One young man who left Montreal to join the Islamic State was a timid, ace student with a fascination for computer science. And before she apparently turned to jihad, a woman was moved to normal teenage activism by a proposed secular charter that would have forced Muslims to choose between government jobs and their faith.
A second woman, a friend of the young man, disappeared one evening in January from her family home. Her parents followed her in an attempt to talk sense into her and bring her back to Montreal, says a family friend.
The stories of six Quebeckers who authorities say have flown from Turkey to join Islamist extremists in the Middle East show that the growing ranks of Canadian foreign fighters defy easy stereotypes. Their online profiles, families, friends and former classmates paint a picture of people who are a far cry from basement-dwelling conspiracists divorced from reality and social engagement.
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Friends say Bilel Zouaidia was a "chill" character who aced his pure sciences program at Collège de Maisonneuve. Until he suddenly disappeared this winter.
A friend, who did not want to be named, said Mr. Zouaidia started skipping school to attend mosque in his senior years at Henri-Bourassa high school. "Before he left, he was more dedicated to practising Islam than he was to school," the friend said. "And he was a brilliant student. "
The six people were not all college-age, as earlier believed . A 29-year-old man was among their number, according to friends of several of the youths. His family told Radio-Canada a familiar tale: One evening, he told his parents he was going out to visit friends and did not return. The RCMP confirmed he had booked a return ticket to Turkey. He never used the Montreal-bound reservation on Feb. 10.
"They took my son. I hate them. We are miserable. They put a hole in his head and brainwashed him," said the man's mother, who lay on the ground crying as she talked to Radio-Canada. The family spoke to the network on the condition their names remain private.
The family said the man drank wine, contrary to Islamic practice, and prayed irregularly.
Shayma Senouci, 18, lived in Laval. One day before she left in mid-January, she placed an online ad seeking $300 for the dress she wore to her high-school graduation ball. Her parents told La Presse she obtained a passport without their knowledge. She told them she was going to spend an evening with a friend, and then flew away.
In some ways, she appeared to be a regular teenager. Three years ago, she obtained a bursary while she was a student at Académie De Roberval, a small high school offering an enriched curriculum. On Twitter, she followed the Montreal Canadiens and South Korean pop-music stars.
Since 2013, her Facebook page had been punctuated with concern for the plight of other Muslims. There were calls to attend protest marches against the Egyptian government and calls to sign petitions against the Parti Québécois's proposed secular charter. In recent months, her posts focused on the Palestinians.
Collège de Maisonneuve, part of Quebec's CEGEP junior college system, where four of the presumed foreign fighters once studied, this week suspended a rental agreement with an Islamic school run by Adil Charkaoui, a man once suspected of having terrorism links who has become a vocal defender of Montreal's Muslim community.
The college said it discovered links to "hateful" teachings on the site of the Islamic school, where one of the foreign fighters studied briefly last fall. Mr. Charkaoui railed against the decision and threatened to sue on Friday, saying the school succumbed to media pressure. He said controversial readings and videos cited by the school were in a virtual library run by a third party that contains some of the basic teachings of Islam the school uses.
"We encourage a mainstream reading of Islam. We teach our youth to integrate in this society, to finish school, to avoid gangs," Mr. Charkaoui said. He added that Muslims, mosques and Islamic centres have come under the scrutiny of media and security officials. "A mosque or Islamic school is the last place someone who wants to join [Islamic State] would go," he said.
With a report from Tu Thanh Ha in Toronto