After six men were killed last night in a brutal ambush at a Quebec City mosque, speculation and rumors immediately began to circulate on social media. Who was responsible for what Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau called a “terrorist attack” at the Centre Culturel Islamique, also known as la grande mosquée de Québec?
For many, the provincial capital’s ugly history of racism and Islamophobia immediately came to mind. On Twitter, Canadians shared a news story from last summer about a pig’s head that had been dropped off at the mosque during the holy month of Ramadan, with a note that read ”bon apetit (sic).” At the same time, a growing chorus of white nationalist trolls and Trump supporters began posting rumors that claimed the shooters (it was initially believed there were at least two gunmen) were Muslim refugees, who had only recently arrived in Canada. In tweets, US white supremacist Richard Spencer blamed Trudeau for welcoming refugees.
The claims reached a fever pitch this morning, Jan. 30, when several media outlets began reporting the names of two men who had been taken into custody: Alexandre Bissonnette and Mohamed El Khadir. One was reportedly a Moroccan student at Laval University, and the names of both men were eventually confirmed by court officials in Quebec.
Around noon, the Sureté du Québec clarified that El Khadir had been named a witness. Bissonnette, a French-Canadian, remains the sole suspect. He has been charged with six counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder.
According to LaPresse (French), whose reporters spoke to former acquaintances of the 27-year-old, Bissonnette is a political science student at Laval. One member of a local group dedicated to welcoming Syrian refugees to Quebec City told the newspaper that he recognized Bissonnette as a troll on their community Facebook page. Bissonnette reportedly made statements supporting Marine Le Pen, the leader of French nationalist party Front National, and was known to local activists for his anti-refugee statements online.
A Laval University student who grew up with Bissonnette told the Globe and Mail that the suspect was “was enthralled by a borderline racist nationalist movement.” The Globe also found that the student wasn’t vocal about any extreme views until after a public visit Le Pen made to the city last year.
Yesterday afternoon, a few hours before the shooting took place, Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmen Hussen, who happens to be a former refugee from Somalia, announced that Canada would offer temporary residency status to travelers stranded by Trump’s immigration orders. Notably, Canada has resettled 39,000 Syrian refugees since Trudeau was elected in 2015. Over the past few days, the prime minister has reiterated his support for those newcomers, other refugees, and Canadian Muslims without mentioning Trump directly. On Saturday, he tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.”