"The boys emerged from adolescence immersed in twin obsessions with Islam and hip-hop music" -- as with John Walker Lindh, the Marin County Mujahid, as well. This story presents them as a "cultural contrast," but actually both Islam and hip-hop offer channels for and justifications of alienation and aggression.
"How three Canadians graduated from a rebellious high school friendship to the world of Islamist terrorism," by Adrian Humphreys, Stewart Bell, Maiya Keidan, and Tom Blackwell for the National Post, April 6 (thanks to Kenneth):
The distressed family of Ali Medlej explained the unexpected death of their son by saying he was killed in a car accident. The truth, as they — and the world — now knows, is more ghastly and perplexing: The young London man died perpetrating January’s terrorist attack on an Algerian gas plant.
The violent end of Ali Medlej, along with Xristos Katsiroubas, his chum from school whom he helped convert to Islam, came not in a car, but in the North African desert in an attack that left 37 hostages dead, most of them incinerated in an explosion that likely also purposely killed the Canadian attackers.
That was their startling end.
Now everyone, even those close to the young men, wonder where their dark odyssey began.
While the geography is somewhat clear — from London to Edmonton to Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and, ultimately, to the ill-fated gas plant in In Amenas, Algeria — it is the psychological journey, from suburban rascals to jihadi commandos, that leaves friends befuddled.
The men, along with Aaron Yoon, who was convicted in Mauritania last year of membership in a terrorist group, were all part of a larger group of friends, mostly Muslim, at London South Collegiate Institute, a high school in the southwestern Ontario city.
The boys emerged from adolescence immersed in twin obsessions with Islam and hip-hop music.
And if those influences offer a cultural contrast, the lives of the three men portray a similar duality, said family, many friends and former schoolmates, some of whom were close to one or more of the men since kindergarten.
Ali, with most of those in his clique, for instance, devoutly attended prayers but also, while in Grade 12, got into trouble for taking a fake gun to a neighbouring school to settle a dispute with a student there, friends said. And although dying in a bloody al-Qaeda attack, in Grade 9, he once mocked the Taliban.
He devoutly attended Muslim prayers but was also threatening violence? How could it be? What a puzzling duality! Who ever heard of devout, praying Muslims threatening violence? Could Ali have been influenced by Qur'an passages such as "slay the pagans wherever you find them" (Qur'an 9:5) or "When you meet the unbelievers, strike at their necks (47:4)? Of course not! It would be "Islamophobic" even to think such a thing.
Xristos, in turn, was a late convert to Islam after being raised in a Greek-Canadian Orthodox Christian home and, with the zeal of a new convert, announced he was to be called Mustafa.
“Xris [prounounced Chris] was a much more serious Muslim than Ali,” said Justin VanderTuin, 24, who was on the high school football team with Ali. “Ali certainly was not. He was a kid who drank and smoked, but I never saw Xris with any of those things.”
And Aaron, a Korean-Canadian Catholic who also converted in his teens, under influence from Ali, shunned schoolwork and reading but ended up studying the Koran and Arabic at an Islamic centre in North Africa.
“I was surprised when I read about Aaron studying Islamic texts — Aaron, study?” said a former classmate at Cartier Public School. “He could never even remember when Confederation was.”...
But former classmates remember Ali.
He was known as dynamic, loud, often funny but also remembered for slamming his fist into a locker in frustration and for being physically intimidating.
One classmate recalls Ali acting out a scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Grade 10 English and turning it into a mock fight to the amusement of the students, although the teacher was unimpressed.
When the class wrote their literacy test, Ali couldn’t be bothered to read the instructions and just wrote an unrelated essay on gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur.
Several students described Ali as a bully — one calling him a “wannabe thug.”
“He was definitely a bully in the sense that if he thought you were weak, he didn’t respect you,” said Mr. VanderTuin.
But Devon Abrahams, 24, remembers Ali interceding when a classmate was being picked on in 2006.
“Ali stopped him,” Mr. Abrahams said. “Ali was a good guy, stood up for a friend of mine, got high marks in school but hid it from his peers.”
Several classmates said Ali was smart but liked to hide it.
“He could be kind of an ass sometimes,” said Osrenko Jovic, a Western University business graduate now running his own company. “It depends who he was with. It depends which crowd it was.
“I just don’t know what the hell happened, to be honest,” he said. “When we all left high school, that’s when he started to change.”
Xristos Katsiroubas’ religious roots are clear from his given name, which is the Greek word for Christ. He converted to Islam about 2004 and shunned his name, introducing himself as Mustafa.
“I think his mom was concerned about the people he was hanging out with, namely my group of friends, but they weren’t radicals, just troublemakers I guess,” said a man who was best friends with him since elementary school. Like some people interviewed, he did not want his name published and associated with terrorism.
“I think he started going to the mosque because he was close with Ali. I think after a little while he felt at home there.
“It was a thing for a lot of my friends to go to the mosque together. I think Xris just went along one time and eventually decided he liked it.”
The group, however, showed little ambition about the future. That, more than the group’s growing interest in Islam, became a wedge between himself and his friends.
“I wanted to move on to bigger and better things and they weren’t interested in doing much with their life,” he said.
The conversion of Aaron Yoon, now 24, came as a surprise to his family, but seemed to bring him a measure of calm, his brother said. He planned to attend a London Catholic high school, although he eventually linked up with Ali and Xristos at South Collegiate.
He was an indifferent student with a propensity for silliness, said a former elementary school classmate.
His conversion, however, seemed to ignite his academic curiosity.
The three, despite the diverse backgrounds, were part of a clique dominated by Muslim students of Middle Eastern descent, part of a subtle racial division at the school, a classmate said.
“They had their own little group. I was more at the side of the school with all the skaters and jocks. All the ‘inter-racial people’ were at the front of the school — that’s where they hung out.”
Mr. Jovic said of Aaron: “He was always smiling, always a nice guy. Apparently he started changing as well after high school.”
The end of high school did not move the boys into higher education.
Instead, they embraced their religion more publicly: Ali started wearing traditional Islamic garb after high school and Xristos started growing a beard.
In 2007, they moved to Edmonton in search of work, but ended up in trouble there, the CBC reported.
Their landlady ended up evicting them from a rented condominium for causing damage, including breaking windows and punching holes in doors. Even worse, court records indicate they and another friend from London were convicted of stealing groceries in March, 2007. (London police currently have an arrest warrant for that friend, Benjamin Thomas, 24, for failing to comply with conditions for a shoplifting conviction in the Ontario city.)
“Ali was insistent that we rent them a place because they were in a bind. I kind of felt like helping them,” CBC quoted their landlady as saying.
Afterward, they travelled to Morocco and made their way to Mauritania. At least one of them, Aaron, pursued studies there and investigators suspect the others may have found their way to an Islamic school or centre that facilitated their entry into a jihadist group.
Aaron went in 2010 to study the Koran and Arabic, his brother said. He was reunited with Ali and Xristos in Morocco, he said.
Aaron lost contact with his two friends in 2011 when he was arrested in Mauritania for involvement in a terrorist group.
However they were attracted to North Africa and however they financed the trip, it was a journey from which Ali and Xristos would not return.
Jean-Luc Marret, a senior fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, a Paris-based public policy think tank, said some Islamic schools in the area serve as recruiting grounds for armed Islamist factions, but the process is informal.
“What you call a madrassa can be a very mainstream organization, but with one individual inside doing radical proselytism,” he said. “You need to have the chance to meet someone, then convince him about your motivation without being monitored by the police.”...
Why don't the people in the madrassa who oppose this sort of thing (and they're the vast majority, we're always told) put a stop to it?