Graduating From High School To al-Qaida

Graduating from high school to al-Qaida; Conclusion of a two-part series

Niagara Falls Review
February 29, 2008

There's only one person who knows with complete certainty what motivated a seemingly intelligent teen from St. Catharines – a graduate of Holy Cross Secondary School who dreamed of becoming an eye doctor – to turn his back on a promising future and instead go to Afghanistan and swear an oath to Osama bin Laden. That person is Mohammed Mansour Jabarah.

When the 26-year-old confessed al-Qaida operative appeared before U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones in New York City in January, he pleaded for leniency. He told the judge he had been brainwashed by evil men.

Portraying himself as a victim, Jabarah argued he had been tricked by terrorists onto a pathway that ultimately led him from a life of freedom in Canada to a life sentence in an American prison.

Still, despite his earlier admissions to taking part in a foiled plot to blow up U.S. embassies in Singapore and Manila, Jabarah was unable to bring himself to denounce bin Laden and unwilling to accept being described by federal prosecutors as a “deadly serious terrorist.”

“I'm not a ruthless, infamous and notorious terrorist,” Jabarah said during his 20-minute oration.

“I do not believe in terrorism, violence and killing.”

SO UNREMARKABLE was Mohammed Jabarah, it's easier to define him by what he wasn't rather than what he was, is or has become.

He wasn't poor.

He wasn't oppressed.

He wasn't uneducated.

He wasn't even someone who stood out in a crowd.

Sallah Hamdani, vice-president of the Islamic Society of St. Catharines that operates the mosque where the family attended, says few of the the 1,000-member congregation recall much about Jabarah or his brother, Abdul Rahman Jabarah, who was killed in a shootout with Saudi security forces in 2003.

“I didn't know them that well,” said Hamdani who, at age 30, is four years older than Jabarah.

“You have to remember, these (were) 15-, 16-year-old kids when people actually remember them in the mosque.”

Hamdani said the accusations about Jabarah were “shocking” at the time he was arrested in 2002, and it has been hard for him to comprehend why anyone would get involved in terrorism.

“People can believe or have a feeling of the world is against us, (but) it's the fact of trying to act upon it that makes it confusing,” said Hamdani.

“There are different ways of trying to have justice. We can do it in a diplomatic way. We can sit at the table and put everything on the table so we can have a discussion … but to take it into a matter of terrorism, yeah, of course, that's very surprising.”

Professor Randall Hansen, the University of Toronto's Canada research chair in immigration and governance, says he understands why people question why promising young people like Jabarah become terrorists.

“Part of this question probably comes up because in the United Kingdom, or in France or in Germany, we seem to have a narrative about poverty and social exclusion and bitterness and so forth that explains why particular people radicalize,” says Hansen.

“That's why I think we provoke this question when we have individuals as we had in St. Catharines … who don't seem to fit the narrative.

“The narrative was never terribly satisfying anyway, because, of course, there are huge numbers of individuals in Europe who are poor, who are marginalized, who are socially excluded, who are Muslim and who reject, rather than embrace, violence.”

John Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that studies political instability and organized violence, agrees.

“Poor people don't commit terrorism,” says Thompson.

“Very few, in fact hardly any, people who engage in terrorism are. They're pretty well all middle class or better.”

Thompson's 23 years of researching terrorism includes “quite a few” interviews with terrorists.

And his work, he claims, has sometimes put him in harm's way.

“I've had my share of threats and I was the subject of a mail bomb attempt by a terrorist (who) wanted to kill me.”

Thompson is quick to point out his dislike of the phrase “root causes” when it is applied to terrorism.

“Frankly, it implies … an argument that somehow it's like poverty or injustice or something else that's fundamentally behind terrorism. And that's not true at all,” says Thompson.

As he sees it, would-be terrorists aren't passively drawn into their deadly craft: “Everyone who is a terrorist has chosen to become a terrorist.”

And, he adds, the ideology a terrorist ultimately adopts is often of secondary importance.

“If you start asking why, (you find) the ideology often doesn't matter,” he says.

“Like 15, 20 years ago we had the neo-Nazis and the anarchists here in Toronto squabbling, and the real reason they were squabbling was because they were trying to recruit the same sort of people.”

In a sort of identity-crisis-gone-terribly-wrong, some future terrorists actually “shop around” for an ideology.

“They want something strong, something dramatic in their lives. They're often people who are restless and who wanted something exciting in their lives, to become the agent of history.”

In many instances, says Thompson, it's the second or third generation after a real or perceived grievance or injustice who resort to violence.

Again, the reason has to do with identity.

“It's the third generation of survivors after the potato famine that finally won independence for Ireland, for example. Their grandparents and their parents had experienced an event that shaped them and the third generation felt left out.”

MANSOUR Jabarah, Mohammed's father, brought the family to Canada from Kuwait in 1994, four years after the Gulf War.

Mansour, his wife and their four boys lived in a quiet, middle-class neighbourhood in St. Catharines.

Mohammed and his brother, Abdul Rahman, attended Holy Cross Secondary School. They had originally planned to continue their education at universities in Canada, but later decided to enter into Islamic studies overseas.

In Kuwait, the brothers were introduced to a radical preacher named Sulaiman Abu Gaith, who was later revealed to be a prominent member of al-Qaida.

The meeting with Abu Gaith is an important part of understanding how the transformation from questioning teenager to devoted terrorist occurs.

“It's not a process of bitterness that has anything in particular to do with one's treatment in this country,” explains Hansen. “On the contrary, from what I've read about (Mohammed) Jabarah he seemed to be motivated by the treatment or perceived treatment of Muslims abroad.”

Hansen continues: “And the question is, why do these people become converted to radical Islam?

“One, is that's where Islam comes into it. If you are Muslim, you, in a sense, have immediate access to a radical structure that you don't have if you're not Muslim. There's nothing uniquely Islamic about that.

“If you were Irish in the 1970s, you had access to a radical structure of nationalism in Northern Ireland. If you were German in the '70s, you had the Red Army Faction.”

“He (Jabarah) seems to have attended this mosque where there was a radical preacher in Kuwait, and there always seems to be what I would call … a carrier of extremism – someone in the community or an imam, who in a sense leads these people down the ideological path.”

WHAT'S INCREASINGLY clear to some members of the Islamic community in this country is that extremism knows no boundaries.

Sohail Raza, a spokesman for the Muslim Canadian Congress, said he believes Muslim youth in Canada are too often exposed to the volatile mixture of politics and religion, which can have a negative influence on them.

“I think a lot of responsibility is in the religious institutions you attend, the mosques you attend and the world events that are taking place,” says Raza.

“I have two young boys and they've been through Islamic schools. I used to go with them. I used to sit in the class with them. I used to make sure that they learned their faith and not the politics of it.”

Raza continues: “I would like to see more forums where the youth can go to between the home and the mosque, between the mall and the mosque, to learn or interact. You don't have to keep them from their faith and religion and culture, but there should be some safe place for them.”

Dr. Fuad Sahin, imam of the Islamic Society of the Niagara Peninsula, says exposing youth to past grievances is a mistake.

“The seeds of hatred have been planted in the hearts and minds of young people a long time ago,” says Sahin. “Particularly, here we are, our children growing up in this wonderful land of freedom and now you're going to instill, really, this hatred again.

“For God's sake, don't introduce it. Keep it out. Try to forget it.” Hamdani, of the Islamic Society of St. Catharines, says the youth who attend the society's Masjid Al-Noor mosque are insulated from politics.

“We make sure that we have speakers that can relate to the youth and not speakers that are speaking about their home countries or topics that Canadian born youth cannot relate to,” said Hamdani.

“We kind of had a wake-up call on this issue approximately seven years ago, and from that we've revamped our whole approach on how to address our congregation.

“We've made it very clear, the sermons that take place should not involve any politics, whether it be Canadian government, U.S. government or middle eastern governments.

“There's no need for politics in any of the sermons, and so we clearly outline that to anyone who is speaking on the Friday.”