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U.K. inquest offers new look at radicalized Canadian hostage taker

02/09/2015 11:00 EST | Updated 04/11/2015 05:59 EDT
As Canada grappled with watching one of its own turn on fellow citizens in the nation's capital last fall, the phrase "Canadian terrorist" was already a familiar one an ocean away, at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, England.

One of the young men frequently mentioned at the inquest underway here was also born and raised in Canada, had converted to a radical version of Islam, and had somehow learned his way around guns and many other far more lethal weapons.

Xris Katsiroubas, from London, Ont., was also, like the Ottawa gunman, ultimately killed in the course of his twisted mission.

But in a sombre London courtroom, a coroner's inquest into the violent murder of six British men and one U.K. resident in an Algerian desert hostage-taking two years ago, his horrific legacy was being methodically reconstructed.

The 22-year-old was one of a throng of heavily armed al-Qaeda gunmen who audaciously took over the In Amenas gas plant on Jan. 16, 2013. By the time it was over, more than 40 foreign hostages had been killed.

Very early on, Algeria's prime minister announced one of the main players was a Canadian man who went by the name of Shaddad.

Not long after the standoff ended, Canadian officials revealed the identities of at least two citizens believed directly involved: Xris Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, friends from London, Ont. Their remains had been found at the plant.

The two men would soon become the first recognizable faces of Canadians caught up in a new wave of Islamist radicalization of young people sweeping across the Western world.

ID-d right away

When Katsiroubas embarked on the meandering journey that would take him to Algeria, and ultimately to his own violent death, he couldn't have known he had been identified almost immediately after the attack started; and that his actions and his words would be recorded, to be scrutinized and reinterpreted publicly after his death.

On the opening day of the inquest, Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent James Stokely, the senior investigating officer, said images of Katsiroubas had been captured on a cellphone by the youngest of the British hostages, 26-year-old Sebastian John, and emailed back to his wife in the U.K. within the first hours of the attack.

John — who was praised by the inquest judge as brave for taking the pictures "at considerable risk to himself," was ultimately killed in the attack.

The photos, never before revealed, have been obtained by CBC News. One of them clearly sums up Katsiroubas's role in the first hours of the attack: he is seated on the ground in fatigues, a rifle in one hand — and a phone in the other.

Katsiroubas was in charge of communicating with the rest of the world, tasked with outlining the group's demands, and responding on its behalf.

And many of those who survived the four-day attack, and testified at the inquest, had spent most of it in his nerve-wracking company.

Repeatedly referred to as the "Canadian terrorist," Katsiroubas would come up at the inquest time and again.

Calling himself Shedad, sometimes spelled Shaddad, he dialed the U.K. repeatedly over the first two days of the attack, and we now know from the inquest many details of what he said.

For example, he demanded safe passage, with the hostages, to Mali, and then an exchange of hostages for some 100 prisoners.

Then he forewarned of the plan to blow up the plant.

At one point he said: "Everybody's going to be dead."

'Very dictating'

At the inquest, his voice — often casual, but described as firm initially — provided the first detailed glimpse into the extensive nature of the contact made with the hostage takers.

Those calls also provide insight into the militants' motivations, and into Katsiroubas and his state of mind in the hours prior to his death.

The man who took most of those calls was British Petroleum's vice-president of operations for Northern Africa, Andrew (Andy) Collins.

Collins refused CBC requests for an interview. And despite repeated CBC requests to BP and inquiry officials, neither the call recordings nor a full transcript were made available.

However, many of those calls were quoted by lawyers, and in Collins's testimony at the inquest. He initially described the caller as having "a North American accent."

"They were fluent," he said of the calls and caller. "Very fluent, very firm, very sort of dictating style."

Over the subsequent hours that voice — Katsiroubas's — would turn from firm, to angry, threatening, then desperate.

That first morning, Katsiroubas was in a convoy of well-armed gunmen who stormed the In Amenas gas plant and took several foreigners hostage.

They gathered them into a central plaza and bound them to each other using explosive cord.

It was only at that point that Katsiroubas, as the main negotiator, began making calls to outline their demands.

His first to Andy Collins was at approximately 7:25 a.m. London time, from a phone number Collins recognized as that of colleague.

It was a short conversation.

"Is that Andy?"

"Yes."

"This is al-Qaeda, we've taken hostages at In Amenas. We want to talk to the presidents of your companies."

Collins is well versed in crisis management, but had never received a call like this. He repeated back what was said, to check he had it right, and to make sure others could hear it, too.

But then the line was cut off.

A suicide bomb

Some of the witnesses at the inquest identified Katsiroubas as the young blondish man they observed operating a machine gun, and adroitly assembling a suicide bomb he would later try to detonate.

Others identified him as the militant who found them that morning and then escorted them from the living quarters to the plaza where the hostages were being held.

He later rode in a vehicle with several of the British hostages in an ill-fated convoy.

So, whether they lived or died, Katsiroubas was central to their stories.

At the inquest, he was described as a "prolific caller." Taken together, his words provide a sense of the mood among the militant group as the attack progressed.

Not long after news of the hostage-taking broke, the Algerian military moved into the area. Helicopters flew low over the plaza where the hostages sat, helpless. That made the attackers nervous.

Throughout the morning, Katsiroubas made regular calls to Collins demanding they leave, but the military would not budge.

In one of those calls, Katrsiroubas tried another approach: he put one of the hostages on the phone.

The hostage, Carlos Estrada (one of the men whose death is the subject of the inquest) described the precariousness of the situation. That they had explosives strung around their necks. That there were up to 30 gunmen. That the Algerian helicopters were "causing the problem."

Katsiroubas takes the phone back and reiterates the demand for the military to pull back.

Shortly afterwards, Katsiroubas calls again with a far more ambitious demand: an escort to the Mali border, and eventually, a hostage-prisoner swap.

"OK, so what we want, what we want is a military escort, either vehicles or a plane," he says.

" ... main thing is we want to exchange the prisoners, these foreign nationals we have, we want to exchange for the list of prisoners, we have a list, we want released."

In an effort to keep him talking, to try to win some of his confidence, Collins promises to pass on the demands. After a few calls, he asks the caller his name. Katsiroubas provides the nom de guerre Shedad.

Humanitarian appeal

In the calls that follow, Katsiroubas began to shed light on the identities of the hostages his group controlled. He also told Collins about Japanese hostages injured when the Algerian military started shooting.

"They didn't hit any of our soldiers, they hit three Japanese workers," he says. "Maybe they don't care about Japanese workers because they're not a Western country, I don't know but they [indecipherable] injured.

"OK, listen — the main thing where we are right now is the transportation to northern Mali."

At Collins's request, Katsiroubas provides a list of the hostages' names and nationalities.

It wasn't an easy conversation. The cell network had been cut off and Katsiroubas was now calling from a satellite phone, and the quality of the calls was made worse by the growing din of shooting and helicopters in the background.

By this point, the calls were being recorded back at BP's headquarters in Sunbury, listened to by a large group on speakerphone — and, it later turns out, by Algerian officials monitoring the calls on the ground.

Scotland Yard's hostage negotiation unit was providing advice on how to negotiate with the Canadian.

Collins in turn was in touch with officials at Statoil, another partner at the In Amenas plant (who were also apparently receiving calls from Katsiroubas and at least one other militant).

According to Collins, the Statoil officials promised they were passing the demands on to an Algerian minister in contact with the military.

But no escort materialized.

Collins said he tried to appeal to Katsiroubas in a "humanitarian way." Would he release the injured, or allow a doctor to come in?

Katsiroubas ignored those pleas and then demanded safe passage to the main facility at the other end of the plant, where other militants were holding yet more hostages.

A darker tone

In a 2:15 PM call that same day, the conversation took on a darker tone.

Katsiroubas made a direct threat that would be repeated in the flurry of back-to-back calls to follow.

"Move military or we will kill people in two hours," he's quoted as saying.

It was the first time Katsiroubas explicitly threatens anyone's life.

Katsiroubas was demanding the removal of a barrier placed by the Algerian military blocking the road from the sleeping quarters, where he was, and the central processing facility.

In this call, Katsiroubas appears to be exasperated.

"The blockade is very easily moved, it's not like the biggest thing," he says.

On the military, he says, "They haven't moved. They moved back and forth … that's all they do? They, they're not, not doing anything."

That night, little had changed and Collins decided to go home at 11:00 p.m. to sleep, taking his cellphone with him.

It was a decision questioned repeatedly during the inquest given that this cellphone was a crucial link with the militants at the scene.

Sure enough, a new Shedad call comes through at 1:13 a.m. In the fog of sleep, Collins missed it. But then immediately received a text.

"Andy, it's 'Shadad' important that YNT [you need to call] ASAP."

Collins tries to call repeatedly, and eventually gets through at 1:36 a.m.

He establishes that despite the threat a few hours earlier, no one had been killed.

"He said everything is all right. They didn't kill anyone. They didn't kill anyone. He repeated that several times," Collins told the inquest.

The military's attack had intensified. And Katsiroubas's words in this call appear more frantic.

Collins insists the messages are being relayed to the right channels. But that hasn't translated into much on the ground, says Katsiroubas.

"Right now the army is firing at us. They fired at our direction, at the prisoners," he says.

"We have not been able to talk to anyone … the leader, the leader says that we'll, we'll talk to the military right now.”

Katsiroubas then goes on to talk about the state of the hostages.

"…people here are worried. They want to speak … to their government and they want to know what's going on. They want to know how the Algerian government, they want to know why the Algerian government is firing at us ... they're firing at everybody. It's not like indiscriminately shooting."

"Because we don't want these guys shot. They're going to just — everyone's going to die."

More shots

At day break there are more threats. At 7:05 a.m., Katsiroubas tells Collins they will make good on their earlier threat: if the military doesn't pull back, the militants would kill one hostage.

Katsiroubas then puts another hostage, Nick Hitch, on the line. Collins asks Hitch whether it appears there are any local negotiations going on with the Algerians.

Hitch tells him: "I can't see any evidence of that."

Hitch seems to put the question to Katsiroubas, too, while he's on the phone, and comes back to say "no, no. They haven't had any and they haven't communicated with the people here."

No phone calls, no runners? "Nothing at all," said Hitch, a British citizen who survived the attack and submitted written testimony to the inquest.

Instead, in a subsequent call at 7:45, Katsiroubas describes a military buildup. He could see 50-calibre chain guns, two tanks, and a battalion.

At 9:05 a.m., he called again to describe a helicopter attack on a building not far from where the hostages were held. He demands the Algerian government be informed.

"Tell the guy in Algiers that the military they, they fired at the, firing at us again with missiles, and the missile hit, one of them hit the kitchen, the kitchen has injured in it."

And it is in that call that Katsiroubas, in what seems a sudden shift in tactics, says they will now allow a negotiator and a doctor in. He promises to guarantee their safety.

However, by this stage, it's clear the military is intent on ending the standoff.

In the subsequent, increasingly frantic calls Collins keeps insisting they're in contact with Algiers to try to de-escalate the situation, while Katsiroubas seems to indicate that the opposite is happening.

In one more call, he puts another hostage on the line to describe a helicopter firing directly at them. Then he takes the phone again.

"You'll have to get the military to stop firing," Katsiroubas says before hanging up.

Made a run for it

It was shortly after that call that the militants tried to make a run for it to the far end of the plant.

The gunmen, including Katsiroubas, forced the hostages into SUVs and headed in the direction of the central processing facility.

Katsiroubas was carrying a suicide bomb in his lap, which he had assembled himself, as the horrified hostages watched.

Katsiroubas rode in one SUV carrying only British nationals — who are made to sit mostly on the right side of the vehicle – the side exposed to the incoming fire. They were being used as human shields, not for the first time, the inquest was told.

But they never made it. The vehicles were either halted by a barrage of fire from the military, or blown up by the hostage takers exploding their suicide bombs. Several hostages died in those vehicles.

Katsiroubas survived, despite attempting — and failing — to detonate his suicide bomb. He was last seen by at least one of the surviving British hostages running towards the central processing facility.

In court, Collins told the inquest that he received no more calls from Shedad. But that a voice mail appeared on his phone that afternoon.

To Collins, the voice is unrecognizable. It sounds slurred and slow. Nothing like Shedad's aggressive tone.

Collins and his team listened to it repeatedly, and suddenly realized that the voice is actually that of Shedad/Katsiroubas. But it now sounds laboured — likely the voice of someone with severe injuries.

Katsiroubas had claimed at one point early on that it was never the group's intention to take anyone’s life.

"I told you that from the beginning our intentions are not to kill anyone. But the Algerian army is making extremely difficult for us to, they're not letting us talk to them. Even not letting the Algerians talk to, talk to them."

But in this final call it's clear killing—a mass killing—is precisely what the hostage takers were planning to do. If the military did not withdraw, they were planning a huge final explosion in which the surviving hostage-takers and the remaining hostages would be killed.

"Andy, this is the mujahedeen calling you. Half the prisoners are dead because the Algerian army fired at three cars full of prisoners. Half your prisoners are dead.

"I'm not talking about Algerians, I'm talking about foreign nationals, Americans, British and Norwegian and all this. The other half are here and the Algerians are advancing. You need to stop the Algerians so we can deal with this or everybody's going to be dead, we're going to blow up the factory."

It's the last time Collins would hear from him. Katsiroubas died in that large explosion, along with his high school friend, Ali Medlej.

Katsiroubas’s words and images stayed behind, a reminder of the tragic circumstances that ended the lives he helped destroy. 

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