Homegrown extremism abroad has a new face, and CBC News has learned it belongs to yet another Calgary man, a development that points to the West as a hotbed for exporting jihadis.
His name is Salman Ashrafi, and when the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) released images of him last month following a double suicide bombing in Iraq in November that killed 46 people, he was celebrated in a martryrdom notice.
Only then, he was known as Abu Abdullah Al Khorasani.
CBC News has confirmed that Al Khorasani was Ashrafi’s nom de guerre and that he was a Canadian citizen who grew up in the Stampede City, where he went to school and worked.
The Calgarian’s story is one of as many as two dozen others, most of whom left to battle alongside rebel militants in Syria.
At one time, Ashrafi led a lifestyle many would have envied, with jobs at Talisman and Exxon and huge downtown Calgary firms.
Calgary imam stunned
Much has changed since then. The revelation that he killed himself and others as part of an attack for ISIS — a group known for such grotesque violence it has even drawn condemnation from Al-Qaeda — has stunned people who spoke with CBC News and knew him.
Among them was Syed Soharwardy, the prominent Calgary imam.
“Oh, I know him! Oh my God,” the cleric said, upon seeing a photo of Ashrafi and being told the militant was killed in the 2013 Tarmiya, Iraq, suicide attack.
Soharwardy was a longtime acquaintance of the family and had watched Ashrafi and his siblings “grow up in front of me.”
Shocking though it may have been, Ashrafi’s journey from being a University of Lethbridge student who organized anti-racism rallies to a violent end as a suicide bomber is not an anomaly.
Calgary is earning a reputation as a breeding ground for jihadi fighters.
‘It is impossible for me to think the intelligence people do not know who is radicalizing Muslim youth. It is going on undercover; it is going on openly sometimes.’– Syed Soharwardy, Calgary imam
The Muslim convert Damian Clairmont, who later took the name Mustafa al-Gharib, was killed while fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel group in Syria whose membership is made up largely of European, Australian and North American extremists.
Clairmont was also raised in Calgary, as were as many as two dozen other young men who, according to sources, have travelled to Syria to join rebel extremist groups to wage jihad in the last two years.
Understanding the relationships between five men in particular — Ashrafi, two Canadian brothers, Clairmont and his roommate — could be key to unravelling how they became radicalized. CBC News is withholding the identities of the other three men until more information surfaces.
But they were all friends who dined at the same restaurants, prayed at the same mosque and lived in the same apartment building in downtown Calgary.
According to one source who knew all the men, they had meetings, sometimes in Ashrafi’s apartment, where he reportedly instructed them that the only way to live with non-Muslims was to either convert them or subjugate them, and failing that migrate to a land of Islam.
They all left Canada at roughly the same time late 2012.
Path to violence
One man who knew Ashrafi in 2009 said he was “both surprised and not surprised” to hear of his path to violent extremism.
“Salman had, within his personality, kind of … two sides to his personality,” said the man, who did not want to be named because he is afraid of the consequences of speaking out. “On the one hand, he was an extremely kind and gentle person, but he also had a very black and white view of the world. A kind of simplistic view of the world.”
Ashrafi’s views troubled him.
“I tried to bring it up with him in conversation on a few occasions, but my own feeling was that he’s just going to learn on his own as he grows older,” he said, characterizing Ashrafi as “impressionable.”
‘Shocking and unbelievable’
“He might have been around certain charismatic preachers in the community that might not have had his best interests in mind,” he added.
It’s a thought shared by Soharwardy, the Calgary imam, who has received death threats for speaking out about this topic, but feels compelled to in order to stop men in his city from killing and dying on jihadi missions abroad.
“It is impossible for me to think the intelligence people do not know who is radicalizing Muslim youth. It is going on undercover; it is going on openly sometimes,” he said.
“The thing is they are recruiting Muslims to go and fight in Syria and getting them killed. It is horrible.… What is the Canadian government doing? Nothing. I mean this guy died, many, many … people died from our country. For what?”
Soharwardy said he has told police and university administrators, warning them about lecturers who might be preying on vulnerable young minds and that he believes he knows which organizations may be radicalizing young men. So far, he said, there has been no response.
CBC News reached out to the city as well as local police, who declined to comment.
As for what might have motivated Ashrafi to carry out such a deadly attack in Iraq, his family are perplexed, and still have many questions of their own. In emails to CBC News, a family member said the reports were “shocking and unbelievable,” and that the family have still not accepted “that this is how Salman’s life ended.”