Skip to main content

When the Montreal man learned that his 17-year-old son had been targeted by a stranger trying to recruit him to join jihad, he did what he thought was the right thing – he alerted the RCMP.

He didn't expect what followed. His son was taken into custody in front of media cameras. The young man's case was associated with an investigation into eight other Montrealers who were arrested on their way to Syria. And U.S. border guards are now asking questions about the family.

The man has filed formal complaints with the watchdog committees overseeing the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

"We did our duty. This has crushed us," the man told The Globe and Mail, breaking into tears.

He asked to be identified by the initials KB because a court order forbids the publication of his son's name.

KB's son was never charged or put under a peace bond. The young man was even issued a new Canadian passport last month.

Wade Deisman, a criminologist at British Columbia's Kwantlen Polytechnic University, who has conducted research on the RCMP's counterterrorism outreach, said a key principle of such efforts is that police remain restrained and prudent because young people being groomed by jihadi recruiters are as much victims as they are perpetrators.

In KB's case, "the response by the RCMP was opportunistic and exploitative," Dr. Deisman said. "The underage youth was the subject of a full- scale 'takedown' and the operation was likely leaked to the media. The parents trusted the police and were co-operating with them. The police response exploited this trust."

Dr. Deisman said he was also concerned by the fact that U.S. border agents were asking about the young man.

He said it brought to his mind the case of Maher Arar, the Ottawa engineer who in 2002 was arrested and deported by U.S. authorities to his native Syria, where he was tortured. A federal inquiry found that Mr. Arar's ordeal likely originated with faulty information the RCMP shared with foreign agencies.

The RCMP declined to comment on KB's case when queried by The Globe and Mail.

At the time KB's son was arrested, police were dealing with a spate of young Montrealers who had become radicalized and left for the Middle East.

It was the spring of 2015 and earlier that year, seven young Quebeckers had left together for Syria to join the ranks of Islamic State.

KB says that on May 12 his son, who was 17 at the time, told him about an upcoming class trip to Greece.

A skeptical KB called the school and learned that there was no such trip. He discovered that his son and a classmate had met a travel agent to inquire about flights, including one with a stopover in Turkey.

Confronted by his parents, the son confided that he had been through a rough time after breaking up with his girlfriend and considered a trip to Europe with a school friend.

He had gotten an Instagram account, where a man commented in a kind, flattering way on his posts.

The man started engaging in online chats and urged KB's son to watch jihadi videos. When he learned that the young man wanted to travel to Europe, he suggested a stopover so they could meet.

He also told KB's son that "living in a Western community like Canada is a sin," according to the complaint to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which oversees the activities of CSIS.

KB said that on May 13, the family decided to contact the police. Just then, he said, agents from CSIS phoned. The spy agency had been tipped by the school principal, KB said.

The next day, KB said, after questioning the son for six hours, the CSIS officers told him it was up to the family to file a complaint with police.

With the CSIS officers looking on, KB called the RCMP.

His story is buttressed by a court affidavit sworn by an RCMP officer to obtain a search warrant. The court document says that the force's Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET) was contacted on the evening of May 14 by someone whose son was targeted by a recruiter on Instagram.

Names on the court document are blacked out but its details match KB's story: the bogus school trip, the man who said living in Canada is a sin "because it is not a Muslim country," the family's offer to help the authorities identify the recruiter.

KB says in his complaints that on May 15, two RCMP officers asked to meet his son.

He called them around 3:30 p.m. to say his son was back from school.

"Around 4 p.m., we were stunned by the presence of an army of RCMP officers working with Montreal police, along with an armada of reporters … in front of our residence's front door."

His son was handcuffed and, in view of press photographers and TV cameras, taken into a squad car "like a vulgar criminal," he said.

At RCMP headquarters, an officer showed KB a printout of section 83.181 of the Criminal Code, which says one could be jailed for up to 10 years for leaving Canada to join a terrorist group.

"Trying to apply this to my child is nonsense," KB said in his complaints. "… It's him who's the victim."

KB had contacted the RCMP just as INSET was dealing with a cluster of other young people with firm plans to fly to Turkey and cross into Syria.

According to the RCMP affidavit, around 10 p.m. that night, officers stopped eight young people who were about to board a Turkish Airlines flight at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport.

In his complaints, KB says he agreed to let his son make a videotaped statement. His son was released at 6 a.m. Saturday.

By Tuesday, the following week, the RCMP made public that it had stopped the group of young Montreal residents at the airport.

With no images of the airport arrests, television and newspaper reports, including The Globe and Mail's, showed instead KB's son being taken away by the Mounties. His face was obscured but in some reports KB's wife's face and their house number are visible.

Two days later, then-prime minister Stephen Harper used Trudeau Airport to announce plans to earmark more money to the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency to fight terrorism.

Alluding to the young people who had tried to go to Syria, Mr. Harper said that "we have great sympathy for the families affected, but let us be clear: We have a great country here. … There is no legitimate reason of any kind in this country for someone to become a violent jihadist."

For KB's family, there was more shock when police showed up the morning of May 26 to execute a search warrant.

The son was never charged, but the family remains troubled by later developments.

In the fall, KB and his son applied for new Canadian passports. KB received his promptly, but his son's application was delayed four months before he was issued a new passport.

On Christmas Day, a family friend was driving from Montreal to New York. At the Lacolle-Champlain border station, U.S. border agents asked the friend to go to a separate room, where he was questioned for hours about KB's son.

The American agent said there was a mention about KB's son "in the system" but would not elaborate, the friend told The Globe in an interview.

The family friend said the border agent was polite but it was nevertheless unsettling. "I understand it's their country and they want to protect it, but I've got nothing to do with this."

He believes American officials know he is acquainted with KB's son because the two had previously travelled together to the United States.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency cannot comment on individual cases. The spokesman said, "CBP works closely with local, state … and international law-enforcement agency partners to fight crime on the border, which may include the activities or entry of terrorists."

To KB, the incident is proof that Canadian officials have transmitted his son's name to the Americans, since his identity was never revealed in the Canadian media.

"If this is in fact the case it is grave cause for concern," Dr. Deisman said, "especially in light of the way the Trump administration has been ramping up its security rhetoric."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe