A 27-year-old university student has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder over a shooting at a Québec City mosque during evening prayers, in what the Canadian prime minister described as an act of terror.
Alexandre Bissonnette, a student in the social sciences faculty at Laval University, also faces five charges of attempted murder.
Bissonnette did not enter a plea during a brief court appearance late on Monday. Wearing a white prisoner jump suit, his hands and feet shackled, he stared down at the floor and fidgeted, but remained silent.
A local group dedicated to welcoming refugees, Bienvenu aux réfugiés, said Bissonnette’s name was familiar to them, describing him as an online troll who had denigrated refugees and expressed support for Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right Front National.
In a Facebook post, the group said Bissonnette was “unfortunately known by several militants in Québec City for his viewpoints that were pro-LePen and anti-feminist, as expressed in social media and at the Université Laval”.
Others who knew Bissonnette described him a timid introvert who was a staunch supporter of US president Donald Trump. “He loved Trump a lot and seemed to be permanently set against the left, Éric Debroise told the Journal de Québec. He said had reached out to police in the wake of the shooting to inform them that Bissonnette is “far right and an ultra nationalist white supremacist”
Another classmate, Jean-Michel Allard Prus, described Bissonnette as someone with “right-wing political ideas, pro-Israel, anti-immigration. I had many debates with him about Trump,” he said. “He was obviously pro-Trump.” But Bissonnette had never broached the idea of violence as a political tool, he added.
The charges came hours after the attack at the Québec City Islamic cultural center, also known as the Grande Mosquée de Québec, during evening prayers. Six people were killed and another 19 injured.
Five people remain in critical condition in hospital.
Police initially said two men had been arrested after the attack. But later in the day, provincial police clarified that only one was a suspect and they had released the other – considered to be a witness – without charges.
The brazen attack left the tight-knit Muslim community in Québec City reeling. Many had been awake all night waiting for details of the shooting to trickle in. “I can’t express the grief that has touched our community,” said Mohamed Labidi, a spokesman for the Quebec City Islamic cultural center. “This tragedy occurred in a place of prayer, with people who were praying.”
Through tears he added: “It’s a very, very big tragedy for us. We have a sadness we cannot express.”
On Monday, the names and identities of the six people killed in the attack began to emerge. All of them were fathers.
Azzedine Soufiane, 57, a grocer and father of three, was well-known in the community and beloved for the time he spent helping newcomers adjust to the city.
Khaled Belkacemi, 60, was a professor in the food science department at Laval University. “Our university community is in mourning today,” rector Denis Briere said in a statement. “We mourn the death of an esteemed member of the faculty and the university, a devoted and beloved man of his colleagues and students.”
Also among those killed was Abdelkrim Hassane, 41, an information technology worker for the government and father of three, as well as Aboubaker Thabti, 44, a Tunisian-born father of two.
Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42, and Ibrahima Barry, 39, close friends who had emigrated from Guinea to Canada, were also killed, leaving behind four and two children respectively.
The attack shocked many in this quiet city, home to just over 500,000 people. Violence is rare here – in 2015, the city reported just two murders.
“Québec Muslims are frightened right now,” said Haroun Bouazzi, president of the AMAL-Quebec, a human rights group based in Montreal. “We are urgently waiting for answers as to how and why such a tragedy could occur.”
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, condemned the attack on Monday. “Make no mistake, this was a terrorist attack. This was a group of innocents targeted for practicing their faith,” he said. “To the more than 1 million Canadians who profess the Muslim faith, I want to say directly, we are with you 36 million hearts are breaking with yours.”
He urged Canadians to stand in solidarity with those affected by the attack. “We will grieve with you, we will defend you, we will love you and we will stand with you.”
Phillippe Couillard, the premier of Québec, described Sunday’s shooting as a “murderous act directed at a specific community” and also expressed his solidarity with Muslims in Québec. “Québec categorically rejects this barbaric violence.” Security had been increased at mosques across the province, he added.
Vigils were planned across the country, while people around the world used social media to express their condolences and voice their support for the mosque. A Go fund me page, set up to help the families of the victims with funeral costs, had raised more than C$120,000 by Monday evening.