As Aaron Driver put the finishing touches on a planned terrorist attack last week, he gave no hint anything was wrong, except for confiding that he was feeling ill.
"He says, 'I'm not feeling good.' He's sick. He coughs and says I want to go to a hospital," a 60-year-old friend recalled. A cook for his congregation, he had befriended Mr. Driver when the 24-year-old loner showed up at the local mosque in London, Ont., last year.
For initiating this friendship, the cook felt at first like a good neighbour – until last Wednesday. That's when a police intervention made the cook and his family feel like suspected accomplices. As authorities scrambled to neutralize the threat posed by Mr. Driver, they also used some heavy-handed tactics to isolate the family's home. Female family members say police snipers even pointed a laser-scoped rifle at them as they exited their house with their hands up.
Three days earlier, Mr. Driver had been at that very house, where the family says he was showing a gentler facet of his personality. On that Sunday, "he trimmed the bushes in the back, the roses and daisies," the cook's 52-year-old wife recalls. She was explaining that her husband and Mr. Driver had bonded over odd jobs. "He was a polite, well-mannered kid, very quiet and shy," she said.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail in an hour-long interview, the family members, who knew Mr. Driver by his Islamic name of Harun, say they can't reconcile the police allegations with their interactions with the young man they knew. They asked to remain anonymous to minimize any further fallout from being publicly linked to an Islamic State-inspired extremist, but wanted to speak out to clear up any lingering misconceptions that they were privy to Mr. Driver's ideas or aims.
Media reports and senior RCMP officers publicly mentioned the family's address as a secondary search site last week, but police now say it was a red herring.
"That was an address that we had some understanding Aaron Driver had a connection to … so we wanted to follow up," RCMP Superintendent Harvey Seddon said.
Declining to discuss specific police tactics or weaponry in an interview, he said "the family doesn't need to be concerned about any cloud of suspicion. We don't have an ongoing interest."
The 60-year-old father of the family left Lebanon for Canada in the 1970s. A man who smiles even when distressed, he recalled meeting Mr. Driver just over a year ago. The younger man, who was estranged from his father and whose mother had died when he was a child, volunteered to help him serve meals at the London Muslim Mosque on the long summer evenings when the Ramadan fast finally broke.
"He liked to help the Muslims in the mosque," the cook said. He added he knew Mr. Driver had some extremist views, but he left it to the mosque's prayer leaders to challenge him on them.
"My English is not very good to be talking about Daesh," he said.
Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. In 2015, Mr. Driver gained notoriety as an online cheerleader for the terrorist group. A Manitoba judge ordered him to stay off social media, one of several RCMP-enforced peace-bond conditions that followed him as he relocated to Ontario.
The cook says he came to speak to Mr. Driver about once a week, giving him rides around town in return for his help with chores. Before Mr. Driver left the family's house on the Sunday before the takedown, the cook says they even spoke of plans to paint the house.
But Mr. Driver was also secretly involved in his own do-it-yourself projects. U.S. authorities last week intercepted a video he made starring himself as a bellicose balaclava-clad terrorist out to shed Canadian blood.
Once alerted, RCMP officers scrambled to his residence in Strathroy, Ont., where – an autopsy now confirms – they shot him dead after he detonated a homemade bomb.
Police vehicles later cordoned off the cook's house in London, 30 kilometres away. The family's 25-year-old daughter says that at dusk she noticed bright, blue lights in the driveway – and, as she exited, a red laser dot on her chest.
"I went outside to check it out and a cop said, 'Freeze. Put your hands up.' I looked and the guy had a rifle pointed at me," she said.
Her mother says that, from a window, she also saw a red circle appear on her daughter. Police then brought the women into unmarked cars, telling them they were not under arrest, but that their colleagues needed to look inside the home.
"I asked them, 'Where's this warrant?' They said we don't need one," the daughter recalled.
The mother says another officer told her the search was for the family's safety.
The cook says he was visiting relatives that night, but police intercepted him when he returned to his street around midnight. Singled out, he was brought to an interrogation room. But he told police he had no useful insights about about Mr. Driver's terrorism aspirations.
The family credits RCMP officers for questioning them politely, even if the police presence at their home was over the top. The cook says that long before Mr. Driver complained of feeling physically sick, he had been a lost soul.
"He don't have nobody. He don't have a family," he said. "I feel sorry for him."