As the mourners at a west Toronto mosque bade farewell to a 24-year-old man slain in a weekend shooting at a popular mall, one man found it all too familiar.
Imam Said Rageah, who spoke during the hour-long gathering, said that in the past two years he has witnessed about 30 funerals for murdered Somali-Canadians, mostly in Alberta.
Ahmed Hassan died when an assailant drew a gun and fired, killing him and wounding six others; his short life offering a glimpse into a community racked by gang violence. His journey from Toronto to Alberta and back is well-worn by a criminal minority among Somalis who made Canada their home.
Police have said Mr. Hassan was targeted, and that while the shooting was not directly gang related, he belonged to the same street gang as the man charged in the shooting – Christopher Husbands, 23.
Born in Somalia, Mr. Hassan was raised by his grandmother and attended high school in Toronto before moving to Edmonton to join his father.
At Tuesday’s funeral, Imam Rageah, speaking in Somali, urged mourners to care for their families and lamented the deaths of Mr. Hassan and other Somali men who died too young.
And there have been many – at least 29 during the past seven years, by one tally.
Last year, Edmonton police gauged that the number of Somali-Canadians involved in the drug trade totalled about 2,000, countrywide, with a hard core of perhaps 100. And as with almost all types of organized crime, the primary motivator is cash. But in almost every other respect, the Somali drug gangs differ greatly from other ethnically based criminal organizations, police say, and the most striking is in the way they are structured.
The traditional mob model is pyramid-shaped – a hierarchy in which power flows from the top – and law enforcement responded accordingly. Cut off the head, so the thinking went, and the leaderless group will flounder, if only for a while.
But the Somali gangs are looser, much harder to dismantle than more traditional groups. They offer considerable scope for an ambitious, money-driven individual who does not have to “kick the money upstairs” as the loyal Mafia soldier must.
The Somali-dominated gangs also tend to be low profile and highly mobile, often moving as a group from one city to another, chiefly along a circuit that links Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Fort McMurray and, to a lesser degree, Vancouver.
A former Mountie, who is now a professor of criminology at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, suggests that one of the strengths of the Somali-Canadian criminal element is its national network.
“When the heat gets to be a little too much, boom, they’re gone,” said William Pitt. “They’re highly integrated, the Toronto gang, the Edmonton gang and even the Vancouver gang to a lesser extent.”
Edmonton figures prominently because of its proximity to the oil sands. Thousands of young, well-paid workers with limited diversions create a market for a sophisticated drug trade, and cocaine and marijuana have long flowed into the province.
The trade is still dominated by biker gangs, Mr. Pitt said, but the lower-ranking operatives are an evolving mix of factions, including Somali-Canadians.
And while many criminal organizations are fiercely territorial, the Somali ones are less so, at least in Canada. Conflict, when it arises, tends to be spawned by disputes over drug profits rather than turf, police say. And sometimes it involves less than that.
Lately, observers say, the violence has stabilized as the newcomers find their niche.
In Toronto’s Regent Park public-housing complex, the Sic Thugs gang to which Mr. Hassan was affiliated has Somali-Canadians within its disorganized ranks, but it has a mix of other players too. Mr. Hassan, Mr. Husbands and a third man, who was seriously wounded in Saturday’s rampage, all had ties to the Sic Thugs, and are all from different ethnic backgrounds.
Ryan Tucker, who directs a youth-gang prevention program in Regent Park, said gang activity in the area is more fluid than within many traditional criminal gangs. “When we see violence break out, it is often interpersonal conflict between people that are already going down that path of a life of crime and violence.”
Of the many murders involving Somali-Canadians in Edmonton and northern Alberta during the past six years, almost all encompassed the drug trade in one way or another, notably cocaine. And most remain unsolved – testament to the difficulty not only of penetrating the gangs via informants, but of surmounting the suspicion with which many expatriates from chaos-ravaged Somalia view police and other authority figures.
Gangs and drugs could hardly have been further removed from Tuesday’s sad funeral.
On one side of the Khalid Bin Al-Walid mosque, women sat in chairs or on the floor, while others squeezed onto couches or stood against the walls in the hallway.
Some friends and relatives voiced dismay at the reports of the young man’s troubles with the law, including a 2010 cocaine trafficking charge that is still outstanding.
“He’s actually a good person, you can’t say he’s a gangster,” a 21-year-old cousin said outside the mosque. “I don’t even know what caused this, but I just want the [media] to know he’s a good person.”