DO CANADIANS UNDERSTAND WHAT A "SLEEPER AGENT" IS?
Adil Charkaoui in Montreal June 4, 2015.
Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette
Adil Charkaoui hasbeen a household name since 2003when he was detained by the Canadian government on a security certificate alleging he was a sleeper agent. Charkaoui successfully fought the government and obtained Canadian citizenship — and his freedom — in 2014. But over the past four months, Charkaoui's name has surfaced again and again as the tie linking 19 young Quebecers who have travelled, or attempted to travel, abroad to conflict zones in the Middle East.
At least 11 of the 19 went to Collège Maisonneuve, where Charkaoui has taught Arabic and Koranic lessons. Some of the youths attended prayer sessions and other activities at the Centre Communautaire Islamique de l'Est de Montréal, or CCIEM, where Charkaoui is president of the board of directors.
But that is where the association ends, Charkaoui insists.
In an interview with the Montreal Gazette on Thursday, Charkaoui addressed the latest allegations against him, and explained why he believes he is the focus of so much negative attention.
Perhaps most surprisingly, however, Charkaoui, who says he knows some of the youths arrested at the airport last month as well as their parents, presents an alternative narrative for why 10 of the youths were travelling abroad. It wasn't to join ISIS or any other extremist group, he says.
"It was for love". - (Aside to the reader: Ssssh! Don't laugh. P.C. )
Q: The media and others have pointed to you as the common denominator that ties these youths together. How do you respond to that?
A: When the news first came out that Collège Maisonneuve students were at "Charkaoui's school," I was with my lawyers and we were just about to react to a Supreme Court decision that said the government had to divulge its evidence to the defending party — me, who was suing them for $26.5 million. (Charkaoui is seeking compensation for lost income, legal fees, and time spent in detention or under house arrest between 2003 and 2009.)
So the two articles came out at the same time. … Someone called me and gave me the name of the student and I said he was at two sessions (with the school) then he dropped the course. But the journalist still called him a "student of Charkaoui."
Collège Maisonneuve has said it was not Charkaoui who taught but the École des compagnons. We are 14 teachers teaching the Koran and Arabic at the college but it's always "Charkaoui the preacher." I am the director of École des compagnons and I gave lessons, but I'm not the only one. No one ever asked to speak to the other teachers.
Afterward, when the names of other youths came out they were associated directly with CCIEM, and the "centre de Charkaoui." But I'm not the director. I'm the president of the board of directors. I have no salary there and I'm not there during the day. But every time, they say the "centre de Charkaoui."
And people believe it.
Q: Why do you think so many people are focusing on your relationship to these youths?
A: If I hadn't been arrested under a security certificate would people still say the same thing? What about other teachers at the CCIEM or the CEGEP?
It's because my name is known.
Now they say "It's him again."
That's why I'm suing the government. I want a formal apology from the federal government and compensation for all those years. I think getting my Canadian citizenship was an admission — it means I'm not a danger to society.
But as long as there is no formal apology and compensation, like with Maher Arar, people can associate my name to anything.
I'd like to also bring in the debate over the charter of values, in which I was very involved (as head of the Collectif québécois contre l'Islamophobie). People never forgave me.
The day after the election, the CCIEM was attacked with a Molotov cocktail and an axe, and it was tagged with "f–k Liberals, kill Muslims."
The debate put so much pressure on society and created a certain hate for Muslims and people saw me as Public Enemy No. 1.
Q: You knew some of the 10 youths arrested at the airport. What can you tell me about them?
A: We heard that 10 youths were arrested and we were in total shock.
They were not talking of one or two, but 10 trying to reach a conflict zone, probably to join a terrorist group.
Then we investigated. I talked to three parents, including the father who alerted police.
And we learned that it's five couples — five love stories — and the parents are against their marriage.
One was an Algerian with a Moroccan, another from a Lebanese Shiite family who wants to marry someone from a Moroccan Sunni family.
But none of this was said.
When we started to look at this, we realized the media is playing Conservative politics. Prime Minister Harper comes to Dorval airport and says: "There's no place for jihadis in Canada. …"
The father didn't call the police because his son was going to engage in jihad, but because he was leaving without his permission.
So it's five attempted marriages.
(Editor's note: The father of one of the minors told La Presse and the Toronto Star that his daughter was leaving for Italy to get married — but that Charkaoui had radicalized her and filled her with hate.
On May 19, the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, made up of the RCMP and Montreal police, released a statement in which it said the 10 youths were arrested at Trudeau airport, and "suspected of wanting to leave the country to join jihadist groups." They had their passports confiscated but no charges were laid. The RCMP would not comment Thursday on Charkaoui's explanation.)
Q: That's hard to believe. They were all going to get married?
A: I'm telling you what the parents told me.
They are minors.
We are not naive. …
We asked the parents and they say they were going to get married and come back and they were registered for (school) next year. They deny categorically that they were going to a conflict zone.
Q:Anonymous sources, cited by La Presse, assert that someone or several people at the CCIEM had been advising youths on how to get to Syria and Iraq. Could this be true?
A: It's anonymous. "Sources." We're scandalized by this and we thought to ourselves, if it did happen, was it entrapment? Did people from CSIS or elsewhere come to the centre and brainwash (the youths)? We've sent messages to youths to say if people come to you with radical speeches you have to alert the police.
Everyone starts doubting everyone else. It's a terrible atmosphere.
There are about 1,000 people a week at the centre attending prayers, courses and activities.
There's no registration — no one will ask you who you are or tell you to wear a veil.
In the classes I give I don't know who the students are. I don't take attendance. I can know faces but I don't know all the people there — that's how it works in mosques and other centres.
Will we need to change that? Are we going to start carding people in mosques and synagogues and go back to a dark part of our history?
Also, there's no mixing at the CCIEM. There's a separation between girls and boys. So how do they know each other? They didn't meet at CCIEM. They got to know each other in CEGEP. That doesn't come out in the news either.
Q:You have taught at Collège Maisonneuve. What do you think explains the fact that so many of the youths in question were attending the CEGEP?
A: Collège Maisonneuve is one of the biggest CEGEPs in east-end Montreal along with Rosemont.
Both are close to the CCIEM. Normally, I give karate and kick-boxing classes at Collège Rosemont. This year they said they already had a different school there. So it's our first year at Collège Maisonneuve. If it weren't for this coincidence it would have changed everything. We are still giving classes every Sunday because the CEGEP knows we did nothing wrong.
Q:Why do you think some youths are drawn to ISIS or other groups abroad?
A: Nothing creates as much controversy in the Muslim community as ISIS — even the other groups in Syria don't relate to ISIS. I don't know why ISIS is presented by the media as the destination for youths.
It's as if you said in Canada (in terms of gangs) there are just the Hells Angels, so you send a message to those wanting to become criminals that it's the Hells — it's dangerous.
People are curious and they want information and youths have access to Internet and the Islamic State has really developed its media.
They have their own newspapers in other languages and they have a powerful media presence to show people living happily, and with certain values.
So to counter this you have to use another discourse.
You can't fight speech with bombs — you can't conquer an idea with repression.
It's hard to understand. We are not confronted every day by these problems. We deal more with kids dropping out, or street gangs, or bullying. It's not every day we'll get a parent saying "my son wants to go to jihad in Iraq."
We can't deal with this question in a partisan manner. Journalists say Charkaoui you are an imam. You criticize Israel, the government. But I don't think youths will listen to a yes man. We need imams who are independent and won't deny injustice. If we say the world is all roses and there is no discrimination or injustice youths will say you're a sellout. We have to give alternatives to violence and preach by example. The message we send with bombs is that violence is a solution to conflict. No.
Q:You were a controversial figure for many years as you fought the security certificate all the way to the Supreme Court. Is this a déjà vu?
A: It's worse.
It hasn't stopped since February. It's been an intense campaign of denigration. Every time I leave the house, there are several cars from media organizations. They follow me with my children. There are highs and lows, but it seems every time they try to re-launch the campaign and associate my name with all kinds of allegations. Before, it was the security certificate and secret allegations. But now it's clear, it's smearing and lies linking me to youths where there is no link.
I did know some of the kids. I don't deny it.
But it's not because you know someone (that you're guilty of something.) I taught kids in high school who may have committed crimes like robbery or speeding, but is that my fault?
Some journalists have asked me what my plan is to fight radicalization. (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper doesn't have a plan yet. (Mayor Denis) Coderre doesn't either. But I'm supposed to have a plan. I'm a volunteer at the centre. But this gives ammunition to those who want law and order to be the main election theme and makes the Muslim community into the stereotype of the mean terrorist.
I've also received several threats this year. Just yesterday I got a threatening letter, and I got a call from the Integrated Security Enforcement Team, saying that my life was at risk, that someone with firearms said online that he was going to attack me personally.