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Religion played no major role in life of man charged in Edmonton attacks, says human rights activist

Friday October 6, 2017
By Andrea Huncar

In 30-minute talk, Abdulahi Sharif expressed more concern about family and belongings than charges he faces

Abdulahi Hasan Sharif faces five charges of attempted murder. (Edmonton Police Service)

One of the few people to have contact with the man charged in last weekend's Edmonton attacks says the accused claims he rarely attends a mosque and religion does not play a major role in his life.

On Wednesday, Edmonton human rights activist Mahamad Accord got his first glimpse of Abdulahi Sharif, the man charged with repeatedly stabbing a police officer and hitting four pedestrians with a U-Haul truck.

They spoke via closed-circuit television. Sharif was in the Edmonton Remand Centre and Accord was at the Elizabeth Fry Centre, run by a charitable organization that provides programs and services to people in the legal system.

"There is no mosque he attended regularly," Accord, who runs an advocacy organization called the Taccalusa Institute, said in an interview with CBC News.

On the screen, Accord said he only had a view of Sharif's right temple, showing a bruise on his forehead and cheek, injuries police told a news conference had occurred when the truck rolled during a police chase.

Accord, who does not personally know Sharif. said he spoke with him for about 30 minutes, not enough time to ask all the questions he had hoped about the Somali refugee accused in Saturday's attacks.

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"We couldn't find the intent of terrorism," Accord said. "But that's up to the court to prove that."

That night, Const. Mike Chernyk was hit by a Chevrolet Malibu outside Commonwealth Stadium, sending the Edmonton police officer flying. The officer was then repeatedly stabbed. Hours later, during a police chase downtown, four pedestrians were hit by a U-Haul truck.

Just hours after the attacks, Edmonton police announced they were investigating the incidents as "acts of terrorism," suggesting they believed a flag found in the car that struck Chernyk was an "ISIS flag." No terror-related charges have yet been laid.

Sharif, 30, faces five counts of attempted murder, four counts of criminal flight causing bodily harm, and one count each of dangerous driving and possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose. Police have alleged in a news release that Sharif struck pedestrians intentionally during a vehicle chase but have provided no evidence of that.

Terror experts have said that motivation for the attacks will be difficult to prove. But some media outlets and politicians continue to refer to Sharif directly as a terrorist. In 2015, the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team launched an investigation after receiving a complaint about Sharif's extremist views but concluded he was not a threat, said RCMP.

A senior government source with knowledge of the investigation says Sharif lived in an Edmonton neighbourhood that is home to several young men who have been radicalized. So far, investigators have no evidence Sharif had any contact with those individuals.

Investigators are now focusing on what kind of world Sharif lived in, and whether he became radicalized. They are extensively searching Sharif's electronic devices for any clues.

Sharif currently has legal assistance. But Accord said he hopes to secure legal-aid funding for the accused.

"I want to be there to make sure that he receives the support that he needs for his legal defence and for his human rights," Accord said.

"We live in Canada. Despite the horrendous act he's been accused of, he's been accused, it's not proven in court.”

'He's been tried and convicted'

Mahamad Accord said Abdulahi Sharif has little interaction with Edmonton's Somali community and should be psychologically asssessed. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Added Accord: "He's been tried and convicted in the media.”

Accord confirmed what others have already suggested, that Sharif does not appear to have friends or interactions with the local Somali community. It's a community that has again become the target for a torrent of hate messages on social media due to the actions of one man who shares their ethnicity.

Several representatives of the Somali community swiftly expressed condemnation of the attacks and voiced support for the Edmonton Police Service.

According to Accord, Sharif is "trying to comprehend the situation he is in" and worried about the toll it might be having on his mother in Kenya. He also has a brother in Toronto. He wanted his relatives to know he was not in danger, Accord said.

Sharif has been placed on what appears to be suicide watch. While Accord doesn't think the man is suicidal, he raised concerns about Sharif's mental health and said he hopes the accused will be assessed soon.

Expressed concerns about family, belongings

During their conversation, Accord said, Sharif expressed concerns about his family, belongings and apartment but didn't seem to understand the gravity of the charges he faces.

"What we observed from him is that he has no grasp of reality," said Accord. "We want to know why he never (sought) help. How come someone like him fell through the cracks?"

In September 2014, Accord sent a letter to the prime minister asking for support to prevent the radicalization of youth. His actions drew criticism from many representatives of Somali community organizations, but four months later a CBC investigation revealed three young men had left Edmonton to join ISIS.

Revelations about Sharif's personal circumstances come alongside new details of the long and arduous journey that eventually led him to Canada.

Sharif crossed the border into the United States on July 12, 2011, and was almost immediately turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On Sept. 22, 2011, an immigration judge ordered Sharif removed to Somalia, though officials say he had no known criminal history at the time.

But Sharif didn't check in with the ICE enforcement and removal operations centre in January 2012. He crossed the border into Canada that same year, arriving through a regular port of entry, and obtained refugee status, according to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

The Trudeau government has been attacked for allowing Sharif into the country. But at the time Sharif came to Canada, Stephen Harper's Conservative government was in power and United Conservative Party leadership candidate Jason Kenney was immigration minister. Kenney has said he tried tightening security screening at the borders but was thwarted by the Obama administration.

Accord said, as a Somali refugee, Sharif is likely carrying the trauma of the war-torn nation he fled.

"Physically they're fine but the damage is still there mentally," he said. "That's not something we address."

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