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Ferid Imam was a valued member of his high school soccer team. (John Woods)
Ferid Imam was a valued member of his high school soccer team. (John Woods)

Global manhunt for Canadian students Add to ...

They were three Muslim boys, from different parts of the world, with very different personalities.

Ferid Imam was an honours student from East Africa, an aspiring pharmacist and, according to his high-school soccer coach, "a dream player." Muhannad al-Farekh hopped from Texas to the United Arab Emirates to Jordan to the Prairies. Miawand Yar, an ethnic Afghani born in Pakistan, was a schoolyard bully who was arrested for selling crack on his 20th birthday.

But in early 2007, instead of finishing their degrees at the University of Manitoba, the three friends boarded a plane bound for Pakistan via Europe. Their mysterious departure has sparked one of Canada's most expensive and elaborate national security investigations since 9/11. Their flight has prompted CSIS agents to fan out around Winnipeg and the RCMP counterterrorism unit to pull in officers from across the country. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has dispatched agents to the Middle East as part of their hunt, and the young men have been the subject of secret briefings to U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Sources said they were next spotted in Peshawar - the gateway to the lawless tribal area bordering Afghanistan that is suspected of sheltering senior members of al-Qaeda. They were traced to the mountainous region of Waziristan, a magnet for insurgents and missile strikes from unmanned U.S. drones.

The Globe and Mail learned the identities of the missing students not from law enforcement officials but from members of Winnipeg's Muslim community. Whispers about missing students came up when reporters started making inquiries about Hiva Alizadeh, the former Winnipegger who was charged in August with plotting to detonate bombs at unspecified sites in Canada. Those close to the missing students say they were not associates of Mr. Alizadeh, and national security sources say the two cases are not related.

"We have no idea why he left. No one knows." - See the graphic from Friday's Globe and Mail

None of them has been charged with a terrorism-related offence, but national security officials say the case may be an example of how unpredictable the radicalization process can be - it can take root in any part of the country, and latch on to a variety of personalities.

Ferid Imam came to Winnipeg when he was just seven years old. An East-African Muslim, he started school as an ESL student, but quickly integrated into a group of friends that included Chinese immigrants, Sikhs and what one of his family members described as white Canadians.

His wide toothy smile could be misleading; he didn't tolerate foolish behaviour, and was self-disciplined. He never missed any of his five daily prayers, a relative says, but also never made a public display of his faith.

On the soccer pitch at Dakota Collegiate Institute, he was a rare combination of skill and maturity. A teammate, Michael Dempster, recalled the scolding he received from Ferid after he took a swing at an opposing player and received a four-game suspension.

"He pulled me aside and said 'Mike, at the end of the day did this really matter? Was it that big a deal? It wasn't cool - there are better ways to go about it,' " Mr. Dempster said.

When the team fell behind on the scoreboard, Ferid was always there to "pick up the pieces," said Kevin Szajkowski, his coach at the time.

"He was outstanding in the way that he seemed like an old soul. He was older than his years," the coach said.

About 12 kilometres away, in Winnipeg's rough-and-tumble north end, Miawand Yar could be found in the schoolyard shaking down classmates for their lunch money.

Born in Pakistan to parents who fled their native Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, the Yars came to Manitoba when Miawand was eight years old. He moved on from one junior school after he beat up two smaller students. In high school, he was unmotivated. "Most of the time he was just a couch potato playing his [video]games," said one family member.

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