QUEBEC CITY (Reuters) - The suspect in the shooting rampage at a Canadian mosque visited the site before Sunday’s massacre, asking for money and scouting the scene before returning with guns and killing six men as they prayed, a member of the mosque said.
Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, was charged in court on Monday with six counts of premeditated murder and five counts of attempted murder with a restricted weapon after Sunday evening’s massacre at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec.
Members of the mosque were shocked to find the man that had been seen twice outside the center in the days before the shooting was the same slightly built French-Canadian that police said was the lone attacker in the shooting.
“I remembered his face,” Lhoussine El Manoug said on Wednesday, recalling his reaction when the suspect’s image was broadcast across Canada after the massacre.
El Manoug said he recalled meeting the man just three days before Sunday’s shooting. The suspect showed up at the mosque between 7:45 p.m. ET and 8 p.m. ET (0045-0100 GMT) on Thursday, the same time as the attack on the mosque Sunday night.
He was dressed in a black coat and carried a school bag, El Manoug recalled, adding the suspect said a strange thing: “‘I love Allah. I’ve seen photos of Allah.'”
El Manoug suspected the man did not know anything about Islam, but he saw nothing to tip him off to the suspect’s evil intentions.
“I thought he was someone who was simply ignorant,” El Manoug said.
The man said he needed money to travel to Montreal. El Manoug replied that he did not have any money and suggested they continue the conversation outside the mosque, a square building with a glass front wall, converted from a bank by the city’s burgeoning Muslim community in 2010.
Three nights later, El Manoug missed the shooting spree by mere minutes, departing the mosque Sunday evening as the suspect was bearing down on the building.
After the carnage, he went online to see the picture of the suspect police had arrested. He immediately recognized the face of Bissonnette.
“I never imagined that it would be him,” El Manoug said.
Witnesses of the shooting, mostly men who were praying on the main floor of the mosque, described how the attacker was carrying two weapons, a long gun and a pistol.
He started shooting outside, reportedly killing two men, congregation members said.
“I heard noise coming from outside,” recalled Khamel Yahiaoui, a member of the mosque who had stayed late. “I didn’t know what it was.”
Congregants described how Azzedine Soufiane, a grocery store owner, rushed the attacker instead of fleeing and was shot dead.
“He ran to protect his brothers,” said Mohamed Skimaoui, a member of the mosque’s board of directors.
In the chaos, witnesses described how some rushed to find hiding spots and treated the wounded.
One man, who spoke on condition that his name not be published, said he hid in a room downstairs with another man at the mosque as they called 911. The two applied a tourniquet to the leg of one person who had been shot in the leg.
The mosque, which opened to reporters on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, revealed a scene of the carnage.
A few pools of blood were still visible on the green carpets and bloody footprints could be seen on the white stairs leading down to the basement.
Selma Yahiaoui was upstairs in the women’s section of the mosque when she heard the shooting.
“I heard a lot of bullets,” she recalled while visiting the mosque Tuesday night.
Panicked, she hid under a table and called the police. After the shooting ended, Yahiaoui went downstairs and looked frantically for her husband Khamel amid the carnage. He had been hiding in the back of the mosque and was safe.
“When I saw him I was barely able to stand,” she said. “I never thought this would happen in Quebec City.”
Additional writing by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Alan Crosby