Four young men and two women who disappeared from the Montreal region have travelled to the Middle East to fight with Islamic State, authorities believe, triggering scrutiny of a Muslim teacher once accused of his own terrorist links.
While the Canadian Security Intelligence Service says up to 145 Canadians have gone abroad to join terrorist groups, including an estimated 40 who have joined Islamic State, the addition of six would-be fighters at once represents a stunning new level of recruitment in Canada. Until now, most known recruitment has involved loners or in rare cases groups of two or three at most.
At least four of the young people studied at Montreal's Collège de Maisonneuve as recently as last fall, a school official confirmed. The case shocked college officials who said they learned about the recruitment in the local newspaper, La Presse, and were not aware of a radicalization problem in their midst.
At least one of the young men attended classes taught there in rented space by Adil Charkaoui, the leader of a Montreal Islamic centre who spent six years under security certificates after police alleged he was an al-Qaeda sleeper agent. Courts quashed the certificates in 2009.
Collège de Maisonneuve suspended rental agreements with Mr. Charkaoui on Thursday, saying they had discovered some videos from his École Les Compagnons in which others expressed views "contrary to the school's values." Brigitte Desjardins, a spokesperson for the college, described some of the videos as "hate speech" but declined to provide further details, saying the school was still looking into it.
"We believe we have a good reason to suspend our relationship with the École Les Compagnons," Ms. Desjardins said. "When people rent our facilities, we don't ask them if they plan on spreading hate messages."
A second school, Collège de Rosemont, also suspended a rental contract with Mr. Charkaoui. He did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him and he called a news conference for Friday.
Collège de Maisonneuve sent out alerts to students and staff Thursday asking for help preventing other students from falling under the influence of radicalization. Students expressed shock at the recruitment in a school they say is a harmonious environment.
Soumayya B., a health sciences student who did not want her full name used, said she feared the attention would turn toward the school's large Muslim community, which was recently the target of media criticism for holding an event to familiarize people with the hijab and for decorating a secluded stairwell for prayer. "It's a welcoming place, for sure. Everyone gets along, there's no real separation" between cultures, she said.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said the recruitment highlights gaps in the country's anti-terror legislation to prevent "high-risk travellers." He said there is an urgent need to adopt Bill C-51, which would give more powers to law-enforcement agencies to engage with family members and try to disrupt the travel plans of would-be jihadis.
"We are reducing the margin of manoeuvre [for] those who want to lure, to prey on those individuals and to radicalize them," Mr. Blaney told reporters. He added that family and friends need to report the matter to authorities whenever they believe anyone has the intention of "travelling with terrorist intentions."
In the Montreal case, at least one father confronted his radicalized son, Bilel Zouaidia, who was among those who left. The father told La Presse that he went to the Collège de Maisonneuve to investigate Islamic classes his son was taking and discovered they were being taught by Mr. Charkaoui. Knowing Mr. Charkaoui's history, the father forbid his son from returning. The paper reported that the father took away his son's passport, but the student went to police to declare it stolen and obtained another.
Mr. Charkaoui expressed surprise that any of his students have gone to Syria, and he described Bilel Zouaida as quiet and timid. "This is a real cold shower for the Muslim community," he told La Presse. "This won't help the Muslim community."
Mr. Charkaoui, who became a Canadian citizen last summer, is suing the federal government and demanding an apology over the security certificate, detention and damage to his reputation.
With a report from Verity Stevenson in Montreal