knowing full well they are going to prison. “These conversions sound almost miraculous, but they are possible in the person who doesn’t have a strong identity in themselves.”

But reintegration into Canadian society hasn’t been easy. “I had to break the guilt of religion,” Mr. Qureshi says. “That took a very long time.”

He shaved off his beard despite fearing he would be “going to hell” as an apostate and battled low self-esteem and loneliness, which turned to depression and suicidal thoughts. He became addicted to marijuana and oxycontin, he says. But he also worked in his father’s medical office, as well as in customer service for an ATM company – both experiences that built confidence. In 2011, he came across the CD series Your Wish Is Your Command, by self-help guru Kevin Trudeau.

Mr. Qureshi says his advice helped him overcome depression and kick his addictions. He attended seminars conducted by the Global Information Network, a marketing organization Mr. Trudeau endorses.

His parents were not impressed. They had taken him in again upon his return from Jordan but wanted him to live what he saw as a “traditional” life. They thought he could put his computer-science degree to better use – and they had found him a wife. (He passed on the latter.)

Last April, he returned from a car trip to Toronto at 3 a.m. to learn his parents’ patience had run out. A sheet of paper on the door informed him that they had kicked him out and, on the advice of police, changed the locks. He had become, the note read, a “nuisance” – never settled, never focused – and the cross-country drive to attend a Global Information Network seminar was the last straw.

“It kind of crushed me. And then I thought: You know what, I want a change in my life and I think this is good. I’ve got to go on my own,” he says.

Mr. Qureshi left Calgary last May and moved to Ottawa. He briefly held jobs in telemarketing and door-to-door sales. Now he writes poetry and has self-published a book, The Inauguration of the Modern Mind, under the name Darius Piroozi. He lives off savings and credit.

Looking back, he says, he doesn’t know if he was ever really a terrorist by actions or intentions – at least by the Western definition.

“I looked at it as I was doing my duty to God, pretty much,” he says, “Later on, I realized that’s … not who I was.”

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