Mustafa al-Gharib, a 22-year-old Canadian-born Muslim convert, who left Calgary for Syria back in November 2012, has been killed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces during rebel infighting, CBC News confirmed Wednesday.
Sources in Syria and Canada continued that al-Gharib was injured in combat, subsequently captured and later killed by an unknown faction of the FSA in the city of Aleppo.
Born in Nova Scotia as Damian Clairmont, al-Gharib was reportedly fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel group consisting of largely foreign extremists, that was designated a terrorist group by the Canadian government late 2013.
The first public indication of al-Gharib’s death came on social media on Tuesday night, when a Twitter account claiming to be run by a rebel fighter who knew al-Gharib personally tweeted a martyrdom notice. The notice uses the name Abu Talha al-Canadi, another of al-Gharib’s monikers.
Descent into Terror
Two years of anguish in his teens saw him drop out of high school, fail at a suicide attempt at age 17 and then was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“He had some trouble as a teenager. When he converted to Islam, initially his family thought that this would be the thing that would calm him down. And eventually it did,” said CBC News senior correspondent Adrienne Arsenault, who interviewed al-Gharib’s mother last year. “He did seem to find some peace. And then he changed.”
Shortly before his 20th birthday, he moved into a boarding house and, according to his mother, became secretive, isolated and “very angry, very political,” Arsenault continued. Fast forward to November 2012, and al-Gharib informed his mother that he was leaving Canada for Egypt, where he planned to become an imam.
Several weeks following his departure however, CSIS broke the news to his mother that al-Gharib had in fact not gone to Egypt, but rather flown to Istanbul and made his way into Syria, where he joined up with an extremist group shortly after.
CSIS disclosed to his mother that they had been watching al-Gharib before he left, but were unable to stop him from leaving.
Following this turn of events, Al-Gharib’s contact with his mother became increasingly infrequent as time passed, and his text messages “became increasingly angry about Canada, increasingly determined to be there fighting,” said Arsenault, based on conversations with his mother.
State of the Conflict
In recent weeks, infighting among rebel factions in Syria’s north has intensified with the hardline extremist organization Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) reportedly alienating other rebel groups with brutal tactics and enforcement of Sharia law.
While ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra — both recognized branches of al-Qaeda — originally fought alongside secular and moderate rebel groups against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, ISIL has changed focus to taking control of cities held by other rebel forces. This push has pitted the ISIL against the FSA, as well as its former allies Jabhat al-Nusra.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that nearly 500 people, 85 of them civilians, have died in rebel-on-rebel clashes this month.
Although it remains unclear how many Canadians are fighting in the Syrian civil war itself, estimates widely range from a dozen to over 100, noted Arsenault.
American filmmaker, Bilal Abdul Kareen, who was embedded amongst Islamist fighters for over a year, told CBC News in September that he had encountered between 20 and 30 Canadians fighting with various rebel groups.
Ali Mohamed Dirie, a member of the so-called Toronto 18 who left Canada on a fake passport in 2012, was killed last year while fighting with Islamist rebels, according to sources close to his family.
Similarly, a Canadian-born convert known as Abu Muslim, who appeared in a Channel 4 documentary in June 2012 travelling with a rebel group called Katiba al-Muhajireen, reportedly took part in a raid on an airport in Syria’s north.
Reports surfaced from a jihadi group on social media that a Canadian was killed in the attack, but it remains unclear if it was Abu Muslim or another fighter.
CBC News noted having anecdotal evidence of several other Canadian deaths in Syria, but the Department of Foreign Affairs has not provided official numbers.
“We are aware of reports that Canadians have been killed in Syria. We are following the situation closely,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affars in an email statement on Wednesday.
“Since April 24, 2011, Canada has advised against all travel to Syria due to the deteriorating situation.”
Source: CBC News