Algonquin continues to make headlines in local, national and international media following the arrest of a 2014 social services worker graduate on terrorism-related charges Feb. 3 and charges laid in absentia against another former student believed to be fighting for the Islamic State in the Middle East.
Awso Peshdary, a graduate of the 2014 social service worker program, was arrested by the RCMP in Ottawa last week and made his first appearance in court Feb. 4, a day after he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to facilitate a terrorist act, among other counts.
He shortly appeared in federal court again on Monday, Feb. 9. His court date was remanded to Thursday, Feb. 19.
A former business student, Khadar Khalib, who attended Algonquin in 2014, has also been charged in absentia. Khalib is not listed as a graduate in the 2014 Convocation book published by the college.
Both men have been identified as former members of the Algonquin College Muslim Students Association and Peshdary was photographed on Algonquin campus in March 2014, speaking at the group’s Islam Awareness Week.
As well, the Times learned from an member of the ACMSA who requested anonymity that Peshdary was on campus, attending a prayer service in January 2015.
While it’s unknown exactly what he said at the March 2014 meeting, according to a Feb. 5 story in in the Ottawa Citizen, a former student who knew Peshdary from the ACMSA said that he showed frustration with the current events in Afghanistan and Syria.
“He was very sympathetic to any situation like Afghanistan,” the student told the Citizen. “He was very opposed to the Americans and Canadians going into the country.” Peshdary, he said, supported military and religious opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the west’s involvement in the Middle East.
In an effort to obtain more information about Peshdary’s time in the social service worker program, the Times contacted Vicky Green, the coordinator of the social service worker intensive program. She declined comment and referred the Times to Jane Trakalo, chair of community studies.
Trakalo, in an email three hours prior to an interview scheduled for Feb. 5, cancelled the meeting.
“I can’t discuss individual cases regarding program acceptances.”
According to the program’s website, in order to graduate from the social services worker program, students must complete a field placement in levels two, three and four.
Students must submit a police records check for service with the vulnerable sector to be eligible for a field placement.
Whether or not a student is accepted for placement is at the discretion of the agency providing the placement.
As for both Peshdary and Khalib’s involvement in the ACMSA, Christina Miller, president of the umbrella Algonquin Students’ Association, released a statement on Feb. 4 about the events that took place on Feb. 3.
The SA said that they will not recognize any club or group whose activities, in the opinion of the SA, promote hatred, violence, propaganda, or whose sole purpose is designed to disparage a government, state, country, religion, individual, or group of people.
Miller said in an email to the Times that she will not be meeting with students to discuss Peshdary.
The ACMSA has released a statement that said they are “shocked and deeply disturbed by news that individuals who had previously volunteered with the organization are now facing criminal charges.”
“The Algonquin College MSA unequivocally condemns violent extremism in all its forms regardless of who perpetrates it, or their stated reasons,” the release said.
As for the college’s position on the ACMSA, Vice President Communications Doug Wotherspoon said last week it supports all clubs, but their oversight falls to the Algonquin Student Association.
“We think clubs are an excellent way of creating that engaged community,” said Wotherspoon.
“At Algonquin, the role for oversight, support and encouragements of clubs and societies falls to the SA,” said Wotherspoon. “They do a great job of it.”
Wotherspoon confirmed that Algonquin is working with RCMP on the investigation of Peshdary.
“We work hand in hand with law enforcement on a whole host of issues when required and have a good working relationship with them,” said Wotherspoon.
“We’ve had lots of conversations about how, since Feb. 2, and even prior to that. We’ve had lots of discussion at the college about how to go about creating that engaged community, and helping to prevent extremism,” said Wotherspoon.
On Feb. 4, Algonquin’s president, Cheryl Jensen, sent out two different messages to all Algonquin students and faculty.
“Like all colleges and universities in Canada, Algonquin is faced with the challenge of radicalization in all its forms,” said Jensen in the message to staff.
“Over the next few days, I encourage you to keep the lines of communication open with your students and colleagues about the importance of creating a campus community that is open, welcoming, and respectful,” said Jensen.
Jensen’s email also said that the college strives to be a place where dialogue is respectful, tolerant, and diverse, both inside and outside the classroom.
According to a report by CBC on Feb. 3, Peshdary was the subject of an RCMP investigation codenamed Project Samossa in 2010.
According to the same report, RCMP bugged Peshdary’s home where they recorded what they believe was Peshdary assaulting his wife.
Peshdary was charged with assault, but eventually acquitted after his wife refused to testify.
When the story first broke Feb. 2, the college would not immediately identify Peshdary or Khalib’s connection to the college, citing privacy concerns. However, in the Algonquin College Spring Convocation 2014 booklet, Asso Swara Peshdary is listed as a graduate of the social services worker program.
Wotherspoon later confirmed that Asso Swara Peshdary is the same Peshdary that was arrested and charged with participation in the activity of a terrorist group and with facilitating an activity for a terrorist group.
The RCMP allege that Peshdary helped to recruit jihadists for the Islamic State and finance their travel to Syria.
The charges have not been proven in court.
With files from Joseph Gedeon