Timing and money tight on Canadian’s road to jihad

Samir Halilovic wrote on Twitter that he had been labelled an extremist by his father.
Samir Halilovic wrote on Twitter that he had been labelled an extremist by his father.

MONTREAL―A Canadian man suspected of having joined the Islamic terror group Daesh claimed to have financial and logistical backers in his quest to flee Canada, according to messages obtained by the Toronto Star.

In an exchange of Facebook messages beginning in May 2014 and ending July 14, 2014, Quebecer Samir Halilovic bids farewell to a friend whose own attempts to meet him in Turkey — a popular crossing point for aspiring jihadists headed to Syria — appear to have been dashed.

The parting message from Halilovic is among the last that he would have sent before he disappeared, along with fellow Canadians Zakria Habibi and Youssef Sakhir.

“It’s a question of hours/days now, God willing. Hopefully Allah will make it easy for us and for you.”

The Star could not independently verify the authenticity of the messages. The messages were provided by a source on condition that they would not be identified.

The Facebook messages provide a rare look into the planning and stealth of those Canadians who may be trying to join overseas jihadist groups. They appear to show two young men trying to book flights and travel visas, arrange payment for the trips, and meet up with individuals who will help them reach their destinations.

“They are being remarkably careful,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism researcher at the University of Waterloo, who led a major Canadian study tracking individuals who have gone abroad to join jihadist groups.

“They are using code words, like not being able to be in contact during their period of ‘internship,’ which clearly means training. They are also using pay-as-you-go credit cards to increase the potential for anonymity.”

Halilovic’s interlocutor is Assane Kamara, a Senegalese national and former student at Université de Sherbrooke. Senegalese police arrested Kamara and filed terrorism charges alleging he took a flight from Dakar to Tunisia in January 2016 with the intention of joining a jihadist group.

Kamara came to Sherbrooke in the fall of 2010 and moved to Edmonton for several months in 2014 before being brought back home to Dakar by his mother, who worried he had adopted a more strident interpretation of Islam, according to Senegalese police, who cited a denunciation made to them by Kamara’s mother.

Friends and classmates said Kamara was active within the Muslim Students’ Association at the university but insisted that he was extremely polite, kind and intelligent. Another friend said he became more devout while in Canada, but showed no outward signs of extremism.

A female friend of Halilovic, who didn’t want to be identified, described him as the class clown when the two attended school together as young teenagers in Sherbrooke.

The last contact she had with Halilovic was through social media about one month before his disappearance in July 2014. There was no indication that he had changed or that he was planning to leave the country.

“I was bowled over. I couldn’t understand what could have happened in his life for that to happen. He was really a good person,” she told the Star.

Halilovic also maintained a Twitter account under a pseudonym and for the two years before his departure wrote about the necessity of establishing an Islamic caliphate. In April 2012, he wrote that he had been labelled an extremist by his father.

Previously, two sources told the Star that Halilovic married after arriving in Syria. He is also believed to have died there — a fact that could not be independently verified.

In the Facebook messages from 2014, it appears that Kamara was trying to arrange last-minute travel from Dakar to Istanbul to meet Halilovic and at least one other person.

The messages refer to other names: “Zikos,” “Zartan,” and “Yakky.” It was not possible to determine who they referred to, but it appears that “Zikos” and “Zartan” are used interchangeably.

Assane Kamara was arrested by Senegalese police who filed terrorism charges alleging he took a flight from Dakar to Tunisia in January 2016 with the intention of joining a jihadist group.
Assane Kamara was arrested by Senegalese police who filed terrorism charges alleging he took a flight from Dakar to Tunisia in January 2016 with the intention of joining a jihadist group.

On July 11, 2014, Halilovic wrote that he was in Paris. Kamara was in Dakar and wrote that he was under orders from his parents not to communicate with his Canadian friend.

According to the messages, the timing was tight as the two attempted to harmonize their travel plans.

Halilovic wrote that one friend — “Yakky” — had been with him but was “out of contact.” Yakky was also part of the group that would be completing the “internship,” Halilovic said.

Habibi, their other Canadian friend, was scheduled to take a flight to Turkey on July 13, 2014. He wrote in the messages that a meeting was planned for the following day, July 14, in Istanbul.

“On the 15th we have to be at the destination,” Halilovic wrote, adding that a “contact” awaited them.

In the messages, Kamara wrote that he was having difficulty getting the money together to book a flight, arranging a visa to travel to Turkey and avoiding the suspicions of his concerned family.

“You have a $600 flight from Dakar on the 13th. What is your situation?” Halilovic asked Kamara.

Kamara responded: “Yep, but I wanted to know if I have to take a return flight or one-way.”

“One way,” Halilovic advised.

“I’m going to have to do a prison break,” Kamara wrote.

Halilovic offered to pay for Kamara’s travel with a pre-paid credit card. He claimed to have done the same thing for Habibi’s airplane ticket.

The Star has previously reported that Halilovic obtained a $725 loan on June 4, 2014 and that he posted an advertisement on Facebook to sell a blue, size 8 designer ball gown for $300 on May 17, 2014.

Both Halilovic and Kamara claim in the messages that they had financial backers — individuals willing to fund their plans.

Halilovic wrote this on July 12, 2014 after Kamara asked for $20 to obtain a Turkish visa so he could enter the country.

“Here’s how it works: You have to confirm for me that you will definitely be able to take the plane on a given date. Someone will transfer the money in my bank account by Interac transfer and after I have to put it on my prepaid visa (sic) card,” Halilovic wrote.

Kamara said that he had his own source of funding to purchase a plane ticket.

“Okay, God willing,” wrote Halilovic. “You will receive the money from someone in Dakar?”

“No, from Canada, God willing,” Kamara replied.

Hicham Tiflati, a Montreal-based researcher who worked on a major study of Canadians who had joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, also analyzed the messages for the Star. He said it is “not probable” based on his experience interviewing radicalized youth that someone was bankrolling their quest to join Daesh.

“We’ve had cases years before in Bosnia or with Al Qaeda where you had funders from the Middle East,” he said. “The recruitment process from the examples that we’ve had before with hundreds of foreign fighters not just in Canada is that usually ISIS recruiters don’t provide cash. They show you how to get cash and credit cards.”

As the exchange of Facebook messages continued, it became clear to Halilovic and Kamara that their attempt to meet in Istanbul was unlikely to succeed.

On July 12, 2014, Kamara explained: “My financial source said that he will make progressive transfers in such a way that I have the full amount for the end of the month, God willing. So unless I find something else before that I’m grounded.”

Halilovic suggested a backup plan. If things didn’t work out, he told Kamara to search through his Facebook contacts and contact an individual, whom the Star is not naming because the person’s identity or involvement could not be independently verified.

“You can see him in my friends. Tell me if you see who I’m talking about,” Halilovic wrote.

“I’ve got him. But I don’t know him,” Kamara replied.

“If ever there is anything, you contact him — but not as long as you are in contact with me. He will help you, God willing,” Halilovic instructed.

In the messages, Kamara wrote that he would confirm to Halilovic if he would be able to reach Istanbul before the meeting time on July 15, 2014

“If I can’t . . . just go ahead (without me),” Kamara wrote.

“If not you talk to (the contact). You tell him that you are a brother of Samir and that you are looking for a place to eat Greek,” Halilovic wrote, in what appears to be coded language.

“Hahahaha, that’s good,” Kamara responded.

On July 13, 2014, Halilovic wrote to Kamara that he had missed his flight but was now scheduled on another that would get him there a little later than “Zikos.”

Once in Turkey they were headed to an unnamed hotel where, Halilovic wrote, he had been told on a previous visit to the country that he could have a suite with a Jacuzzi if he paid for the room in cash instead of credit card.

“The thing is that it’s me who knows the hotel and how to get there,” Halilovic wrote.

About 24 hours later, he wrote again that he was “with Zartan” and “in contact with our friend.”

Kamara’s response is joyous: “God is great!!!! God willing, I hope that we will see each other at the internship.”

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