The worries about a suspect in a terror investigation seen posing for a selfie last year with the prime minister go far beyond the anxiety of how he got that close.
A joint CBC News/Radio-Canada investigation has learned that the man is one of at least four Quebec men of interest to the RCMP for their alleged connection to the 2012 kidnappings of two Americans in Syria.
The man in the selfie, in his mid-20s, is believed to be on a U.S. no-fly list. His home was raided by police as part of a terror investigation a few months before Dec. 18, 2015, when the selfie was taken. The man was part of a crowd of people who took turns posing with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following a Radio-Canada interview in Montreal.
Police have interviewed others in the group and seized electronics and Canadian passports held by some of them.
None of them has been charged with a crime, and CBC is not identifying them.
Men were at Montreal firing range
CBC has been in contact with two of the men, who are going about their lives in Quebec. Sources have indicated that the other two may be overseas, possibly in Syria or Turkey.
CBC has repeatedly asked CSIS and the RCMP about the travels and status of the men. Both agencies have declined to provide details.
The questions keep piling up about just what they may have done or may still be doing.
- CBC Investigates | Ex-hostage says there may be Canadian al-Qaeda link
- U.S. journalists Theo Curtis, Matt Schrier held hostage by Canadians in Syria
The names of the men in the group appear repeatedly in logs from a Montreal rifle range. While the RCMP has seized some of the logs, CBC has obtained others. They show repeated entries from up to nine men, in 2012, in the months just before a few of them were thought to have left for Syria, including the man in the selfie.
The men appear to all be there at the invitation of another Montreal man known to police.
Kidnappers believed to be Canadian
If it all sounds tangled, that’s because it is.
The kidnappings in Syria, of Americans Matt Schrier and Theo Padnos, especially so.
Schrier, a journalist, had been taking photos of the deadly conflict in Syria and was finally heading back to the United States on New Year’s Eve 2012.
That’s when his taxi was ambushed near the border with Turkey. It was men from the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra who had taken him.
For the next seven months — until he managed to escape — he was beaten and tortured and moved from one makeshift jail to another.
In the winter of 2013 there was a series of strange encounters. Three masked, armed men repeatedly interrogated him and squeezed him for banking and email passwords.
He didn’t know it at the time, but those interrogators were using that information to rack up thousands of dollars in purchases on Schrier’s accounts.
Those interrogators, Schrier and fellow captive Theo Padnos were certain, were Canadian.
The accents gave them away.
“Theo knew where they were from,” Schrier told CBC News in an interview last year. “Theo grew up in Vermont, right on the border, and he knew. As soon as he came back he was like, ‘They’re Canadians,’ so I was like, yeah, right. He’s like, ‘No, they’re Canadians … I know they’re Canadians.’ And he was right.”
Receipts bore Montreal address
Nearly a year later, back safely at home, Schrier began going through his old emails. That’s when he found the receipts for those goods bought while he was still a captive: tablet computers, boots, car parts, camera equipment. He got in touch with CBC News right away because some of those receipts showed purchases shipped to an address in Montreal.
That address is where the man in the selfie lived.
The receipt was made out to the man’s roommate, who is one of the men of concern to police in connection with the kidnappings.
Last year, CBC went to find the man named in the receipt and caught up with him. He wasn’t alone: the selfie-taker was with him.
The exchange was brief; neither man wanted to talk. The man from the selfie left relatively soon after the camera appeared.
There was a fast-walking, fast-talking conversation with the other man, who was trying to hide his face and dismissed questions about Schrier and about the receipts bearing his name.
This all exhausts and infuriates Schrier.
“I would like the Canadian authorities to prove they aren’t on the leash of the FBI. Go do something,” he told CBC with no small measure of anger.
Schrier is a man who saved his own life. And he says he feels like he has had to conduct his own investigation. The abandonment he felt in Syria matched, perhaps, by a feeling of abandonment back at home.
What he wants is justice. If his kidnappers are among the Canadians in this group, he wants them to be held accountable. And he cannot fathom why, with the evidence he has of at least a tangential connection to his kidnapping, arrests have not been made.
If that isn’t a disturbing enough tale for the Canadian authorities, perhaps seeing the selfie with the prime minister is.