Federal officials are applying skepticism to claims that two Canadians played pivotal roles in the terrorist abductions that led to the deaths of at least 38 hostages in Algeria.
Complaining of a lack of evidence, Foreign Affairs officials in Ottawa summoned the Algerian ambassador to their headquarters this week to demand an official explanation of the claims implicating the as-yet-unidentified Canadian fighters. "We have received no information on these individuals," said Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Minister John Baird, in a statement.
During a globally publicized news conference Monday, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal claimed two Canadians were among the al-Qaeda-aligned guerrillas who took hostages in a Sahara gas plant before commandos raided the plant to end the standoff.
The terrorist force of 32 men – 29 of whom were killed – included two who carried Canadian papers, Algeria alleges.
Yet Algiers has not released crucial details – such as full names, passport numbers or even shown human remains – that could back up the claims. During similar cases in the past, such information proved crucial toward resolving whether the slain terrorists were bona fide Canadians or merely imposters.
"Let's wait and see. We should all be cautious until Canadian officials can eyeball a body and a set of documents," said Ray Boisvert, a former counterterrorism director with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
A veteran CSIS official who retired last year, Mr. Boisvert said fog surrounds almost all terrorism cases and that Algeria is known for being hard to work with. "They'll give up the body and documents at the time of their choosing," he said.
He said no one should doubt that dozens of Canadian citizens have gone abroad in hopes of joining terrorist groups, but one must keep in mind that jihadist groups and foreign governments usually have agendas at play that can complicate matters.
Fake passports, for example, are a real possibility.
More than 15 years ago, fake Canadian passports were famously used by alleged Israeli Mossad agents in a botched assassination attempt against a Hamas leader in Jordan. In 2011, a senior al-Qaeda operative implicated in the 1998 Africa embassy bombings was gunned down in Mogadishu, but the Comorian was initially misreported to have been a "Canadian" owing to his false-flag passport.
Forensic proof can also help resolve identity. In 2004, for example, Taliban figures – who have often claimed to have "Canadian" operatives – said that a member of Toronto's infamous Khadr clan detonated himself as a suicide bomber in Kabul. Yet this specious claim was reportedly at odds with DNA analysis. (Not to mention the fact that Abdullah Khadr was actually being secretly held in Pakistan at that time, at the behest of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, court filings would later reveal.)
Mr. Sellal, the Algerian PM, asserted this week that the two alleged Canadian terrorists of Arabic origin were involved in the hostage crisis at the In Amenas natural-gas complex, one of them acting as a negotiator between the hostage-takers and the Algerian army.
Early this week, Ennahar TV in Algeria aired recorded radio communications between the hostage-takers and the Algerian military. "We have prisoners, we have hostages with bombs tied on the body, please call back," a man is heard saying in lightly accented English.
The 32 hostage-takers came from eight countries, including Tunisia and Egypt. The mix of nationalities signals global ambitions and a desire to align themselves with al-Qaeda's original core, said Jean-Paul Rouiller, a former Swiss counterterrorism analyst.
The mastermind of the bloody attack is a former commander of the region's best-known terrorist group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar recently started an AQIM splinter group and pledged allegiance directly to al-Qaeda. In a video message released midway through last week's hostage-taking, he said he had been amassing fighters from foreign and local countries, under the name "the Signatories of Blood."
The following day, a spokesman for the group told a Mauritanian news agency that their ranks included Canadians.
With a report from Campbell Clark in Ottawa