Skip to main content

Stephane Pressault said he had a number of conversations with John Maguire, whom he knew as Yahya, about both students’ decisions to become Muslims and how their families were adapting to their conversions.

The Ottawa student believed to have joined Islamic fighters in Syria and Iraq appeared eager to learn and had access to a supportive religious community when he converted to Islam several years ago, a student who knew him said.

Stephane Pressault said he had a number of conversations with John Maguire, whom he knew as Yahya, about both students' decisions to become Muslims and how their families were adapting to their conversions. Another student, Hammad Raza, said he met Mr. Maguire at a campus prayer room and offered to help the young man learn more about his new faith.

The revelation this week that Mr. Maguire may now be involved with the militant group Islamic State (IS) is reigniting a broader debate about what can be done to keep Canadians – and others – from leaving home to join extremist organizations. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service says more than 100 Canadians have left the country to support or participate in extremist movements abroad.

The Canadian Council of Imams issued a statement last week warning Muslims about the "deviant nature" of IS, and police forces in Toronto and York Region are preparing to launch new programs to deal with the threat of recruitment and extremist ideology. Other efforts within the Muslim community are already under way and are aimed at providing support and a counternarrative to those who might be susceptible to foreign recruiters.

The RCMP have refused to comment on Mr. Maguire's situation, saying they don't generally confirm or deny whether an individual is the subject of an investigation. However, Mr. Maguire's aunt told the National Post this week that authorities had been in contact with his mother about his disappearance and are investigating the matter.

Mr. Pressault, who recently completed a master's degree at the University of Ottawa, said Mr. Maguire converted to Islam in mid-2010 and appeared eager to learn more about the religion when the two first met. "He seemed like anybody who finds a new faith and wants to learn about it, learn how to do it well," Mr. Pressault said.

But when Mr. Raza met Mr. Maguire in the summer of 2012, his impression of the young man was different. Mr. Raza, a chemical engineering student at the University of Ottawa, said he invited Mr. Maguire to his mosque, but the young man never took him up on the offer. He said he eventually stopped engaging directly with Mr. Maguire because he appeared uninterested in speaking with people whose views differed from his own.

And over time, Mr. Maguire's posts on social media began to make some people uncomfortable, Mr. Raza said. Still, he said he never expected the Facebook missives would lead to anything more serious, adding that he never heard Mr. Maguire making similar comments in public.

Mr. Pressault said those who knew Mr. Maguire were for a time under the impression that he had travelled to Syria to study Arabic. But when he reappeared on Facebook in mid-2013 with posts that spoke directly of the Islamic State, some of his acquaintances began to wonder whether he might actually be fighting with the militant organization.

Imam Yusuf Badat, from the Canadian Council of Imams, said he didn't know of Mr. Maguire's situation before this week. "It's definitely shocking and also of great concern," he said. Mr. Badat said one of the problems is the "pitch" some IS members are putting forward to Muslim youth in other countries, saying they have an Islamic obligation to join the fight. "It's kind of a very well-crafted message and [it may appeal to some] youth," he said.

"So we released a statement to make, number one, the Muslim community aware, and be conscious that this is nothing Islamic. They don't represent Islam, they don't know the religion properly and it's just people with a political or personal agenda."

Muhammad Robert Heft, a Toronto-based expert in deradicalization counselling, said simply connecting people with moderate religious leaders and social services can make a big difference, particularly for some new converts who may be more rigid in their views.

Mr. Pressault is now involved with a group called Project Communitas, which aims to equip young leaders from different religious and cultural communities with better skills to help prevent hate crimes, radicalization and gangs. But more than a year after he was last in touch with Mr. Maguire, he said he still struggles to understand the young man's decision.

"He had the support in terms of [having] friends," he said. "But I don't know how he embarked on his spiritual journey. Of the people he was around, I don't know anyone in that community who would have condoned this."