Yasin Mohamed Acquitted of Terrorism Charges

The old carpet has not been replaced yet, and one of the walls in the banquet room still needs to be knocked down.

Yasin Mohamed Acquitted of Terrorism Charges

The old carpet has not been replaced yet, and one of the walls in the banquet room still needs to be knocked down. But the essential pieces of a new restaurant - the tables, the light fixtures, and that bright blue sign hanging over the front door - were put in place a few weeks ago, just in time for the grand opening. "We're going to set up the espresso machines over there," says Yasin Abdi Mohamed, walking through the dining room and into the kitchen. "And this is where the craziness happens. It gets pretty busy in here."

Located in Toronto's west end, Blue Nile is the epitome of a family business. Mohamed's parents signed the lease, his sister and three brothers all work their share of shifts, and his aunt is the head chef - an expert in African and Middle Eastern dishes (goat meat is the specialty). Mohamed, now 26, is the general manager. "I've committed myself to this," he says. "I've been here 24/7."

There was a time - 14 months, to be exact - when Yasin Mohamed spent 24 hours a day in solitary confinement. He was an accused terrorist, an alleged gunrunner for a group of young, radical Muslims with dreams of storming Parliament Hill, beheading Stephen Harper and bombing the Toronto Stock Exchange. But that was before April 14, when Crown attorneys decided that four more of Canada's homegrown terror suspects weren't worth the effort. Along with Mohamed, all charges were stayed against Ibrahim Aboud, Ahmad Ghany and Abdul Qayyum Jamal. Add the three teenagers whose files were already abandoned, and the "Toronto 18" has suddenly shrunk to the "Toronto 11."

Mohamed's ordeal is especially unique. Unlike the other six who managed to avoid trial, he is the only one to be released with absolutely no conditions. He is free to go where he pleases, speak to anyone and, most importantly, serve authentic cuisine from his native Somalia. Prosecutors originally offered to dismiss his charges in exchange for a "peace bond," a court order that would have essentially restricted him to a year of house arrest on the "reasonable" grounds that he might commit a terrorist act. His fellow suspects agreed to those conditions, but Mohamed - who has professed his innocence since the day he was charged - refused to admit any ties to terrorism, even if it meant his freedom. His gamble paid off. The government stayed his case anyway, and by this time next year, all charges will be officially dropped.

It's impossible to know exactly why the Crown folded; the feds will only say that such decisions are made "in the public interest." But the outcome certainly suggests that Mohamed, one of the first targets to appear on the Mounties' radar, was never the aspiring jihadist the cops portrayed him to be. In fact, in his first interview since being released from prison, he insists he was the victim of extreme circumstance, and would never be involved in a plot to kill fellow Canadians. "This is my home, too," he says. "People have nothing to worry about with me."

Mohamed is no angel. He is the first to admit that he's made his share of bad choices in life. But he is anxious to finally tell his side of the story. His family is too. They are all here tonight, sitting on the restaurant floor as Mohamed tries to explain how his name landed on a list of alleged terrorists. "I don't want to make it look like I'm this disgruntled person, pissed off by what happened," he tells Maclean's. "That's not the situation I'm in. My parents always told me that if you just lived a clean, regular life, whatever happened to you would not have happened. One evil opened the door to many more evils."

The oldest of five children, Mohamed was born in Mogadishu but came to Canada as a refugee at age 5. "It was 1987, and I asked the immigration officer to choose for me the best place for family," says his father, Mohamud Asad Mohamed. "He said: 'If you give me that responsibility, I will tell you to go to Cambridge, Ont.' " So that's where they went. For the next 12 years, the children attended school during the day and Islamic studies at night. When Yasin turned 15, however, he began to rebel against his parents' religious way of life, skipping class and breaking the law. His dad figured that a fresh start might be best for his son and moved the family to Toronto. It didn't work.

There were glimpses of hope. In 2001, he enrolled at Humber College, but dropped out by second semester. "I settled back into the wrong way of life again," he says. He worked at Pearson airport for a while, organizing the luggage carts. Then came a job at the Rogers Centre, selling ice cream to Toronto Blue Jays fans. He lasted half the season.

By 2005, Mohamed seemed to have found his niche. Working with a partner - a close friend named Ali Dirie - he would drive to New York state, buy designer clothes at discount prices, and resell the merchandise in Toronto's inner-city neighbourhoods (he insists, by the way, that he always paid the duty when he crossed the border). On a good trip, he could clear $1,000. "It wasn't back-breaking work," he says. "It actually didn't feel like work at all."

In the early morning hours of Aug. 13, 2005, Mohamed and Dirie drove toward the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, Ont., the final leg of yet another trip to the U.S. It proved to be their last one. Canadian border guards discovered a handgun in Mohamed's waistband and a stash of bullets stuffed in his sock. Dirie had two firearms, both taped to his thighs.

At first glance, it seemed like a typical gun smuggling case, but when the RCMP arrived to investigate they discovered something bigger: Mohamed's Buick rental car was paid for by Fahim Ahmad - a 21-year-old Scarborough man who was being monitored by CSIS, Canada's spy agency. Mohamed and Dirie were now linked to a suspected terrorist.

Detectives pressed Mohamed about his connections to Ahmad. How long have you known him? Were the guns being imported for terrorist purposes? He offered the same response as he does today. "I knew of Fahim, but I didn't know him personally," he says. "It wasn't in the back of my head that we might have an alleged terrorist renting the car." Mohamed says he always paid for the rental cars, but on that afternoon in late July, his credit card was maxed out. He called a few friends, he says, but nobody could help him. But Dirie did find a buddy willing to lend his Visa: Fahim Ahmad.

Mohamed, Dirie and another man left for Buffalo that day, but because of heavy traffic and delays at immigration, they didn't reach the U.S. until after the stores closed. They ended up at a McDonald's, Mohamed says, and that's when he and Dirie started talking about getting a gun. They had discussed it before, debating whether they needed "protection" for their clothing business. "We didn't go into the nicest neighbourhoods," he says. They decided right then to buy a gun. Their friend, however, came to purchase clothes, not weapons, so they dropped him off at a bus stop, then headed to Ohio. "It wasn't as easy as I thought to buy a gun," Mohamed says. "We ended up staying for two weeks." As he reaches the end of his story - the bust at the border - his father bows his head, the shame evident in his face.

Mohamed and Dirie both pled guilty to possessing and importing firearms, in exchange for a two-year sentence. In the meantime, the Mounties launched a full-blown investigation into Ahmad's activities. In December 2005, officers followed more than a dozen young Muslims to a so-called winter training camp in rural Ontario. They were still watching a few months later, when a core group allegedly tried to buy three tonnes of highly explosive fertilizer. Yasin Mohamed was behind bars during the entire investigation.

Yet on June 3, 2006, the day after the shocking raids, six guards approached his cell, told him he was linked to "an important case," and escorted him to solitary confinement. The inmate next door had a television, and he cranked the volume so Mohamed could hear the newscast. Ammonium nitrate. Truck bomb. Terrorism. "I laid on my bed and I'm thinking: 'How do I fit in? How did I get my name put into this?' " When he appeared in court a few days later, he was shackled to men he had never met. "I was thinking: 'Who is this person? Who is that person?' " He would spend more than a year in solitary confinement, and ironically enough, it was in isolation where he got to know some of his co-accused. They would lie on the floor and whisper through the bottom of the doors - until they discovered another way to communicate using the plastic tables in their cells. "The sound waves would travel through the table and into the next person's cell, so it became like a phone," Mohamed says, smiling at the memory. "You would talk into it, then put your ear to it."

Mostly, though, the cellblock was quiet. "I got some Yasin time," he says. "I got time to just sit down and think about myself." He read a novel for the first time in years (A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry), and he rediscovered the Quran. "I started having patience and relying on God," he says. "God is in control of the affairs. God already decreed that we would be sitting here today, and after my release we would set the record straight."

Outside the restaurant window, the sun begins to set on a warm Saturday night in Toronto. Mohamed's father politely interrupts the conversation, reminding his children that it's time for Maghrib, the fourth of Islam's five daily prayers. The family lines up in two rows behind Mohamed's 18-year-old brother, Harun, who leads the prayers. "Allahu Akbar," he chants, as his family kneels toward Mecca. Yasin follows along, his brown kufi touching the carpet as he bows.

"I don't blame the police or the Canadian government," he says later, over tea and dessert. "I stepped out of that normal life and got a gun. And after that, I had to expect what was coming to me. But it is upsetting that it took until now for the prosecution and the police to see the light." He only hopes that his friend Ali Dirie enjoys a similar outcome. "I know he's innocent," he continues. "He just happens to have a closer association with some people, but Ali was involved in the same thing I was involved with. We made the decision together [to smuggle the guns], and it was only us. There was nobody connected to us. So if they're charging Ali with what they have charged me, then Ali is just as innocent as I am." Later, Mohamed goes one step further: "For the most part, I'm satisfied that a lot of the guys are innocent."

But are some of them guilty? Is it possible, as the government says, that a group of those men were plotting a terrorist attack on Canadian soil? Mohamed pauses. "I wouldn't answer that just because the case is still ongoing, and anything I say could probably still be used even against me - and most likely against them," he says. "I don't want to complicate anybody's issue. If they are innocent people, and they are not out there to harm innocent people, then I don't have a problem with them. But if they turn out to be individuals out there to kill people unjustly, then I do have a problem with them. I don't feel comfortable being beside a killer."

Mohamed is certainly comfortable in his new surroundings, however. He is a natural salesman, and it's easy to believe him when he says that one day, he plans to have a chain of Blue Nile restaurants around the world. But he is realistic, too. He knows that spies and cops will be watching him for years to come. "I invite the scrutiny because I know I'm not doing anything," he says. "They'll eventually get bored." And if they get hungry, he only hopes they choose his restaurant to spend their lunch money.

See also: TERRORISM.

Maclean's May 5, 2008