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Fort St. John terror suspect Othman Hamdan was a classic loner

He never attended the mosque or mixed with the Muslim community


FORT ST. JOHN — When terror suspect Othman Hamdan moved in next door to Owen Higdon three years ago, he asked if he could pay his neighbour $20 a month to tap into his wireless connection.

“I’m glad I didn’t take him up on that,” Higdon said Sunday, standing outside the apartment building where Hamdan was arrested Friday with police alleging he advocated murder online on behalf of the Islamic State.

Higdon said there was nothing about Hamdan that would have made him think the 33-year-old was an ISIS supporter. He wore western clothes. His English was “pretty good.” He had a house-building company and even offered Higdon electrical work, which he declined.

They didn’t chat much — mostly small talk in the hallway of the two-storey rental building on a ridge in this oilpatch city.

Higdon said Hamdan generally kept to himself. He didn’t seem to have visitors popping by or family in the area.

“He had a rental truck here almost all the time,” said Higdon, a programmer from Newfoundland. “I am more upset that the police knew about this for three months and never did anything. He was right next door doing who knows what.”

Hamdan is scheduled to appear in court here Monday on six counts of counselling acts of violence on behalf of a terrorist organization.

The Vancouver Sun has learned that Hamdan allegedly made the threatening comments on at least two pro-ISIS Facebook pages called The Defeat of the Alliance and The Alliance Defeat. Both have since been removed by Facebook administrators.

The Sun has also learned that Hamdan came to Canada via the U.S. in 2002 and was accepted as a refugee claimant. He’s originally from Jordan and claimed he would be persecuted if he went back there. He’s not a Canadian citizen.

He has lived in the Peace River area for at least three years as he registered his house-building company, Noex Contracting, in April 2012. The company’s address on corporate records is the same suite on 86th Street that was raided by police Friday.

Higdon said Hamdan was screaming and yelling as police took him into custody. He claimed that police were picking on him because of his ethnicity, Higdon said.

Local Muslim leaders said they didn’t know Hamdam and never saw him at their Friday prayers.

They were called to a meeting with the RCMP Friday and told about the investigation.

“Once we learned about it — it was like a shock to us,” said Azhar Phoolwala, of the Peace River Muslim Association. “We didn’t know how to react to it. Of course the obvious questions were: Do you know him and has he been a part of the community? We said we have never heard of him.”

Phoolwala, a banker originally from Mumbai, said there are close to 100 Muslims in Fort St. John who’ve come from all over the world to work here.

They are a close-knit, well-integrated community that is a world away from ISIS-inspired violence and ideology.

“It is a story that’s really upsetting and, as a community, I would say that we strongly condemn his actions,” he said.

Taher Morsi, who works for the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, said police knew Hamdan had nothing to do with the local Muslim community and have made that clear.

He doesn’t expect any backlash against Muslims living in the area.

Phoolwala said the Muslim community is grateful that both police and Mayor Lori Ackerman have publicly stated that Hamdan was isolated with no local contacts or support.

The police, Morsi said, told the Muslin leaders: “They said this is not against your community. This is nothing against Muslims here. It is just against an individual person.”

Hamdan remains in the local RCMP detachment lock-up and requested a Qur’an in his cell, which was brought to him Sunday.

Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University who studies radicalization and terrorism, said it’s not surprising that Hamdan was living in a remote community like Fort St. John.

“Most of these guys when it comes to ISIS and the Syrian conflict, they form these kind of communities online and they form these friendship networks online,” he said. “It’s almost irrelevant where they actually live. It’s their online relationships and their online community that is much more important to them, is much more meaningful to them, than anyone they know in real life.”

Kevin Stevens was dropping off a buddy Friday at Hamdan’s building when he saw police move in.

“I saw two officers coming in along each side here,” he said Sunday, pointing to where police approached. “All I saw is them kicking the doors in, then I dropped off my buddy and left.”

He said the allegations of support for a violent terrorist group don’t really surprise him.

“It can happen anywhere nowadays, right? Especially with the Web,” he said.

Neighbour Alanna Hut wasn’t surprised to see a police raid.

“I thought it was going to be another stupid fentanyl bust because that wouldn’t surprise me at all,” she said.

The charges that have been laid are shocking, she said.

“You don’t think that people know how to do stuff like that,” she said. “I guess it’s all about the people you know right.”

Pipe fitter Chad Gillis, who lives with Hut in the building beside Hamdan’s, also witnessed the police search that lasted hours.

“I just seen two cruisers and one undercover parked outside for the longest time,” he said.

As for an alleged ISIS supporter living next door?

“I wouldn’t think anything like that would be happening around here.”