Canadian police say 10 youths from the Montreal area in Quebec were arrested at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport on suspicion they were leaving to join jihadist groups.
The young people — who were reportedly bound for the Islamic State in the Middle East, although police refused to confirm that — were questioned by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers over the weekend, but have since been released without any charges. Their passports have been confiscated while the RCMP continues to investigate, and their identities have not been made public.
The RCMP said in a statement released Tuesday that families and friends of those arrested have met with investigators, but it would not reveal further details about the arrests. "These are very difficult times for the relatives and loved ones of the persons arrested, as the decision to leave the country was not that of the family, but of a single family member," the statement continued. The CBC reported that four of the youngsters are students at College de Maisonneuve in Montreal and that police had been tipped off by the parents of one of the 10 arrested youths.
These cases are part of a larger wave of Canadians suspected of fleeing the country to join the Islamic State (ISIS) militants. Officials in Canada's spy agency estimate that the number of Canadians taking up arms for ISIS has jumped by 50 percent (to around 75 people) in recent months. And with more and more cases coming from Quebec in particular, the spotlight is on the province as it grapples to find the best way to combat the problem.
Last month, two Montreal college students, El-Mahdi Jamali and Sabrine Djaermane, were charged with planning to leave Canada for Syria to commit an act of terrorism and of possessing explosive devices. The couple, both 18 years old, have pleaded not guilty and will remain in custody until their bail hearings in June.
And several more adults from Montreal — around 18 and 19 years old — reportedly left Canada in January to fight with ISIS. They are believed to have ended up in Syria.
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In March, Montreal's mayor, Denis Coderre, announced the city had activated a special hotline for people to call to report instances of radicalization and it will open an anti-radicalization center in the coming months. Many were critical of the city's initiative, arguing it unfairly targets Muslims and could further strain relations between Muslims communities and the Quebec government, and possibly inflame extremist ideology.
Montreal's College de Maisonneuve, also attended by Jamali and Djaermane and some of the other students who have left for ISIS, made a special request to the city last month for help preventing radicalization among its students. A Montreal police officer will be available on campus three times a week to teach faculty and students how to spot red flags indicating someone has become radicalized.
For Stéphane Berthomet, a former counter-terrorism police officer in France, the only way to end the process of radicalization is to figure out exactly why these young people are attracted to the ideology. Berthomet, now involved with the Quebec-based Observatory on Radicalization and Violent Extremism, told VICE News that while Montreal is facing a "particular phenomenon", it's not necessarily a hotbed of radicalization.
And contrary to popular opinion, religious motivations are not always the main reason someone espouses extremist views, Berthomet said. "We're talking mostly about personal or societal motivations, youth that are looking for their place in society," he said. "The radicalization process is based on manipulation…[It's] deconstructing an individual to rebuild them as another, with a fake, imagined identity, for the sole purpose of having them join a terrorist organization."
Canada's new sweeping anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, which will become law before the summer, has been touted as necessary to thwart acts of domestic terror and prevent Canadians from participating in terrorist activity abroad. However, critics have pointed out that police and security officials in Canada already have sufficient powers to combat terrorism, exemplified by cases like the teenage boy in Edmonton, Alberta, whose alleged plan to leave to fight with Islamic State was foiled by the RCMP in March, and that the bill will lead to civil liberties violations.
U.S. security officials estimate 3400 people from Western nations have left for Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
Joseph Elfassi contributed reporting.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne