Trial starts for 16-year-old Montrealer accused of robbery to finance jihad

— In his school uniform of grey flannel pants and polo shirt, the 15-year-old looked like a child hauled to the principal’s office for misbehaving

But the people questioning him were police investigators and the accusations were deadly serious: robbing a convenience store at knifepoint to fund a jihadi mission overseas.

As the teen’s trial on terrorism charges opened Tuesday in Quebec Court’s youth division, a video was played of his interrogation the day he was arrested at his private high school Oct. 17.

The video shows Brahim Soussi of the RCMP’s national security team advising the boy, who cannot be identified because he is a minor, he was suspected of attempting to leave to join a terrorist group, an offence under the Criminal Code.

Soussi expressed amazement someone so young had caught the attention of anti-terror investigators.

“At 15, normally you shouldn’t be here,” he said. “We shouldn’t be having this discussion. You are too young.”

A Grade 10 student with top marks and a bursary from his prestigious Montreal school, the teen had no previous brushes with the law.

“You are not the type of person who is usually in that chair,” Soussi said.

But previous questioning by Montreal police Sgt.-Det. Claudio Del Corpo revealed his alleged interest in Islamist terrorism had been developing for some time.

The boy’s father told investigators his son had begun visiting websites connected with “Islamist terrorist groups” in 2012. There had also been a previous incident involving credit cards and an attempted money transfer overseas.

“We spoke to your father. He is very worried about you,” Del Corpo said.

He said the evidence against the youth for the holdup was overwhelming. Police had obtained his backpack, which he had stashed in his yard, containing a knife, a bag full of money and the scarf he used to cover his face during the robbery, Del Corpo told him.

The security video from the store showed a robber wearing a jacket and basketball shoes identical to those the teen had at school the day of his arrest.

“What we want to know is why you did it,” the investigator said, to which the boy replied, “I’m not answering.”

The court has not heard the entire three hours of videotaped questioning, but throughout the first half, the teen, who has since turned 16, was extraordinarily composed, refusing to answer any potentially incriminating questions.

One of the arresting officers testified he was struck by the 15-year-old’s calm.

“Usually when I arrest a youngster, they show signs of nervousness. They start crying. They say, ‘What are my parents going to say? What are my friends going to say?’” Pasquale Spagnolo of the Montreal police told the court.

“I thought, either he did a lot of crimes when he was a bit younger or he was a professional at whatever he does, because he showed no emotion whatsoever.”

Dressed in an Adidas jacket, sweat pants and wearing black-rimmed glasses, the accused showed no more emotion in court and only rarely looked into the public gallery where his father sat.

He remains in custody after pleading guilty to the convenience store robbery.

The current trial before Judge Dominique Wilhelmy is on one charge of committing a crime “for the benefit of, at the direction of or in association with a terrorist group” and a second charge of attempting to leave Canada for the purpose of aiding a terrorist group.

Federal Crown prosecutor Lyne Décarie told the court investigators found items related to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on the boy’s computer. She said witnesses during the three-week trial will include an expert on Salafi jihadism.

The defence is seeking to have the interrogation ruled inadmissible as evidence on the grounds the accused’s rights were violated.

Del Corpo testified he told the boy of his right to contact a lawyer and his right to remain silent before questioning him. He also told him he could have one of his parents or another adult present during the questioning, but he declined the offer.

The court heard the boy spoke briefly to a lawyer by phone, but chose not to have one present during his questioning.

About Graeme Hamilton