Homegrown Terrorist Plot Thwarted | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Homegrown Terrorist Plot Thwarted

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 19, 2006. Partner content is not updated.

For years, police and CSIS spooks have kept a close eye on the Salaheddin Islamic Centre, a former warehouse in east-end Toronto.

Homegrown Terrorist Plot Thwarted

For years, police and CSIS spooks have kept a close eye on the Salaheddin Islamic Centre, a former warehouse in east-end Toronto. From the comfort of their cars, anonymous agents watched Ahmed Said Khadr - Osama bin Laden's senior man in Canada - pray and mingle and collect donations for the global jihad. They monitored the movements of Mahmoud Jaballah, the principal of the centre's elementary school, who was later jailed for his alleged ties to terror. Muayyed Nureddin. Helmy Elsherief. Hassan Farahat. All were, at one time or another, regulars at the Scarborough mosque - and the targets of Canadian intelligence officials. Spies are such a fixture around the low brick building that worshippers often joke about bumping into them at the Tim Hortons down the street.

So Muhammad Robert Heft thought it a tad strange that his acquaintance, Fahim Ahmad - one of the alleged leaders of a Toronto terror cell busted last week - chose the Salaheddin mosque, of all places, to hand him a DVD promoting the jihadist martyrs of Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq. "That's one of the most-watched masjids in Canada," says Heft, using the Arabic word that denotes a Muslim place of worship. "I thought he was pretty naive to be handing out stuff like that publicly and thinking he wasn't going to be a suspect."

Heft, a 33-year-old Muslim convert who spoke to Maclean's by telephone from Mecca, knew Ahmad through Steven Chand and Jahmaal James, both recent converts as well, and two of the other men who allegedly plotted a terrorist attack on Canadian soil. Both, he says, had adopted rhetoric similar to Ahmad's - jihadist, militant, aggrieved. At one point, Heft says, James told him that Canadian authorities were watching his every move. "He said cars followed him and he knew that they were listening to all his phone conversations," he says. "The thing that boggles my mind is they knew they were being watched."

It is a theme that runs through many accounts of the 12 men and five teenagers who now sit at the centre of a TERRORISM prosecution that has gripped the country. Last week's widely publicized arrests, followed by stunning allegations of bomb plots and planned beheadings, have been described as a wake-up call for trusting citizens, a reminder of just how vulnerable we are to attack. But if the biggest anti-terror sweep in post-9/11 Canada came as a surprise to the general public, the investigation seems to have been an open secret to many in the Muslim community - including, it appears, the very targets of the probe. Early on, CSIS agents reportedly met with a number of the ringleaders and tried to scare them off. They also approached leading members of Toronto's Muslim community, showing pictures of the suspects and pleading for information. Aly Hindy, Salaheddin's outspoken imam - and close friend of the notorious Khadr family - said the attention became so overwhelming that a few months ago, he warned his son to stop hanging out with some of the people who are now behind bars. Not because he thought they were up to no good, but because authorities appeared bent on bringing them down. "When my son said he was going to play pool with those guys, I said, 'Don't go. It seems like this agent has a wild imagination.'"

In many ways the sweep of arrests appears to have been the conclusion of a textbook operation, although the level of difficulty was more primary school than post-secondary. Indeed, the downfall of this country's first bumper crop of homegrown, would-be jihadis seems to have had much to do with their own strange mixture of arrogance, incompetence and fatalism. The police and security services were vigilant, but it's also safe to say that Canada got lucky this time.

Authorities won't elaborate, but it appears the Canadian Security Intelligence Service first caught wind of a possible cell after a tip from British authorities, who had been monitoring the Internet movements of Younis Tsouli - a.k.a. "Irhabi 007" - a London man accused of operating a series of al-Qaeda-linked websites. Officials believe Tsouli was using one of his chat rooms to communicate with radical recruits in Toronto and Atlanta. By early 2005, CSIS had alerted the ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE, and a criminal investigation was underway.

According to a Crown synopsis of the case, police discovered an ever-widening group of radical terrorists-in-the-making whose plans of attack were as elaborate as they were silly. Storm Parliament. Kidnap politicians. Behead the Prime Minister if he refuses to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan. Detonate truck bombs in downtown Toronto, then open fire on any survivors. "This group posed a real and serious threat," said RCMP assistant commissioner Mike McDonell. "It had the capacity and intent to carry out these attacks."

From the early days of the investigation, police focused much of their attention on a single suspect: 21-year-old Fahim Ahmad, the man distributing the jihad videos outside the Salaheddin mosque. Of the 12 adults and five teenagers arrested last week, none faces more criminal charges than Ahmad. For months, police monitored his movements, intercepted emails and telephone calls, and kept in close contact with counter-terrorism officials in at least a half-dozen other countries. In March 2005, two of the Atlanta suspects - Ehsunul Islam Sadequee and Syed Haris Ahmed - boarded a Greyhound bus to Toronto to, according to the FBI, meet "like-minded Islamic extremists" and discuss possible targets. Police were still watching five months later when Ahmad used his credit card to rent a car for two other friends, Mohammed Dirie and Yasim Mohamed. The pair was later pulled over at the Fort Erie border crossing with guns taped to their legs.

Ahmad was never charged in connection with the weapons smuggling. But police ratcheted up their surveillance, watching, just before Christmas 2005, as nine wannabe jihadis trained for battle at a farm in northern Ontario. Authorities say the men fired weapons, watched videos and discussed possible targets, eventually settling on three locations: the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Toronto office of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and an unnamed military base. One member, the Crown synopsis claims, told the others he couldn't care less whether innocent civilians died.

As the plan took shape, however, 20-year-old Zakaria Amara allegedly grew impatient with Ahmad, complaining that the plot wasn't unfolding as swiftly as it should. He is said to have taken matters into his own hands, researching bomb construction on public library computers and surrounding himself with his own gang of young, committed recruits. When the suspects went looking for three tons of ammonium nitrate - the same fertilizer Timothy McVeigh used to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City - police moved in. Suddenly, what had been an ultra-secret operation was exposed, with hundreds of heavily armed officers banging down front doors across the Greater Toronto Area.

In the days since, 15 of the suspects, shackled and silent, have been paraded in and out of court, staring, sometimes smiling, at the packed galleries. Outside, tactical police teams armed with submachine guns lined the courthouse, watching as journalists - more than a hundred of them - swarmed lawyers and relatives as they pushed their way inside the door. During one hearing, military snipers crouched on the courthouse roof. To some, the police-state trappings were excessive. But accounts from those who knew the suspects, who witnessed first-hand their transformation from gentle teenagers to self-styled radicals, suggest things were leading to that moment.

Sayyid Ahmed Amiruddin, a one-time teacher at the Meadowvale Islamic Centre, watched three of the accused turn increasingly militant, with little in the way of explanation. They grew their hair long, wore toques and fatigues to the mosque, and adopted an aggressive, "rough" brand of Wahhabi-influenced prayer, getting into the personal space of neighbouring worshippers. As he observed their transformation, Amiruddin confronted the boys and engaged them in debate. He last saw one of the suspects, Saad Khalid, before a Friday sermon in April. He was wearing kohl, a black powder that resembles eyeliner. Looking at the young man, Amiruddin scrapped his planned sermon to deliver an impassioned indictment, lashing out at Wahhabism and the violence it condones. "You better watch it because these guys are crazy," Amiruddin told organizers after the session. He has not been invited back since.

Up until last week, Canada's war on terror looked like a bit of a washout. The federal government has spent more than $11 billion on security since 9/11, and while there have been no attacks on Canadian soil, the country's best protection has often appeared to be our relative unimportance in the world. Why would a terrorist attack this country, the reasoning went, when they could drive an hour or two further and hit the U.S.?

In internal government reports, the RCMP claims to have "disrupted" at least a dozen "national-level" terrorist groups across the country, but the force has said little publicly. Details of where the cells were located, how many members they had, and what their intentions were, are not available. And law enforcement agencies continue to focus most of their efforts and money on securing the border and preventing foreign-based groups from gaining a Canadian toehold.

Before the Toronto arrests, only one person had been arrested under the tough anti-terrorism laws passed by Parliament in the wake of Sept. 11. Ottawa resident Momin Khawaja, who has been in detention since 2004, is accused of belonging to a terrorist group and has been linked to a fertilizer-bomb plot in London, England. And Canadian security efforts have been more notable for their failures than successes. There were the cases of three Ottawa men - Maher Arar, Ahmed El-Maati, and Abdullah Almalki - who ended up being incarcerated and tortured in Syrian prisons, under murky circumstances and for highly questionable suspicions. In 2003's "Project Thread," RCMP and immigration authorities claimed they had broken up a major al-Qaeda cell with plans to attack the Pickering nuclear plant, but were eventually forced to admit that the 19 Pakistani suspects were guilty only of overstaying their visas. And of course, there's the country's first-family of terror - the Khadrs - who have never faced charges at home despite having lived with Osama bin Laden, fought at his side, and allegedly supplied al-Qaeda with guns and money.

But authorities have clearly been learning from their own mistakes, and absorbing the hard lessons of the deadly attacks in Bali, Madrid and London. They've become better at sorting through the mountains of investigative material, piecing crucial details together and quickly passing information on to other agencies both at home and abroad. "What becomes paramount here is our ability to effectively share intelligence and information in a timely fashion," says Ben Soave, a retired RCMP chief superintendent, and the former head of the anti-terror Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET). "You make a mistake, and the next thing you know you have a potential terror attack. And when you start counting body bags, everyone will be held accountable." And Canada is getting plenty of international credit for the way it handled the Toronto cell and helped unravel its overseas links. "This is an excellent example of what works," says FBI spokesman Richard Kolko. "We shared with Canada and they worked with us. We also worked with partners around the world."

On the home front, Canadian authorities also appear to have received tips about the suspects from concerned members of the Muslim community. It's not clear how much of a role that information played in the investigation, but the cooperation speaks volumes about another post-9/11 lesson - the need to build bridges with the moderate Muslim majority. Hussein Hamdani, a Hamilton lawyer who sits on the federal government's Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security, says relations have steadily improved over the last two or three years. "There was a notion, right after 9/11, that CSIS was the enemy." Counter-terrorism agents were part of the problem, he says, spreading fear with heavy-handed tactics like visiting people at their work places, and threatening deportation. Forums like the ones Hamdani recently organized in London, Ont., and Hamilton with government officials, senior members of the RCMP and the intelligence service, have helped repair the damage. And parts of the Muslim community are slowly coming to grips with thorny questions about their own culpability. "Why is it that young Chinese, young Filipinos may also feel disenfranchised, but they're not engaging in violence?" asks Hamdani. "We know we need to police ourselves and clean up our own house."

That viewpoint, however, is still far from universal. Omar Kalair, the founder of United Muslims, a community outreach organization, says the police and intelligence services deserve at least part of the blame for the radicalization of the 17 Toronto suspects. "Part of what we feel is that CSIS, in its monitoring, agitated this group, which wasn't doing anything illegal in the beginning, to the point where they said, 'Well if they are going to view us as terrorists, we might as well do something of that sort.'" Kalair says he and at least four other community leaders were approached by agents more than 18 months ago, and asked about the men. "If they knew about these guys a year and a half ago, why didn't they shut them down then? They let them grow, they watched them grow, and when it was a big, fat media story, they took them down."

But good co-operation and timely information are only part of the equation. Investigators also need the right legal tools, and in this case it appears to have been Canada's sweeping - and controversial - new laws that helped propel police to the point of making arrests. The Anti-terrorism Act of 2001 counts among the country's most reviled laws, passed as it was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and almost immediately subjected to criticism because of the unprecedented powers it confers on police and prosecutors. Civil libertarians decried provisions that allow police to make arrests without warrants when a terrorist attack appears imminent, or "investigative hearings" in which a judge can compel evidence from witnesses believed to have information on terror crimes. Everyone from the Canadian Bar Association to church groups identified the act as an assault on freedom and natural justice.

Forgotten amid this clamour, however, were other measures in the Anti-terrorism Act that, in the long run, might well spare lives. In the Toronto case, investigators were able to cast their net beyond a corps of key conspirators because the new law takes deliberate aim at the support system around terrorists - weapons smugglers, say, or those who rent the cars to carry explosives. "It recognizes that the crimes that can be committed are not necessarily limited to actual acts of terrorism," explains Kent Roach, a University of Toronto law professor and author of a 2003 book on 9/11's lessons for Canada. The act also broke down obstacles to electronic surveillance operations, which are vital to detecting modern terror plots before they result in carnage. Unlike their pre-2001 counterparts, the Toronto team was permitted to intercept phone, computer and wireless communications for as long as a year without renewing their warrants. Nor were they required to convince a judge that wiretapping was a "last resort" to get those warrants, as detectives must when working under the Criminal Code.

Just how heavily they leaned on these provisions is unclear: search warrants remain sealed, evidence has yet to be disclosed, and it will be months, if not years, before the cases go to trial. What is known is that the investigation unfolded under the most cop-friendly legal regime since the passage of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. If investigators can't infiltrate terrorist cells with these laws, it's hard to imagine them ever doing so.

The still emerging picture of the alleged plotters also suggests this bunch may not have been the toughest nuts to crack. "There were so many different points that exposed this network - the Balkans, Sweden, London, North America," says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert with the Swedish National Defence College in Stockholm. "This was clearly not the most professional group." The overwhelming fear in European security circles these days are the terror cells like the one that carried out last July's London tube bombings. "Small, self-radicalizing, autonomous cells with good operational security, and a good understanding of our surveillance techniques," says Ranstorp. "That's the big problem." While CSIS and the RCMP deserve credit for doing such a thorough job, he still wonders what will happen if this country finds itself with a London-type challenge. "Before 9/11, Canada did not have a good reputation. They've learned a great deal," says Ranstorp. "But they're one of the weaker links."

In all, the events leading to last week's arrests amount to a journey - a climb from the depths of Project Thread and the shock of the London bombings - that has been sufficiently difficult to make the recent triumphalism surrounding the Toronto raids seem premature. Stockwell Day, the public safety minister, argued that the arrests should inspire confidence among Canadians in their security apparatus. Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, assured television viewers across America that "the Canadians are on the job" - a sweet note indeed to law enforcement ears in Ottawa. But anyone who has followed the war on terrorism in the past five years knows that the road ahead promises still greater challenges. Are there more radical groups in the making? Where are they learning their ideology? Will the next bunch - however unhinged their ideology, or foolhardy their plans - leave their footprints all over cyberspace?

The first order of business will be ensuring the current charges stand up in court. While the new legal framework has cut police some investigative slack, it has also raised a new series of hurdles for the Crown, not the least of which is proving the group meets the legal definition of a terrorist organization. That means showing the accused were acting on "political, religious or ideological" motives, a test in the Anti-terrorism Act that has never faced judicial scrutiny. The need to protect informants, foreign-obtained intelligence and future investigations could also stand in the way of convictions: while the new law allows the Crown to withhold sensitive information gathered during the investigation from the defence, with the approval of a Federal Court justice, doing so could prove fatal to the prosecution. "The trial judge will have to decide whether a fair trial is possible given the restrictions on disclosure," says Roach, of the University of Toronto. "That's a real challenge."

Then there's the quality of the evidence itself - evidence that has yet to be turned over to anxious defence lawyers. Gary Batasar, who represents Steven Chand, one of the accused, is already proclaiming his client's innocence. "This is the biggest case in Canadian history," he says. "And if you're going to make the allegation that my client is involved in bombing and plotting to bomb and terrorist activity, where is the proof?" Batasar stunned many fellow lawyers last Monday, when he stepped out of the courtroom and into a media scrum, announcing to the world that police believe his client personally wanted to behead Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It seemed an odd strategy. Defence lawyers usually try to suppress evidence, not publicize it. "The only reason I went public with this is because my client instructed me to," he explained to Maclean's a few days later. "When he heard what the allegations were, he was astounded. As an innocent man, he was absolutely, positively flabbergasted by these allegations being made against him. These allegations are so ridiculous."

Time will tell, but there is certainly no shortage of terror prosecutions that have crumbled in the past. Italian authorities saw a case against nine suspected al-Qaeda agents,who allegedly wanted to poison the water-supply of the U.S embassy in Rome, go south two years ago for lack of solid evidence. Earlier this month, Spain's top court overturned a Syrian-born man's conviction for conspiracy to commit murder in the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the biggest challenge will be the constantly evolving nature of the threat itself. The "imported" foreign-born jihadis, who underwent training at camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan, have already given way to harder-to-detect "homegrown" plotters, often second-generation immigrants, who receive their instructions via the Internet. And there is increasing evidence that terrorist recruiters are now focusing on Muslim converts. One of the four London bombers, Jermaine Lindsay, was of Jamaican origin. Steven Chand, a.k.a. Abdul Shakur, the Toronto suspect who allegedly wanted to behead the Prime Minister, was raised as a Hindu. And two of the five young offenders facing charges are also reportedly converts. Last November, Muriel Degauque, a Catholic-born Belgian citizen, blew herself up in an attack against a U.S. convoy, north of Baghdad.

Two official British government reports into the London bombings, released earlier this spring, noted the difficulties now facing counter-terrorism agents. The number of "primary" investigative targets in the U.K. grew from 250 around the time of 9/11 to almost 800 by the July 2005 attacks, but resources have not kept pace. Less promising suspects - including two of the eventual tube attackers Siddeque Khan and Shazad Tanweer - regularly fell off the radar. More worrying for the House of Commons intelligence and security committee was how the July attacks "emphasized that there was no clear profile" of a homegrown radical. The four attackers had come from relatively comfortable homes, and there was little in their backgrounds that marked them as "particularly vulnerable to radicalization," noted the Home Office report. Their bombs were constructed from readily available materials and required little expertise. The whole operation is estimated to have cost less than £8,000, including trips by at least two of the bombers to Pakistan.

Moreover, there are signs that suspects are learning as many lessons as police and intelligence agencies from their failures since Sept. 11. Knowing that investigators are keeping close tabs on telephone conversations, emails, websites and chat rooms, terrorist groups are constantly seeking harder-to-trace methods of communication, like counterfeit SIM cards, or satellite phones that are dumped after a single use. One of the men facing charges over the Madrid bombings, Hassan el Haski, is alleged to have set up free Hotmail and Yahoo! accounts as "dead drops." Conspirators all logged on to the same account and saved their messages as drafts, sharing information without actually hitting the send button.

Other groups reportedly disguise their coded communications as spam emails. An FBI affidavit about the two Georgia residents who allegedly travelled to Canada to meet with the Toronto plotters in 2005, notes that federal agents found two CD-ROMs hidden in the lining of one of the men's suitcases. Technical experts are still labouring to decode the one disc's encrypted files, but quickly determined that the other contained a bootleg copy of a hard-core porno film. Apparently, the wait for the 72 virgins that will reward Islamic "martyrs" is not an easy one.

Even if police are ahead of the so-called Jihad 2.0 generation, there are nagging questions about the safety of major targets in Canada, an issue advocates have spent years trying to get on the public radar. The most vocal, Senator Colin Kenny, remains frustrated by the refusal of successive governments to "harden" key installations like border bridges, airports, docklands and power stations. "Of 19 designated ports in Canada, we've still got only 27 Mounties assigned to national security," observes Kenny, a Liberal who, as chair of the standing Senate committee on national security and defence, has produced several reports detailing security shortcomings across the country. Tests at Canadian airports show an "intrusion rate" - i.e. the percentage of knives, guns and bomb materials missed by security screeners - in the high teens, Kenny adds. "That's worse than the ones in the U.S."

The House of Commons, one of the alleged targets, did beef up security in the wake of the recent attacks (though the public is still free to roam the lawns and take tours). Another visible change has been the Rogers Centre - home of the Blue Jays - located along the same stretch of Toronto's Front Street as two other targets, CSIS and the CBC. Vehicles entering the sub-stadium parking garage are now having their trunks searched. The heightened awareness heartens Kenny: "Perhaps people won't wonder what we've been sniffing when we talk about these things." But, he says, we still have a long way to go.

Bracing for further attacks makes all the more sense as experts wait to see how Canada's increasingly muscular foreign policy plays out in the jihadist world. This group may have been planning to storm Parliament Hill to demand the withdrawl of Canadian troops from southern Afghanistan, but the suspects' list of perceived Western injustices against fellow Muslims was long and included places like Iraq and the Palestinian territories, where Canada plays only a minor role. Martin Rudner, director of Carleton University's Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies, says the ideology of terrorism transcends politics. "It's an almost cosmic battle," he says. "We see setting up a school for women in Afghanistan as progressive development. They see that as threatening. It's the mirror image of good and evil."

What does seem certain is that Canada now finds itself faced with the same uncomfortable debate about how to combat the threat from within that is now bedevilling Europe. In the wake of the London attacks, the U.K. moved to toughen hate speech laws, making it a crime to express support for terrorism, and promised to do more to screen out radical imams. After the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the Netherlands has radically tightened immigration laws, requiring newcomers to pass a language and culture test, and are now demanding that ethnic communities fully integrate into Dutch society. Is Canada, a country that has come to see tolerance for other cultures as one of its defining national characteristics, ready for such an abrupt turn? "There is no requirement that multicultural societies commit suicide," says Rudner. "I think we're going to have to look at individuals and institutions that incite hatred against our society and our democratic principles."

Easier said than done. In the uproar following the Toronto raids, it's been difficult at times to tell a moderate from a radical, a jihadi from a hormonally challenged high-schooler. And no one seems keen to kiss off cherished freedoms for the sake of a shadowy threat: by the end of last week, authorities were already enduring criticism from an organization with the rather literal-minded title Citizens Against a Rush to Judgment, which accused them of using the media to prejudice the public against the suspects. It is tempting under the circumstances to smooth over the social rifts exposed by these highly public arrests - to imagine the domestic threat is well within the reach of our police and intelligence agencies. But as Senator Kenny put it after cataloguing the many soft spots in Canada's armour, "The terrorist only has to be lucky once. The cops have to be lucky every time." And assuming the next batch can find a less obvious place to do business than the Salaheddin Islamic Centre, that suddenly seems like a lot to ask.

Maclean's June 19, 2006