By Alan Freeman, Lindsey Bever & Derek Hawkins
(c) 2017, The Washington Post ··
QUEBEC CITY - Canadian authorities on Monday charged a 27-year-old university student known for his far-right sympathies with six counts of first-degree murder in a mass shooting the day before at a local mosque.
Alexandre Bissonnette, was described by neighbours and acquaintances as a socially awkward introvert who had recently adopted virulent political views.
He was charged late Monday afternoon with five counts of attempted murder with a restricted firearm. The five surviving victims were still in the hospital, with two of them in critical condition, although hospital officials said their injuries were not life-threatening.
Handcuffed, his feet manacled and wearing a white prison jumpsuit, Bissonnette reportedly looked at the floor throughout the court hearing, aside from casting a brief glance at his lawyer. The prosecutor, Thomas Jacques, indicated that terrorist charges could be added later to the murder and attempted murder charges.
The attack, which took place just as about 50 worshipers at the small mosque in the suburb of Sainte-Foy near Laval University had completed evening prayer, sent shock waves through Canada. Accustomed to seeing violence as a phenomenon taking place in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, Canadians found themselves in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was clear that his government considered the shooting a terrorist act. “This was a group of innocents targeted for practicing their faith,” Trudeau told the House of Commons. “Make no mistake. This was a terrorist attack.”
Bissonnette was described in media reports as an ardent nationalist and a strong supporter of the French far-right politician Marine Le Pen. He was known to activists in Quebec for taking positions against feminism and refugees, François Deschamps of the pro-refugee group Bienvenue aux Réfugiés said on his Facebook page.
The suspect was captured by police about 15 miles from the scene of the attack after he called 911 and offered to surrender. The police initially said they had also arrested a 29-year-old engineering student at the mosque. By Monday afternoon, they had released him and called him a witness to the event.
It turned out the witness, Mohamed Belkhadir, had left the mosque at the end of prayers and was near the building when he heard shots. Returning inside, he called 911 and began helping a friend who had been shot. When he saw armed police arrive, he panicked and ran off and was quickly stopped. He said the police had treated him well.
On Rue du Tracel, a quiet crescent of modest houses in suburban Cap-Rouge about a 15-minute drive from the mosque, Rejean Bussieres knew something was up when several police cars descended on his street Monday morning. Having heard of the shooting, he said, he immediately thought it could be Bissonnette.
“He used to like to break things as a kid,” said Bussieres, who has been a neighbour of the family for 30 years. “He was turbulent.”
Bussieres’s 23-year-old daughter, Rosalie, said the twins had reputations as “nerds” who were obsessed with violent computer games and were bullied at school. “They were always just with each other. It’s sad. They were always home alone,” she said.
According to Toronto’s Globe and Mail website, Vincent Boissoneault, a friend of the suspect’s who also studied at Laval University, said that Bissonnette had been uninterested in politics until Le Pen visited Quebec City last year. Soon Boissoneault was clashing with his friend over his support for Le Pen and Trump.
“I wrote him off as a xenophobe,” Boissoneault told the newspaper. “I didn’t even think of him as totally racist, but he was enthralled by a borderline racist nationalist movement.”