The imam remembers them well. Six young men, university and college students, who came to his mosque together. They were the pride of their families, full of energy, enthusiasm and, in some cases, anger.
Within months, one asked the imam for an urgent meeting. Canadian security agents were watching his every move, he said. They had followed him to school and spoken to his manager at work. He and his friends had been hanging around jihadist websites, where recruiters promised adventure and glory. The young man saw no future for himself in Canada, the imam said. A short time later, in 2009, he and his friends vanished.
They were among the first to travel a pipeline that sources say brought at least 20 to 25 Canadians to the Horn of Africa to fight for al-Shabab, the Islamist group responsible for last week’s horrific attack that killed more than 70 people at the Westgate mall in Kenya. As rumours circulate about whether Canadians were among the perpetrators, there are questions about what became of those who joined al-Shabab and how much support the organization has among the Somali diaspora.
Federal security agencies have worried for years that fundamentalists who throw in their lot with the group formally called Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahedeen would boomerang back to North America to recruit or plot local acts of violence. Yet it appears that al-Shabab’s reach is not as great as previously thought. Its pockets of support in the wider world, never very strong in the first place, are drying up.
“There’s no future for Shabab. The Shabab is over, it’s done,” said Said Rageah, a Somali-born imam who preaches in Toronto.
Mr. Rageah, the imam who knew the so-called “Somali six” when they attended a Scarborough mosque, welcomes two visitors to a massive, mostly empty warehouse that serves as his new place of prayer. A lanky former basketball player, he was raised in Saudi Arabia and dresses in pristine white robes. He pulls out a simple chair and sits down. He exudes calm and speaks in measured tones. Children are gathered across the room, their noses deep in their books.
He recalls that when al-Shabab emerged as a force in Somalia around 2006 it was seen as the best hope for expelling Ethiopian troops that some saw as an army of occupation. But in recent years it’s been prone to infighting. It governed incompetently in the regions it controlled and its campaign of murder and brutality alienated many who had previously supported it.
“As soon as they started killing innocent people under the name of sharia [Islamic law], killing imams, everybody went against them,” said Mr. Rageah, who was himself threatened by al-Shabab.
Four of the young men who left Toronto to join al-Shabab in 2009 are now dead, Mr. Rageah says. The other two recently quit the organization but have stayed in Africa. Most were Canadian-born or arrived here very young, but they saw the cause of al-Shabab – “the youth” in Arabic – as a struggle for their homeland. Four or five years ago there was some sympathy, however limited, for that nationalist cause among the diaspora. Not any longer, he said.
Canada’s Parliament banned al-Shabab as a terrorist group three years ago and recently passed a law that forbids travelling overseas to join terrorist groups. Security agencies have spent years investigating al-Shabab-related activity and claim some success. Yet they have laid charges only once. University of Toronto graduate Mohammed Hersi, 28, is awaiting trial for attempting to participate in a terrorist group. Authorities arrested him in 2010 in Toronto as he tried to board an Air Canada flight to Cairo. Police said he was bound for Somalia.
In the years since, the flow of recruits moving from the West to Somalia has ground to a halt, sources say. The group lost ground militarily and in the process became notorious for killing and maiming civilians. They performed punitive amputations, sent foreign food-aid workers home in the midst of famine and bombed a Ugandan bar full of soccer fans during the 2010 World Cup.
“I would classify them as a spent force,” said a former federal official who asked to remain anonymous.
Along with the U.S. and U.K., Canada has one of the largest Somali populations in the world. Estimates of its size range from 45,000 to 80,000 people, concentrated primarily in Toronto, Ottawa and Edmonton.
Rima Berns-McGown, who teaches at the University of Toronto-Mississauga, has conducted extensive interviews with Somali-Canadians. In recent years CSIS, the RCMP, the FBI and the CIA have asked Prof. Berns-McGown to brief them on her research and insights. She has found that while there once may have been some sympathy for al-Shabab’s efforts to expel Ethiopian troops, today there is “zero support for al-Shabab and anything that it’s doing.”
“Al-Shabab has de-legitimized itself. Everybody that I spoke to, without exception, says they don’t understand Islam,” Prof. Berns-McGown said.
She said she has met only one young man who considered joining the insurgents.
“He said, ‘I thought I would go and defend my country against Ethiopia and then I thought that would be dumb. Because I’m Canadian and I can do more for my people – Canadians, Somalis, Muslims – here.’ ”
Andrew McGregor, a Toronto-based security analyst, says al-Shabab has been badly damaged. “People everywhere in Somalia who were occupied under al-Shabab administrations have voted with their feet – they have left as soon and completely as possible, and they would rather live in squalor or as refugees,” Mr. McGregor said.
“Where is their popular following? It doesn’t exist,” he said. “As a guerrilla force it’s a shadow of itself. It’s not trying to hold land any more.”
CANADIAN JIHADISTS KILLED OR MISSING
Ali Medlej and Xris Katsiroubas, two young men from Ontario, join an obscure al-Qaeda-linked terrorist faction and die besieging a gas plant where 37 foreign workers are killed.
Sudanese-born Rudwan Khalil Abubaker, a former model from Vancouver, is shot dead in the breakaway republic as Russian forces attack a faction of jihadists.
Pakistan, 2003 and 2008
Ahmed Said Khadr, the Egyptian-born patriarch of Canada’s so-called “al-Qaeda” family is killed by the Pakistani army in 2003.
Years later, several young men from Winnipeg – including Maiwand Yar and Ferid Imam – disappear in Pakistan after being sought by U.S. intelligence for allegedly joining al-Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia, 2003
Abdul-Rahman Jabarah, a 23-year-old from St. Catharines, Ont., is killed in a shootout between Saudi authorities and a group of al-Qaeda fighters.
Several Canadians are reported to die violently after joining the al-Shabab terrorist group, including Mohamed Elmi Ibrahim in 2010 and Mahad Ali Dhore in 2013. Mr. Dhore is reportedly part of a faction of suicide bombers who storm a courthouse.
Released from a sentence for terrorism offences in Canada, Ali Dirie, a Canadian of Somali descent, joins the influx of fundamentalist fighters to the Syrian civil war. He reportedly dies fighting.