State Department designates 2 Canadian citizens for joining jihadist groups

The State Department announced yesterday (Apr. 13) that two Canadian citizens have been added to the US government’s list of designated terrorists.

One of them, Tarek Sakr, is allegedly “linked” to Al Nusrah Front, which was the public arm of al Qaeda in Syria until mid-2016. Even though Nusrah was rebranded as Jabhat Fath al Sham in July 2016 and then merged with four other groups to form a joint venture (“Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant”) in January, State still refers to organization by its original name and describes it as al Qaeda’s “affiliate in Syria.”

Sakr is a “Syrian-born Canadian citizen who has conducted sniper training in Syria and periodically travels to Turkey,” according to State. Sakr was a pharmacology student before joining the jihad against Bashar al Assad. But according to the Canadian press, he began to acquire his skills as a marksman before he even left for Syria.

In late 2016, CBC News and Radio-Canada’s Enquête connected Sakr to a band of 10 aspiring jihadists in the Montreal area who regularly practiced at a shooting range. Seven of them left for Syria in 2012 and 2013, with some joining Free Syrian Army-branded rebels. After one member of the crew was heard saying he wished the shooting targets were real infidels, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) began monitoring the young men.

Enquête, which first published the photo of Sakr seen on the right, also learned that “two of Sakr’s cousins were killed in Latakia,” a coastal province that has long been a stronghold for the Assad family.

Another member of Sakr’s group in the Montreal area was Wassim Boughadou, whose family is from Algeria. CBC News reported in late March that Boughadou had been arrested after he boarded a plane in Adana, Turkey.

Boughadou and possibly other members of Sakr’s gun club are suspected of playing a role in the kidnapping of Theo Padnos and Matthew Schrier, two Americans who were held by Al Nusrah in Syria. After his release, Padnos said his captors had French-Canadian accents. And, according to Radio-Canada’s investigation, one of Schrier’s credit cards was used to purchase computers that may have been shipped to Boughadou.

Padnos, who was released by Nusrah in 2014, subsequently explained to the New York Times how fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army had betrayed him to the jihadists. Schrier escaped from Nusrah’s custody prior to Padnos’ release.

Multiple reports describe Boughadou as being associated with the Islamic State. It is not clear if Boughadou’s arrest affected the timing of Sakr’s designation by the US government, or if authorities have learned more about Sakr’s activities from his detained comrade.

Abu Usama al Somali

The other newly designated jihadist is Farah Mohamed Shirdon, a Canadian citizen with Somali roots who joined the Islamic State in 2014. State describes Shirdon, also known as Abu Usama al Somali, as “a prominent ISIS fighter and recruiter” who “has also been involved in fundraising.”

Canadian authorities charged Shirdon with various terrorism-related offenses on Sept. 24, 2015. The photo of Shirdon seen below was released by Canadian authorities when the charges were announced in 2015. He is pictured standing in front of a Humvee with an Islamic State logo painted on it.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) found that Shirdon “left Canada on March 14, 2014 to allegedly join and fight with the Islamic State in Syria.” Some reports indicated that Shirdon was quickly killed while fighting for the so-called caliphate, but the RCMP said “these reports were proven not to be true.”

“Our investigation showed that [Shirdon] served in a combat role and performed other functions for ISIS such as recruiting, fundraising, encouraging others to commit violence, and spreading propaganda – all designed to enhance the activities of the ISIS,” Assistant Commissioner Marlin DeGrand, the officer in charge of the RCMP’s Criminal Operations in Alberta, was quoted in a press release as saying.

The Islamic State wasted no time in using Shirdon in its propaganda. In a video released online just a few months after he absconded from Canada, Shirdon was shown burning his passport. He also threatened the US, Canada and President Barack Obama. “We are coming, and we will destroy you,” Shirdon said.

In Sept. 2014, Shirdon spoke with VICE News about his decision to join the jihad. Shirdon claimed to be speaking from Mosul, which was overrun by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men just a few months earlier. And he taunted members of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), describing them as “imbeciles” for failing to stop his journey beforehand. Shirdon also threatened New York, claiming that “brothers” were “mobilizing” for a “brilliant attack.” The founder of VICE, Shane Smith, confirmed during the interview that Shirdon was in the company of other foreign fighters, including a German and a British recruit.

During his interview with VICE, Shirdon again addressed President Obama. “I swear you infidel, I swear to Almighty God…we will fight you to the end,” he said. An Ontario court later ordered VICE to turn over the logs of its chats with Shirdon via the Kik instant messenger app. The court order was issued after the RCMP argued that it needed the digital files to prove its case against Shirdon.

The State Department places Shirdon in Raqqa, Syria as of Nov. 2015.

Sakr turned 30 in March and Shirdon will be just 24 years-old on Apr. 18. Thousands of other young men living in the West have been drawn abroad to the fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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