'Lost boys' of Winnipeg
The Globe and Mail, Folio, Oct. 1, 2010
Read The Globe's 2010 account of the disappearance of three Winnipeg students and the manhunt that ensued. Download a PDF of the print version of the paper that appeared Oct. 1, 2010.
They were dubbed Winnipeg’s “lost boys” – three University of Manitoba students who vanished from campus in 2007, leaving behind a letter expressing violent intentions abroad and triggering a furious international manhunt.
For the next eight years, little was heard about the trio. The Canadian family of one of the three men, Miawand Yar, took the silence as a dire sign. The mother would cry at the mere mention of his name.
But earlier this month, the Yars’ hopes swelled with the news that one of the former students, Texas-born Muhanad Al Farekh, had re-emerged in a New York courtroom to face terrorism charges. “When [Farekh] came back into the picture, we thought, ‘Wow, we might finally get some answers,’” said one of Mr. Yar’s brothers. “It would be really nice to know if my brother is still alive.”
Over ensuing weeks, however, the family’s optimism faded with the realization that his brother didn’t share Mr. Farekh’s apparent saving grace: U.S. citizenship. According to a New York Times report, Mr. Farekh was captured and returned to the U.S. rather than executed because of the Obama administration’s reservations about killing an American citizen abroad.
Mr. Farekh has emerged as a central figure in a renewed U.S. debate about American spy agencies killing U.S. citizens overseas – a debate that took on new significance on Thursday with Mr. Obama’s admission that CIA drone strikes had inadvertently killed three Americans in Afghanistan, two of whom were alleged al-Qaeda members. The third man was a kidnapped U.S. contractor.
Less contentious, at least in the United States, is the fate of foreign nationals, including Canadians, potentially targeted by the same programs. Family members of Mr. Yar say the news about the New York case portends poorly for their relative. They wonder: Would the Washington officials who debated Mr. Farekh’s fate have given similar considerations to any Canadian suspects?
“My brother and the other guy were Canadian,” said the Yar sibling, who asked not to be identified further because he said his family has already fallen under a cloud of unwarranted suspicion. “How do we know they didn’t kill my brother? If the U.S. is protecting its citizens, why can’t Canada protect its own? If Farekh is getting a fair trial, so should my brother. We want a fair trial – doesn’t matter if he gets 100 years.”
The story of the missing men first became public in a 2010 Globe and Mail investigation tracing their alleged path from Canadian academia to al-Qaeda membership in Pakistan.
The three young men forged bonds watching jihadi videos together at the University of Manitoba in the mid-2000s, according to a newly unsealed court-filed affidavit from a U.S. detective.
On the night before they disappeared in March, 2007, they purchased mountain boots at a Winnipeg store and decided to leave their cellphones behind in Canada. The day they departed, they allegedly called a friend to say “they were on their way to be martyrs.”
According to the U.S. affidavit, one of the suspects allegedly sent a letter home to his family. “I tell you please not to follow what the media says about Talibans, Al-Qaida [sic], and other groups fighting for the sake of Allah,” it reads in part.
The brother of Mr. Yar independently described the contents of a letter his sibling had penned. “He said, ‘Don't believe what the media says about life over here. That’s not the way it is.’”
He added that his family immediately provided such correspondence to police. “We were the ones who reported our brother missing,” he said. “And all we got in return was treatment like we are the criminals.”
He explained that family members in Canada have been blocked from travelling to the U.S., and that his sister lost her security screening job at a Canadian airport. “She got fired because she couldn’t get clearance,” he said.
The criminal complaint and arrest warrant unsealed this month in New York leave authorities with eight missing years to account for. The complaint against Mr. Farekh, now an inmate of the Metropolitan Correction Center in Manhattan, accuses him of a conspiracy to provide “material support” to terrorists, essentially by seeking to enlist in al-Qaeda.
Nothing more specific is alleged. The key suspect of the three students is Ferid Imam, a Canadian citizen who stands accused of becoming the equivalent of an al-Qaeda drill instructor, teaching other Westerners fighting skills in a Pakistan paramilitary camp.
The New York Times reported the jailed American suspect went on to marry the daughter of a senior al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan. The report added Mr. Farekh was arrested in late 2014, and was interrogated prior to being extradited from Pakistan.
Mr. Farekh’s New York defence lawyer did not return The Globe’s phone calls. U.S. prosecutors, an FBI special agent and a spokesman at the Pakistani embassy in Washington did not respond to questions.
Canadian police, who dubbed their investigation “Project Darken,” say only that they have still-outstanding arrest warrants. “The current whereabouts of [Miawand] Yar and Ferid Imam are unknown,” RCMP spokesman Harold Pfleiderer said in an e-mail.
Mr. Yar’s brother says he wishes Canadian authorities could find out a lot more than that. “When we ask the Canadian government if they know anything more about my brother, we get the runaround,” he said. “They say they don’t know anything.”
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