From Season 6 of Canadian Idol:
I’d tell him not to quit his day job, but it’s his night job I’m more worried about.
He’s the goofy reality show contestant who moonwalked his way across a Montreal stage in a shalwar kameez and pashtun hat, singing off-key the song Complicated by Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne.
He’s the McGill medical school graduate and resident, and pathologist at a small-town hospital near London, an ostensible humanitarian who risked his life to deliver aid to survivors in an earthquake-ravaged region of Pakistan.
But he’s also terror suspect number three in a sensational Canadian national security case that has made headlines around the world.
If ever a fiction writer were to create a character with an apparent double life, one that would confound those who thought they knew him best, they could do no better than Dr. Khurram Sher.
Sher’s unlikely audition for the sixth season of Canadian Idol in 2008 is a good example.
In his shimmering green cloak, he appears on stage and confirms to the judges that he’s from Pakistan. “I came in 2K5,” he tells them with a clear accent, “so it’s been about three years now.”
Except that those who knew him from his time as a pathology resident at McGill say he was born in the Montreal region, has no accent, and, as one colleague put it, “He seemed so westernized.”
Indeed, as Sher begins to sing, his accent seems to disappear, only to come back after his comical performance, as the judges ask him if he ever wanted to be a comedian.
Sher, now 28, told co-workers the Canadian Idol appearance was a gag; he knew he wouldn’t go anywhere with it. Why he chose to use a fake Pakistani accent and wear the traditional clothes is a mystery to them.
“He did it as a joke, he told us,” said one person who knew Sher well.
To those out of the loop, it was baffling. “When i saw khuram (sic) on TV i thought to myself, what the heck is he doing?” wrote one acquaintance on a Montreal Muslim online forum.
The Star spoke to several of Sher’s former colleagues, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sher never wore traditional clothing to work at the residents’ lab in the pathology department, part of the Royal Victoria Hospital at the McGill University Health Centre. He only ever sported jeans and a casual shirt, sometimes his San Jose Sharks jersey, and often listened to his iPod. Neither did he ever betray any religious or ideological motivation, if it ever existed, his co-workers said.
“He didn’t seem like he was (a) practicing” Muslim, said one colleague.
A colleague said she had “goosebumps” when she heard about the charges against Sher. “He was such a nice guy,” she said.
University officials issued a reminder to department staff not to speak to media about the case.
Sher attended Centennial Regional High School, a large English high school in Greenfield Park, the school confirmed Thursday. His coworkers say he has a partner and at least two children.
He attended medical school and completed his residency at McGill before moving to London.
He wasn’t well known where he lived in London, having moved in about a month ago, neighbours said.
Laura DeGroot, who lives three doors down, said the first time she saw Sher was Wednesday morning. He was pacing his lawn with his hands behind his back, she said.
Other neighbours reacted, as expected, with shock and confusion to news of his arrest. Sher was described as “nice” and “pleasant.”
“He was normal,” said one neighbour who asked not to be named.
In 2005, Sher answered a call from the Islamic Foundation of Toronto looking for volunteers to go to the Kashmir region of Pakistan to help earthquake survivors.
He didn’t have an association with the Toronto centre, a spokesperson said Thursday, but was among a group of medical professionals who stepped forward.
On Nov. 3, 2005, Liberal MP Derek Lee commended Sher’s efforts, mentioning him by name and noting that the doctors had hiked into the remote regions to reach the neediest.
“These young Canadian men, along with our community that supports them in the middle of Ramadan, stand as a testament to the best that we as Canadians aspire to be.”
Sher was also active in ball hockey leagues. He was part of “Team Pakistan,” participating in the World Street Hockey Championships in Pittsburgh, according to a 2005 Star article.
Many of the team members, like Sher, were born in Canada, but of Pakistani heritage and unable to qualify for a Canadian team.
“I wanted to see how I compare with the elite in ball hockey,” a then 23-year-old Sher was quoted as saying.
Those who know Sher say they simply can’t believe the allegations. It is hard to fathom that the character on Canadian Idol could be the same man now in custody, they say.
But Mubin Shaikh, a former RCMP informant and one of the Crown’s star witnesses in the case against the so-called Toronto18, cautioned against a quick judgment.
“When we dismiss them off as amateur, or not really capable of pulling something off, I remind people all it takes to fire a gun is a basic motor skill,” he said Thursday.
“We run the risk of becoming not so vigilant — becoming dismissive.”
The 2006 arrest of 18 young Muslim men in Toronto on terrorism charges also began with sensational headlines — and disbelief.
In the end, of the 14 men and four youths who were charged, 11 were eventually convicted. Charges against seven of the accused were dropped.
With files from Stuart Thompson in London, Ont.
The alleged offences
Partial text of the charges against Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh, Misbahuddin Ahmed and Khurram Syed Sher:
1. That Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh, Misbahuddin Ahmed and Khurram Syed Sher, between the 1st day of February, 2008 and the 24th day of August, 2010, did conspire with James Lara, Rizgar Alizadeh and Zakaria Mamosta, and person or persons unknown, at or near the City of Ottawa, province of Ontario, and elsewhere in Canada, and in Iran, Afghanistan, Dubai and Pakistan, to commit an indictable offence, to wit: knowingly facilitating a terrorist activity.
2. That Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh unlawfully did, between the 1st day of September, 2009 and the 24th day of August, 2010, in the City of Ottawa, province of Ontario, commit an indictable offence, to wit: making or having in his possession an explosive substance with intent thereby to endanger life or cause serious damage to property, or to enable another person to do so, in violation of s. 81(1)(d) of the Criminal Code, for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a terrorist group.
3. That Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh unlawfully did, between the 1st day of September, 2009 and the 24th day of August, 2010, in the City of Ottawa, province of Ontario, and elsewhere in Canada, directly or indirectly, collect property, provide or invite a person to provide, or make available property or financial services, knowing that, in whole or in part, they will be used by or will benefit a terrorist group.