The lone suspect in the deadly shooting at a mosque in his hometown of Quebec City has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.
Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, who appeared to harbor far-right sympathies, made an appearance in a Quebec City court Monday afternoon a day after he allegedly fired gunshots into the mosque during prayers Sunday evening.
Although the shooting has been widely described by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other politicians as a terrorist attack against Muslims, police have not yet pressed terrorism-related charges, something that officials say may still come.
Canada’s criminal code defines terrorism as an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious, or ideological purpose, objective or cause.”
Initially, police said two suspects were in custody following the shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec, but on Monday the Surete du Quebec clarified that only one man was a suspect and a second man was a witness. That man has since come forward and told media he was helping victims of the shooting when he became spooked by police and fled.
Nineteen people were also injured in the attack that occurred during evening prayers. Five remained in critical condition. The Quebec coroner released a list of victims on Monday night.
The mosque has repeatedly been targeted with hateful attacks. Last June, a severed pig’s head was left on its doorstep with a note saying “bon appetit,” and in 2014, a note saying “Islam out of my country.”
“He didn’t have his arms open to immigrants, you could say.”
At a press conference on Monday, police refused to disclose their theory behind the attack, other than the goal of wanting to “instill fear.”
But François Deschamps, a member of a committee welcoming Syrian refugees to Quebec, told Le Soleil that he recognized Bissonnette’s face.
“We’ve seen a lot of talk from ‘the far right,’” Deschamps said. “Him, he made statements on our Facebook page. He acted like a troll. He attacked the rights of women.”
Jean-Michel Allard Prus, a classmate of his at Laval University, said in person Bissonnette was a “normal guy” and introvert.
“He didn’t make a lot of friends in our classes and didn’t ask a lot of questions but on Facebook he was more aggressive, like a troll,” he told VICE.
“He was a pro-Israel and pro-Trump guy. He didn’t have his arms open to immigrants you could say. He was against all gun control. He could have been a perfect Republican.”
Allard Prus said he never spoke of violence, and in fact seemed to be against it in general. “So I think that in the last year, there was a radicalization process.”
Another the friend told the Globe and Mail he considered him a xenophobe.
“I didn’t even think of him as totally racist, but he was enthralled by a borderline racist nationalist movement,” said Vincent Boissoneault, a student in international relations at Laval University.
Screen grabs of Bissonnette’s Facebook account before the page was removed show that he was studying anthropology at Laval University, and lived in Cap-Rouge.
He “liked” the Facebook pages for French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, as well as the the Israeli Defense Force.
Images also show him as a young boy in a cadet outfit in front of the Quebec and Canadian flags. “Ahh, memories,” he wrote in the caption.
Major Doug Keirstead, a spokesperson for the Canadian Armed Forces, confirmed to VICE News that Bissonnette participated in the cadets in the Quebec City area from 2002 to 2004, first as an air cadet and then as an army cadet. Like all participants, Bissonnette received basic air rifle marksmanship training, with a weapon that resembles a pellet gun. Keirstead stressed that the cadets are not affiliated with the Canadian Armed Forces and that it does not provide military training.
On Remembrance Day in November 2015, he posted a photo of what he describes in French in the caption as his grandfather’s military medals. “We changed the ribbons and cleaned them, nice job,” he wrote.
Mohamed Belkhadir has been identified by various media outlets as the witness. In an interview with La Presse newspaper, Belkhadir, who had been attending prayers, said he was giving first aid to a friend on the ground. He saw the police coming and he ran. “They saw me fleeing, they thought I was suspicious, that’s normal,” he told the newspaper. “For them, someone who flees is a suspect.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denounced it as a “terrorist attack on Muslims in a center of worship and refuge.”
President Donald Trump called Trudeau on Monday to express his condolences over the shooting, according to a statement released by the prime minister’s office, and Trump offered to provide any assistance as needed.
“In a terrorism investigation, there are ideological, religious or political motivations at play,” RCMP Superintendent Martin Plante said at a morning press conference. “There are activities pursued by individuals that want to cause worry to the public through a violent act.”
Police provided a brief timeline of how the incident unfolded. Just before 8 p.m. on Sunday, police received “many calls” from the mosque that gunshots were being fired.
Police quickly determined that there were “many victims and that a major incident had occurred.”
At 8:10 p.m. police said a suspect got in touch with police by dialing 911. He told officers that he was armed and would like to speak to police and that he “wants to cooperate with us.” Police were then dispatched to an access road, where the suspect waited for them, and he was eventually arrested. Another unit was deployed to the mosque and a security perimeter was established to prevent further attacks.
The province of Quebec has a particularly active right-wing extremist movements compared to the rest of Canada. A recent study out of Simon Fraser University counted as many as 25 such groups in Quebec with anywhere from 15 to 100 members, the highest concentration in the country. According to the study, their targets are include people who are Muslim, Jewish, Aboriginal and LGBTQ.
“Islamophobia has been rampant in Quebec. Keep in mind that it is a province that prides itself on nationalism, and those who are perceived as outsiders or, in other words, a “threat” to provincial unity, raise red flags for Québécois,” Ryan Scrivens, an expert on extremist movements at Simon Fraser University, told VICE News. “Sadly, in Quebec there seems to be this shared sentiment and fear that with an increase in Muslim migrants comes an imposition of Sharia law, one which is perceived as barbaric and against cultural values.”