The Cheerleader Turned Jihadist


The Cheerleader Turned Jihadist:

The Journey of Ali Hashi “Hazel” Aden from Somalia to Canada to Somalia to Syria

by Samuel Isaacs. Additional reporting by Jacob Epstein & Stephanie Cohen

She was the popular, busty cheerleader who dated the star of the basketball team. Now those who watched her grow up are left to wonder how this all-Canadian teenage girl became the most notorious female fighter for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and an influence on the worst terrorist attack in Canada in years.


Left: Hazel Aden in her Grade 8 yearbook photo, Toronto. Right: Aden at an Al-Shabaab training camp near Kismayo, Somalia

THE YEAR END DANCE at Degrassi Community School was supposed to be the most romantic night of 16-year-old Hazel Aden’s life. Her boyfriend, James, had rented a limousine for them and another couple, their best friends. But the night turned into one problem after another. Their limo driver was arrested and the teens had to be taken to the dance in a police car, only to arrive and see that the dance was cancelled—because the school had caught fire.

James apologised for the terrible night, but Hazel told him not to. She was just happy to be with him and see their school burning. They kissed.

“We had a lot of experiences like that at Degrassi,” says Paige Michalchuk, Hazel’s best friend in high school, who currently works as a executive director for Clare’s Canada. “So much crazy drama would happen to us, but we would make it through.”

Perhaps it was that drive to make it through, whatever it takes, that led Hazel around the world to Syria, where the Canadian government believes she is now a fighter for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The government estimates 130 Canadians citizens are fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq, though other sources give a larger number. Almost all of these fighters are young men. Female members of ISIS received little attention until the terrorist group released a brutal video that shocked the nation. “A Message to Canada” showed the beheading of Canadian freelance journalist Jesse Stefanovic carried out by a masked female in an unknown location in the Syrian Desert. The Royal Mounted Intelligence Agency (RMIA) believes the executioner is Hazel Aden (see: Prime Minister Says Heads Will Roll Over Beheading Video).


Hazel was born Ali Hashi Aden in Mogadishu, Somalia in August of 1988, in the midst of sectarian fighting that would escalate into all out civil war in 1991. Her father, Booka Bunga Aden, was a solider in the conflict. Life in the war torn capital was too dangerous to raise a daughter, so Booka Bunga and his wife, Fartuun, applied for refugee status. After having their application rejected by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Belgium, the family was finally accepted into Canada and settled into a community housing apartment in Toronto. Ali and her mother arrived first and her father joined them years later, once he beheaded enough enemies to meet his pension obligation.

The Aden family attends Mosque in Toronto

The Aden family attends Mosque in Toronto

Ali had little memory of her country of birth and grew up embracing the typical Canadian pastimes of hockey, watching Kids in the Hall, and criticizing the United States.

Though the Adens attended mosque regularly, Ali was the only Muslim in her junior high school. Still, her mother says this was not a problem—until the September 11 attacks on the United States. That was when the bullying started. Ali  was repeatedly taunted with words like “terrorist” and “suicide bomber” and physically attacked by a group of girls.

Fartuun now lives alone in the apartment she once shared with her husband and daughter, and has taken up the cause of defending her daughter to a country where many view her as a terrorist. Fartuun vividly describes the fear Ali faced at school. “Ali couldn’t sleep,” says Fartuun. “She was scared George W. Bush would come into her bedroom and beat her up.”

Degrassi Student

Ali’s parents petitioned the Toronto school board to send her to a different school. In January 2002, Ali enrolled in Degrassi Community School, the brand new magnet school that had opened the previous September. She even changed her name, calling herself “Hazel” after the hazel-nut paste the government supplied to Somali refugees that she loved to eat every day.

With state of the art facilities, Degrassi was a place where students from all over Toronto could come to be the best. And Hazel became the best she could be. She made new friends by joining the cheer team, the gymnastics team, and an all-girl rock band. Hazel was a member of the popular clique, following head cheerleader Paige from one adventure to the next.


Hazel with friends

“We were inseparable,” say Paige, “wherever I went, Hazel was right behind me. Like a shadow, which sort of made sense ’cause they’re both black. But she never told me she was a Muslim. Or Somalian.”

Fearful of repeating the bullying of her previous school, Hazel hid her identity from her new classmates, and would not invite her friends to her home. But her secret wouldn’t last long.

During her freshman year at Degrassi, the school held a Heritage Day in which all students were required to wear costumes and give presentations on their ethnic background. Hazel pretended to be Jamaican. She bought jerk chicken from a restaurant and passed it off as her mother’s cooking.

“It did surprise me when Hazel said she was Jamaican,” says Degrassi principal Archie Simpson, then one of Hazel’s teachers. “‘Aden’ didn’t sound like a Jamaican name. I tried to look it up on the web, but this was 2002 when it was impossible to find information using a search engine. Friggin’ useless AltaVista. Anyway, she didn’t smell like she smoked pot all day. Instead, she used deodorant, unlike every other Jamaican person you meet…Oh my, please don’t print that.”

But after an Iraqi-Canadian student’s display was vandalized with the word ‘TERRORIST’, Hazel found the courage to come out to the entire school as a Somali Muslim and speak out against hate (see: Ontario Human Rights Tribunal Sentences Two Teenage Boys to 70 Years Hard Labor for Hate Speech).

Hazel with various Degrassi students

Hazel with various Degrassi students

“We all learned a lesson about tolerance,” says Gavin Mason, one of Hazel’s classmates, now the owner of local cafe. “We learned that it is wrong to criticize Islam. Only a bigot would judge an entire religion solely by the bad actions of a few million of its followers.”

“She definitely experienced some character growth that day,” says Principal Simpson.

“She was a lot more comfortable with her religion after that,” says Marco Del Rossi, one of Hazel’s classmates, now a teacher in Nunavut. “Actually, she could be really vocal about a lot things. She could get really judgmental.”

“I dated a girl in senior year,” says Paige. “Hazel was not happy with that. I think because we always did the same things, so she worried she had to become a lesbian now, too. I explained to her that, hon, after I broke up with my previous boyfriend, I had to switch to girls because no other man could satisfy me like he did.”

“She kept saying if I kept up my gay lifestyle, I was going to gets AIDS,” says Del Rossi. “I mean, OK, I did get AIDS. But still–it was rude of her to say that.”

“She would randomly scream at me about Israel because I’m Jewish,” says Toby Isaacs, a Degrassi graduate who now runs an internet startup in Silicon Valley. “She would say that someday the people of the world would rise against the evil Zionist state. I always laughed at her and was, like, ‘How? Nobody’s going to do anything when we control all the media!’ At least I got to look at her boobs whenever she said that. She had a great rack. That’s still in my spank bank. Go ahead and print that sh*t. I don’t care. I’m on top of the world, b*tch. I used to host Battle Bots motherf*cker!”

[Disclosure: Phil Silverman, president of CBC News, is Toby Isaac’s uncle; David Isaacs, CBC News bureau chief Toronto, is Toby’s Isaacs’s uncle; Judith Shekelstein, legal counsel for CBC News, is Toby Isaac’s aunt; Ira Finkel, financial director for the CBC, is Toby Isaac’s cousin; Norman Isaacs-Goldberg, curator of CBC’s Benjamin & Ruth Isaacs Holocaust Museum, is Toby Isaac’s cousin; Simon Ben-Shyster, CBC’s liaison to the Israeli government…For a full list of CBC employees related to Toby Isaacs, please see the following documentation]
Hazel Aden, senior year of high school

Hazel Aden, senior year of high school

Hazel dated one boy during high school, James Brooks. James was the star of the basketball team and the school’s VIP trophy is named in his honour. They were together for two years, a very long time compared to the relationships of their classmates. They remained a couple after James was paralysed as a result of the October 31st, 2004 Degrassi school shooting (see: Shooting at Degrassi Renews Calls to Make Gun-Free Zones More Gun-Free). Hazel rented a van with a wheelchair ramp to take them to prom. James declined to be interviewed for this story because our offices are on the third floor and the elevator was out-of-order that day (see: Budget Cuts to CBC Affect Maintenance of Office Building. HELP!).

Hazel graduated high school in 2006. While several of her close friends went on to attend the University of Toronto and rent a house together, Hazel opted to leave the city, the country, and her friends behind.

“We didn’t know what happened to her,” says Paige. “She totally vanished. Then one day I looked on her MyRoom page. It hadn’t been updated in years. But that day there was a whole bunch of new pictures of her in a Muslim dress thing. She had this big black flag with Muslim squiggles on it. It was rather unsettling.”

A screenshot of Hazel's MyRoom page before it was deleted

A screenshot of Hazel’s MyRoom page before it was deleted

Back to Africa

Hazel returned to Somalia, the land of her birth, and enrolled in a madrassa. She graduated in 2010, earning a degree in Jihadi Studies with a minor in Suicide Bombing Techniques, and was immediately was recruited by Al-Shababb, the Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group fighting the UN-recognised government. She returned to using her birth name, Ali.

“We were shocked,” says Eleanor Nash, another classmate of Hazel’s, who is unemployed. “She hardly ever did anything in school. You almost forgot she was around. Now she’s a terrorist?”

How could this happen? That is the question her friends in Canada have. The RMIA has only made public a small amount of the information gathered on Ali “Hazel” Aden, but an anonymous source within the agency tells CBC News they believe Ali was influenced by her father, Booka Bunga. The elder Aden was a fighter in the civil war, rising to the rank of colonel by 1995. This awarded Booka Bunga much honour as well as a goat to ride in battle. “Ali was only accepted to that madrassa because her father was an alumni,” says an anonymous source within the RMIA. Booka Bunga’s current whereabouts are unknown.

Fartuun denies that Ali’s father drove her to violence and points the finger squarely at her high school. “Ali saw so much violence at Degrassi,” says Fartuun. In addition to her boyfriend being shot and paralysed, she had a friend who was beaten into a coma by an abusive boyfriend. A year prior, another friend was raped. “How would you expect her to process such horrors?” Fartuun asks.

“It should surprise no one that a Degrassi graduate could become a terrorist,” says our source in the RMIA.

Our source tells us the RMIA is examining another possible influence on Ali, Fareeza Asadi, the Iraq-Canadian student whose vandalized heritage display led Hazel to come out as a Muslim that fateful day.

“Hazel would be gone for a long time and I would ask where she was,” says Paige. “And she would say she was at Fareeza’s house. And I would say, ‘What were you doing there? You’re weren’t talking about me?’ And she would say no and I would ask her again to make sure and she would say no again. Then I would drop it. If they weren’t talking about me, I didn’t care what they were doing.”

Fartuun explains, “Ali would ask why so many bad things happened around her. I told her Allah was sending these punishments because she was a bad Muslim, and that she should go study the Holy Koran with Fareeza to bring Allah’s blessing upon her.”

Fareeza’s parents died in 2005 committing a duel suicide bomb attack against American troops in Iraq. It’s likely Fareeza wanted to follow them into martyrdom, and travelled to Somalia to join Ali. In 2011, famed Canadian journalist Catlin Ryan filmed a story for CTV about Canadian citizens fighting in Somalia, “Canadians Citizens Fighting in Somalia”. The report featured two young woman referred to only as ‘A’ and ‘F’, with their faces blurred. A and F shared an apartment in down-town Mogadishu, where they “planned jihad by day and met men at night.” Ryan reported, “It’s like Sex and the City if the city were Mogadishu, alcohol was forbidden, and the women were attractive.”

Ryan would not confirm ‘A’ was Ali Aden unless she was paid, which is against CBC News policy.

Success in Syria

Despite their enthusiasm, it appears the two never found success or excitement fighting in Somalia. The RMIA believes Ali and Fareeza left Somalia for Syria sometime in 2013, to take part in the ongoing civil war.

“The civil war in Somali has become passé among young, millennial, radical Muslims,” reads a declassified CIA report. “They view it as their parent’s jihad. All the cool Islamists want to fight in Syria. The conflict appeals to Generation Y who were raised on reality TV and social media.”

Fareeza is believed to have been killed fighting within their first month. But Ali rose quickly through the ranks of ISIS, much as her father did in Al-Shababb, and is likely the woman referred to in ISIS propaganda as ‘Al-Kanadeyyah’, The Canadian. Al-Kanadeyyah is the Information Minister for ISIS and won the ISIS Woman of the Year Award in 2015 and 2016.

In addition to rapidly taking control of large parts Iraq and Syria, ISIS has received attention for the high production value in their propaganda (see: ISIS Short Film Sweeps Awards at Chechan International Film Festival). For years, the West was used to viewing grainy VHS tapes of Osama bin Laden making speeches while sitting on a blanket, pillow, or toilet seat. In contrast, ISIS videos are filmed in high-definition 1080i on a multi-camera sound stage, with effects worthy of Industrial Light & Magic. They often have well-choreographed musical performances. They are made available in multiple web and mobile formats. All ISIS videos since 2014 credit the director as ‘Al-Kanadeyyah’. Al-Kanadeyyah has even produced numerous videos aimed specifically at Canadians, all of which include French subtitles.

Al-Kanadeyyah appears in a ISIS video celebrating a bombing in Iraq.

If Ali Aden is Al-Kanadeyyah, she mostly likely learned her skills at Degrassi Community School. Principal Simpson explains that Media Immersion is a mandatory course at Degrassi. Students are required to take the two hour class every year from the 7th to 12th grade. “Critics have said this is excessive,” says Principal Simpson. “But it was the year 2000 and high speed internet finally came to Canada. So we received this huge government grant for computers and projectors and video equipment, all of which is obsolete now. We have 700 bulky CRT monitors taking up room in storage. I’m hoping someone reading this can help us with that. My dream is to dump them in the ocean off Vancouver Island to create Canada’s first coral reef. It would be so pretty.” Principal Simpson can be reached through email:

The last photograph of Jesse Stefanovic taken before he left for Syria

Al-Kanadeyyah’s Canadian content received little public attention until Wednesday, August 19, 2014, when Al-Kanadeyyah uploaded a video showing her beheading Jesse Stefanovic. It was called “A Message to Canada”. It was the first time Stefanovic has been seen since he disappeared in November of 2012 while covering the war in northwest Syria. The video became a viral sensation across Canada. It has been viewed over 11 million times on TobyTube and received more than 600,000 likes on Facerange (see: Webby Award Committee Apologizes After Stefanovic Beheading Video Wins Canadian Webby).

Then, on October 22, 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed an army corporal and injured three civilians in an attack on Parliament Hill, before being killed by Sergeant at Arms, Kevin Vickers (see: Shooting Turns Parliament Hill Into Parliament HELL). The RMIA believes Zehaf-Bibeau was in contact with Al-Kanadeyyah. The RMIA has seized emails and chat logs between the two. In several emails, Al-Kanadeyyah promised to send Zehaf-Bibeau a picture of her bare foot if he killed an infidel.

“It’s clear that this evil woman, known as Al-Kanadeyyah, is determined to see more terror attacks occur within Canada and against Canadians abroad,” said then Prime Minister Harper after the Parliament Hill Shooting. “We will be prepared. We will prepare like the beaver, always building, always ready, and always secure. But we will still fight to defend ourselves like the mighty moose. And always—always standing tall and strong like the maple tree. Thank you and God bless the Queen!” (see: Prime Minister Speaks on Shooting, Tears Off Shirt, Beats Chest)

Prime Ministers Harper and Trudeau differed on how to deal with Al-Kanadeyyah

When Justin Trudeau assumed the premiership in 2015, his Liberal government took a different approach towards Al-Kanadeyyah and other Canadians who joined ISIS. He proposed a general amnesty for all ISIS members who return to Canada, as well as a stipend of $100,000 per year to help them reintegrate to Canadian society.

“If we punish so-called ‘terrorists’,” said Trudeau, “that only makes us terrorists as well. It’s like, man, when we put people in prison for being criminals, that makes us, criminals too. We stole that prisoner’s freedom. And stealing is bad man, real bad.”

“Hey,” Trudeau continued. “You ever think maybe the prisoners are the ones that are free, and we’re the ones in prison? No, like, hear me out. Maybe those gates and those wals aren’t to keep the prisoners in, they’re to keep us out. Think about it man! Prisoners get a free bed and meals everyday. They don’t have to worry about money. And they get a sweet basketball court. Meanwhile, sh*t man, we don’t get nothing free for not being in prison. We got to work every day to get money for food and beds and basketballs. If we don’t work, we don’t eat. Work is the real prison, man. Work is a prison.” (see: Trudeau Addresses Parliament for More Than 17 Hours, Mostly About Tattoos He Wants)

Back in Toronto, Hazel’s former classmates are still in shock. “I’m still in shock,” says Paige Michalchuk.

Next Week on CBC News The National:

Ali “Hazel” Aden is not only Degrassi graduate to go missing in Africa. Learn the story of Christian aide worker Darcy Edwards, and how her kidnapping in Kenya sparked the global #BringBackOurGirl movement.

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