MONTREAL/VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The gunman who killed a soldier in Ottawa and then raced through Canada’s parliament before being shot dead was a misfit and perhaps mentally ill, according to police, friends and family, while his troubled and transient past included robbery and drug offences.
Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, a Canadian citizen and convert to Islam, was identified by police on Thursday as the attacker in the incident that rocked Canada.
“(He) was lost and did not fit in. I his mother spoke with him last week over lunch, I had not seen him for over five years before that,” a woman who identified herself as Zehaf-Bibeau’s mother said in a statement provided to the Associated Press.
Police said Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed a soldier stationed at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Wednesday before running into the nearby parliament buildings, where he was shot and killed by guards in a flurry of gunfire.
“He is an interesting individual in the sense he had a very developed criminality ... a non-national-security related criminality of violence and of drugs and of mental instability,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner Bob Paulson told a news conference on Thursday.
He said Zehaf-Bibeau had applied for a passport to travel and wanted to go to Syria, but the passport application was delayed, which likely helped motivate the attack.
“I think the passport figured prominently in his motives and his - you know I’m not inside his head - but I think it was central to what was driving him,” Paulson said.
Paulson also said emails suggested he had associations with people who had shared his radical views.
U.S. officials said they had been advised that Zehaf-Bibeau was a convert to Islam. His father was a Canadian citizen of Libyan descent and Paulson said Zehaf-Bibeau may have been a dual citizen of Canada and Libya.
A friend who lived with Zehaf-Bibeau at a Vancouver homeless shelter said Zehaf-Bibeau had tried unsuccessfully to get off drugs.
“We referred to him as Muslim Mike,” Steve Sikich told Reuters. “He didn’t seem like a bad guy.”
Sikich told Reuters the last time he saw Zehaf-Bibeau he appeared grey and sickly, back on drugs, and was rambling about wanting to travel to Libya and then join the Islamic State. He said the encounter was “a month or two ago.”
“He was crying on my shoulder, because he and I were friends, and he says, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I’m going back home to Libya’,” said Sikich.
“He kind of went into a rant. He seemed very emotional about it,” he said. But first Zehaf-Bibeau said he had to go to Ottawa to get his passport.
Several years ago Zehaf-Bibeau attended Vancouver’s Masjid Al-Salaam mosque, where he met David Bathurst, also a convert to Islam, David’s father, John Bathurst, told Reuters. Bathurst offered Zehaf-Bibeau some work with the family’s sprinkler company in 2011, but he only lasted two days on the job.
“We made a mistake in trying to help someone out,” Bathurst said. “We didn’t fire him, I don’t even remember why he quit. He probably just didn’t show up.”
Bathurst, who described Zehaf-Bibeau as “nondescript,” said he believed mental illness, not Islam, was behind the attack.
In 2011, Zehaf-Bibeau begged a British Columbia judge to put him in jail, saying he was homeless and wanted to overcome a crack cocaine addiction, according to court records reported by Canadian media. He admitted to an old armed robbery in order to be jailed.
“I went to see the RCMP, I told them, ‘just put me in so I could do my time for what I confessed.’ They couldn’t. So, I warned them, ‘if you can’t keep me in, I’m going to do something right now just to be put in.’ So I went to do another robbery just so I could come to jail,” Zehaf-Bibeau said.
“I’m a crack addict and at the same time I’m a religious person, so I want to sacrifice freedom and good things for a year maybe, so when I come out, I’ll appreciate the things of life more and be clean.”
Zehaf-Bibeau stayed at the Ottawa Mission homeless shelter in a downtrodden part of the city for about 10 days before Wednesday’s attack, several people at the shelter told Reuters.
One man, who identified himself only as Randy, said on Thursday he frequently saw Zehaf-Bibeau praying in the hallways.
Court records in Montreal showed Zehaf-Bibeau was born to Susan Bibeau in 1982 after she had a brief relationship with Bulgasem Zehaf. The two had a rocky relationship but were married in 1989, Bulgasem said in an affidavit.
“After (his) birth, his mother, Susan Bibeau and I renewed our relationship and I also established links with my son,” Zehaf said in the affidavit. “I was entitled to ... look after his education, his security, and to give him all my love.”
The parents petitioned in 1995 to change their son’s name from Joseph Paul Michael Bibeau to Joseph Paul Michael Abdallah Bulgasem Zehaf Bibeau. Zehaf was also registered as the child’s father at the time.
“We have no explanation to offer. I am mad at our son, I don’t understand and part of me wants to hate him at this time,” his mother, a civil servant, said in her statement.
A Michael Joseph Paul Zehaf-Bibeau was charged with robbery in Vancouver in December 2011, according to court documents, and was later found guilty of a lesser count of uttering threats.
He also had multiple run-ins with police in the French-speaking province of Quebec. Court records show three 2004 cases involving a Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. He pleaded guilty to two drug-related offences and one charge of failing to comply with a judge’s order.
At the Ottawa Mission, one resident who identified himself as Mark suggested the man they knew briefly had two sides.
One day, Zehaf-Bibeau “snapped” and acted aggressively with other residents, Mark said. He later apologised.
“It just floors me because he was all right,” Mark said. “Maybe he was mentally challenged or something. What causes somebody to snap like that?”
Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis and Peter Henderson in Ottawa; Writing by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Peter Galloway, Frances Kerry, Robert Birsel