OTTAWA – Reports of the death of a Canadian-born Muslim convert who was fighting with al-Qaida in Syria prompted the country’s spy service to warn Wednesday that more homegrown radicals are preparing to wage holy war overseas.
The Department of Foreign Affairs is looking into reports that Mustafa al-Gharib, a 22-year-old born in Nova Scotia as Damian Clairmont, died this week in heavy fighting in the embattled city of Aleppo.
He was apparently killed by Free Syrian Army forces as fighters opposed to the regime of President Bashar Assad turned on each other in bloody infighting.
There are reports that al-Gharib left Calgary in 2012 to join the myriad groups that have been trying to unseat Assad for nearly three years.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, speaking in Washington, said his officials were aware of the reports of al-Gharib’s death, but suggested he may be just one among many Canadians fighting overseas.
“I haven’t got specific facts, (but) it won’t come as a surprise to us that there is probably more than one Canadian that is fighting with the opposition,” Baird said.
“We’re just following the reports today and we will continue to follow them as closely we can.”
Tahera Mufti, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said self-radicalization — particularly among those individuals headed to the Syrian civil war — remains a major concern for the spy agency.
“I can say that the phenomenon of Canadians participating in extremist activities abroad is a serious one, and Syria has become a significant destination for such individuals,” Mufti said.
“Dozens of Canadians are believed to have travelled, or are planning to travel, to parts of the world where they can engage in terrorist activities.”
Word of the death of al-Gharib, known in militant circles as Abu Talha al-Canadi, first appeared on social media Tuesday morning by way of an American jihadist fighter who apparently knew al-Gharib personally.
“My Bro Abu Talha al-Canadi (was) executed by FSA!” tweeted the fighter, who identifies himself online as Abu Turab al-Muhajir.
Another post linked al-Gharib to the rebel group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a hardline militant organization fighting throughout Iraq and Syria. But there are also conflicting media reports that said he was a member of a separate shadowy group, Jabhat Al Nusra.
Both groups are listed as terrorist organizations, reportedly linked to al-Qaida.
A rebel source in Syria, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety, said al-Gharib was killed in a “surprise attack on his base” and claims that foreign fighters are now being targeted indiscriminately by other rebel forces, in addition to those loyal to Assad.
There have been a number of reports out of the region that indicate moderate rebel groups have turned their sights towards hardline militants.
A recent report in Foreign Policy magazine noted that secular and religious Syrians in various rebel-held towns and cities have protested against ISIS, and that those demonstrations devolved into gun battles and targeted killings, most notably on Jan. 3.
The clashes began in western Aleppo and then spread into at least three other provinces, the report says.
Al-Gharib’s death also came amid published reports that European intelligence agencies have shared information with the Syrian dictator’s security forces about the 1,200 European jihadists who, like al-Gharib, have joined militant groups in the civil war.
The Wall Street Journal, citing diplomatic sources, said Europeans are concerned the radicals will pose a threat when they return home, and the talks are apparently confined to sharing information about those serving with al-Qaida.
The Free Syrian Army, the moderate opposition, is said to be worried that such a dialogue would lend legitimacy to Assad’s position that he must remain in power to fight the global terror franchise.
The Harper government recently passed legislation to curb the exodus of Canadian jihadists to foreign conflicts. The Combating Terrorism Act was approved by Parliament last spring in the aftermath of a deadly terrorist strike on an Algerian natural plant where homegrown Canadian radicals were believed to have played a major role.
The law compels members of the public to report suspected terrorists and potential plots, even if the suspect has not been charged. There are provisions that allow for secret hearings and possible jail time for those who don’t comply.
The legislation also allows for preventative arrests.