At first glance, nothing stands out about the picture. A photograph like the thousands of others seen on social media, showing the prime minister smiling in the company of a voter.
What’s different is that the man posing beside Justin Trudeau is not just an average voter. He is the subject of an RCMP investigation, suspected of having participated along with other Quebecers in the kidnapping of two American journalists in Syria in 2013, an incident believed to have been orchestrated by the al-Nusra Front, a group linked to Al Qaeda.
Despite this, he was able to get close enough to Trudeau for long enough to take a selfie with the prime minister.
La Presse has chosen not to name the suspect, because it is not possible at this stage in the investigation to confirm his level of involvement in events that occurred in Syria.
The young resident of a suburb south of Montreal has not been charged with any crime. He travelled to Turkey for several months in 2012 and 2013, but there is no proof that he crossed the border into Syria.
Two sources with knowledge of the case, but who are not authorized to speak publicly, said the man no longer follows radical Islamist ideology since his return to Canada, and that his reintegration has been a success story.
He has started a family. He goes to school. He has publicly denounced extremist ideas. Everything indicates that he had no malicious intent when he took a selfie with the prime minister, someone he regularly praises on his Facebook page. It was just chance that he crossed paths with Trudeau.
But the simple fact that a person who is the subject of a terrorism investigation could find himself so close to Trudeau raises numerous questions, not only about the security of the prime minister but the level of surveillance placed on those Canadians suspected of having waged jihad in Syria.
“We have a prime minister who is very open. But a guy like this should not have been able to get so close. I don’t want to blame the work that was done, but it shows that there is no surveillance on this individual, that the people around the prime minister were not warned,” said Paul Laurier, a former terrorism investigator with the Sûreté du Québec, who has also worked with the RCMP’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team.
Laurier said that in addition to bodyguards who assure Trudeau’s physical protection, there is a team of police officers specializing in intelligence who study potential threats faced by Trudeau.
The allegations against the man in the photo are serious. In June 2015, two years after his return from Turkey, the RCMP executed a search warrant at his parents’ home while investigating the kidnapping of two American journalists, Matthew Schrier and Theo Padnos.
The two men were held captive in Syria — one for seven months, the other for two years. Officially, the suspect was in Turkey, near the Syrian border, during part of the time they were in captivity. In the search warrant applications that are signed by a justice of the peace, the police said they believed the Quebecer committed several terrorist infractions, including having participated in the kidnapping, extortion and fraud for the profit of a terrorist group.
The accusations have not been tested before the courts.
According to sources, the suspect’s name is on an American no-fly list. He had great difficulty returning to Canada in 2013 because of this. Before departing for Turkey, he trained at a firing range and showed signs of radical behaviour.
Despite this, on Dec. 18, 2015, just six months after the search warrant at his parents’ home, he posted the picture of the selfie with Trudeau.
That day, the recently elected prime minister was giving an interview to Radio-Canada television host Patrice Roy to talk about his first months in power. The interview was conducted at a Montreal subway station, Place-des-Arts, where the Liberal leader responded to impromptu questions from the public.
At the end of the interview, Roy took Trudeau up to the street level. That’s where the young man bumped into the politician, who was surrounded by his bodyguards as he posed for selfies with people passing by.
He was accompanied by another suspect in the alleged kidnapping as well as the man’s wife. The couple do not appear to have been photographed with the politician.
In a video of the interview broadcast by Radio-Canada, the man can be seen walking in the crowd and attempting to approach Trudeau. Once the interview was finished he took his photograph and left. He was not bothered by the authorities on site. No one attempted to block him.
It was only several days later, after having published the picture on his Facebook page, that he was visited by the RCMP.
Sources said the investigators wanted to know why he was spotted in the company of the prime minister.
Contacted by La Presse, the RCMP refused to respond to questions, indicating that they “touch on ongoing investigations.”
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the incident, referring questions to the RCMP.