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Police crime tap

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The number of Canadians drawn to overseas conflict zones in Iraq and Syria is surging despite authorities' efforts to stem the outflow, Canada's top spy says.

Michel Coulombe, head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a Parliamentary hearing on Monday the number of known Canadian extremists who have travelled to fight in the two countries spiked as much as 50 per cent in the past four months.

That brings the total number of identified Canadians involved in conflicts abroad to 145, about a third of whom have gone to Syria and Iraq, according to the spy agency. This suggests the tempo of would-be Canadian jihadists seeking to fight abroad is accelerating even as Canada intensifies efforts to find and stop potential recruits.

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A pattern of court cases across the country on Monday exposed the challenge facing authorities.

In Edmonton, a 17-year-old was ordered into psychiatric counselling over alleged attempts to travel to join the Islamic State. In Charlottetown, a lawyer for a 20-year-old man held under a special peace bond related to terrorism allegations said the case flows from a tragic misunderstanding, although the RCMP say they have "reasonable grounds" to fear the man will commit a terrorist offence.

And in Montreal, two teenagers appeared before a judge on charges that they were preparing to flee Canada to participate in terrorism abroad.

Sitting side-by-side in a courtroom dock, El Mahdi Jamali and Sabrine Djermane, both 18, face four terrorism charges, including possession of an explosive substance for the benefit of, or in association with, a terrorist organization. Both are Montreal college students described as boyfriend and girlfriend. They were arrested last week and held without criminal charge until Monday morning.

According to prosecutors, the two are suspected of trying to leave Canada between January and April 14 to commit terrorism. The two are students at Collège de Maisonneuve, a Montreal postsecondary school also attended by five Quebeckers alleged to have left Canada in January to join Islamic State fighters in Syria.

In court on Monday, a large group of friends and family members showed up to support the young couple, several waving and blowing kisses as the pair were led away into custody. Mr. Jamali's defence lawyer, Marc Giroux, said family members are "appalled, surprised, disappointed" by the charges.

"It's not because you're a Muslim that you're necessarily a terrorist – these folks seem like very good folks," Mr. Giroux said after the court hearing.

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Ms. Djermane's father contacted authorities when he became concerned about the couple's activities; he described his daughter as a "victim," according to the Journal de Montréal.

The pair showed no obvious outward signs of radicalization. In court, Ms. Djermane had no head covering and wore a fashionable blouse. Her home is an upscale, renovated condominium building about a 15-minute walk from the college; on Monday, a neighbour said she and Mr. Jamali had sublet the condo about a month ago.

In some ways, Mr. Jamali seemed like a typical teenager, posting regularly on his Facebook page about soccer, which he played. But he also took strong positions about Muslims in the world. In April, 2013, Mr. Jamali wrote: "Mali, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma … thousands murdered. But Boston, a few injured and oh. Get out, hypocrites."

He posted a video, since taken down from YouTube, titled "If you love your parents, join Jihad." Other postings decried the treatment of Muslims in Myanmar and Syrian civilian deaths under President Bashar al-Assad.

Canadian authorities have become more aggressive since two Canadian Forces soldiers were killed in separate attacks by two extremists in Canada six months ago. While Criminal Code Anti-Terrorism Act charges have been laid in several cases, authorities have been using a much wider range of tools against dozens of so-called terrorism "targets." For example, police and federal agents are relying on little-used laws and seeking new powers to contain marginal suspects who may intend to commit crimes.

Verity Stevenson is a freelance reporter.

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