Former SAIT student Collin Gordon’s recruitment into the Islamic State (IS) has left many wondering how he, and dozens of other young men in Calgary and across Canada, are being drawn into a bloody war waged overseas in Iraq and Syria by the violent terror group.
Gordon, who from 2005 to 2006 was a student in SAIT’s business administration program and a member of the Trojans men’s volleyball team, left Calgary for Syria in late 2012 after living in Kamloops, B.C. until 2009, where he also played volleyball for Thompson Rivers University (TRU).
“He was a really cool guy, well liked, everyone knew him. He was always promoting parties and events,” said Jeffrey Hall, a former friend of Gordon’s who lived with Gordon’s girlfriend while he went to TRU.
“He never mentioned anything about religion in any conversation with anyone that I ever heard.”
According to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), roughly 30 Calgarians have voluntarily joined IS, which over the past few months has advanced through Iraq and Syria in an effort to gain military and government control over much of the Middle East.
Throughout these advances, news outlets from around the world have reported countless violent offences made by the terrorist group, including the beheading of a number of journalists, the brutal murder of those who refuse to convert to their extremist beliefs, and the rape and mutilation of women and children.
A recent interview by Shane Smith of VICE News has brought another former SAIT student Farah Shirdon back into the public eye.
Shirdon, who was a student in SAIT’s administration information management program until 2012, was seen burning a passport in a Youtube video in April, but in August was presumed dead after reports by news outlets claimed that he had been killed.
SAIT petroleum engineering technology alumnus Jordan Schroeder attended both John Ware Middle School and Henry Wise Wood High School with Shirdon.
“He had a normal group of friends,” Schroeder said to The Weal. “He wasn’t an outcast, but some people didn’t like him because he spoke what was on his mind.”
“He was never extreme in any of his views, [and] seemed very normal. There were no clues that would make me believe he had issues at home.”
Shirdon and Gordon have more in common than just a history of attending SAIT Polytechnic.
The two are linked to a downtown Calgary apartment where several men lived and participated in a suspicious “study” group before traveling overseas to join IS.
As well, both have since renounced Western culture and continue to document their battle for territory in Aleppo on social media.
A post on Gordon’s Facebook page provides a glimpse into his decision to emigrate and fight for IS.
“It’s no secret, but you and thousands of analysts keep asking, ‘what makes someone get so radical and extreme?’” he wrote in response to a friend’s question on Facebook.
“…It’s our choice to abandon your lifestyle, your ways of evil and impurity, and Islam is the solution to those personal and societal problems…And I haven’t been brainwashed, but it is more likely that you have been brainwashed by your exposure to 24-hour non-stop media, propaganda, and 13+ years of being taught lies in school,” continued Gordon.
Shirdon offered a similar explanation during his interview with VICE, saying he hadn’t been recruited but had simply “opened the newspaper” and “read the Qur’an—very easy.”
Calgary Imam Syed Soharwardy fears the recent video may be used to recruit “those who are still on the borderline.”
“What IS is doing is very un-Islamic,” said Soharwardy during a recent public event addressing the radicalization of Muslim youth in Calgary.
Soharwardy said IS often attracts young impressionable men through its sophisticated use of social media, as well as cash incentives and a “false sense of empowerment.”
“They are very successful, because of social media, and because of money,” he said.
While international reports continue to depict atrocities in Syria and Iraq, Soharwardy fears that violent threats made by homegrown jihadis like Gordon and Shirdon to return to Canada are not empty.
“My biggest nightmare is those who are coming back,” said Soharwardy in an interview with CBC in late August.
Soharwardy and other members of Calgary’s Muslim community are calling on the Canadian government to put an end to continued recruitment, as CSIS has estimated that nearly 160 Canadians have joined terror groups in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and north Africa since last February.
According to a recent article published by the Globe and Mail, CSIS director Michel Coulombe says that there is a “very real prospect” that those who have left Canada and joined terror groups overseas could return to attempt terror attacks.
The Canadian government has begun invalidating the passports of those who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the IS.
A number of people with intentions of travelling to these regions have also had their passports revoked, according to CSIS.
SAIT, the SAIT Students’ Association, and the SAIT counselling centre were all contacted but had no comment on this story.
Anyone with information on this story is asked to contact The Weal’s news editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.