By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 11, 2006
TORONTO -- They were school pals. One is 15. Most are just out of high school, some still in. The 17 boys and men whom Canadian police are calling "homegrown terrorists" forged their bonds in student clubs and on school soccer fields, chatted on the Internet, and urged each other to be heroes for their faith.
The arrests last weekend left many Canadians pondering how a country proud of its diverse culture and political moderation could spawn such an apparent interest in violence. Especially by people so young.
What started as boasts and youthful rhetoric crystallized into action, the government says. The youths ordered $4,000 worth of ingredients for a bomb, built a detonator and cased out targets for a two-pronged attack that would take hostages on Parliament Hill in Ottawa while setting off bombs in Toronto, prosecutors contend.
The plans allegedly ranged from the fanciful -- steering remote-controlled toys loaded with explosives into police stations -- to the meticulous. The suspects calculated the exact solutions of nitric acid and grams of mercury they would need to detonate the bombs, according to a summary of the prosecutors' allegations reviewed by The Washington Post.
The school ties have some people here asking if Canada's attempt to accommodate all faiths and backgrounds -- many Canadian schools offer rooms for Friday prayers and foster Muslim student clubs -- is encouraging religious divisions. Some of the clubs "are very conservative, very judgmental," said Rizwana Jafri, a Muslim and an administrator at a Toronto-area high school. "Young people are looking for a group to belong to, and religion plays into that. It's almost cult-like."
Suspect Saad Khalid, now 19, is typical of those charged. At Meadowvale Secondary School, he was bright and outgoing in his early high school years, fellow students told reporters last week. His father, a technology professional from Pakistan, lived in Saudi Arabia before coming to Canada 10 years ago. The family recently moved to a brick townhouse in one of the new suburban developments being carved out of farmland in Mississauga, a spreading suburban town west of Toronto.
In 2003, Khalid's mother died in an accident. In the following years, he became more strident about his Muslim faith. He formed athe Religious Awareness Club to preach Islam during lunch hours at the Meadowvale school. He spent time with two older classmates, Fahim Ahmad, now 21, and Zakaria Amara, 20, the government contends.
Meadowvale is a bustling, brick school in the heart of Mississauga. Teenage boys in T-shirts and baggy jeans lolled about the campus last week. A smaller knot of young girls, with Muslim headdress, stood in the shade of a tree. School officials declined to speak to reporters and urged students to do the same.
"Young people who are disenfranchised or ill-fitting in a society look for ways to belong, and sometimes religion plays to that, creating a desire for martyrdom, a desire to be a hero," Jafri said. In her view, the school clubs they form sometimes paint an extreme view of a Muslim world at odds with the secular values the school is trying to teach.
Khalid and his pals spent time in a chat room on the Internet and called themselves the "Meadowvale Brothers." According to the Globe and Mail newspaper, which reported on the electronic chat diary before it was removed from the Web, the young men's talk dealt with movies and final exams. But Zakaria Amara kept returning to the issue of sacrifice for Islam.
"I love for the sake of Allah, and hate for his sake," he wrote, according to the newspaper.
Khalid and the others began attending a mosque together, teacher Ahmed Amiruddin told CBC Radio last week. "They would enter into the mosque to pray. They would come in military fatigues," he said. "It looked to me like they were watching a lot of these Chechnyan jihad videos online."
Gradually, they gravitated to the Al-Rahman Islamic Center, a storefront mosque in a small strip mall in Mississauga. There they met Qayyam Abdul Jamal, 43, a taciturn Pakistani native with an angry view of the world. He cleaned the rugs and took out the trash at the mosque. For those services, the directors tolerated his vitriolic speeches that portrayed Muslims as oppressed by the West, according to people familiar with the mosque.
"Many people who worked with him thought he was just a loudmouth," said Tariq Shah, a lawyer who represents the mosque. "In retrospect, maybe it was wrong that he wasn't taken more seriously."
Across Toronto at an eastern suburb called Scarborough, a similar process was underway, at the Stephen Leacock Collegiate Institute, a high school. An alumnus of the school, Mohamed Durrani, 19, and another man, Steven Vikash Chand, 25, a former Canadian army reservist, frequented the school grounds to encourage Muslim students to come to the mosques, students and acquaintances told reporters last week. At least two of the juveniles, a 10th-grader and a 12th-grader who are not being identified because of their ages, joined their group.
The group proved inept at keeping its activities secret. The complaints about Jamal, and some of the Internet traffic, drew the attention of investigators as early as two years ago, police officials have confirmed.
Then, in March last year, two Atlanta-area men already under scrutiny in the United States traveled to Toronto to meet Khalid's older acquaintance Fahim Ahmad and a friend from the Scarborough group, Jahmaal James, then 22, according to an FBI affidavit. They allegedly talked about targets for terrorist attacks in North America and the possibility of training in Pakistan.
That summer, Ahmad used his credit card to rent a car for two immigrants from Somalia, Mohammed Dirie, then 22, and Yasin Abdi Mohamed, 22. Those two drove to Columbus, Ohio. When they arrived at the border to return to Canada, guards stopped the car and searched the two. They reported finding a pistol tucked in the back waistband of Mohamed's pants and two more semiautomatic weapons taped to the inner thighs of Dirie.
The arrests and visit by the men from Georgia-- both with ties to Ahmad -- prompted Canadian intelligence and police officials to begin physical and electronic surveillance. Authorities apparently were watching last November, when Zakaria Amara drove to northern Ontario. Prosecutors offer the following account for how the conspiracy unfolded from there:
Amara stopped at the local police and Natural Resources Ministry offices to inquire about nearby forests. He returned to the area the week before Christmas and set up a camp in woodlands near the town of Orillia. Eleven men and boys came with him. They wore camouflage uniforms, fired a 9mm pistol, played paintball, and engaged in training "clearly for terrorist purposes."
They made plans for a second session at the camp. They named their scheme "Operation Badr," after a battle of early Islamic history, and discussed strategies. They would take politicians hostage in the capital, demand the removal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan and the release of Muslim prisoners, and execute the politicians "one by one" if the demands were not met.
Ahmad put a deposit down on another illegal firearms purchase. The suspects scouted out a house where they could retreat after staging an attack. They shoplifted walkie-talkies. Amara plumbed the Internet at public libraries to learn how to assemble a bomb. Durrani enrolled in flight training but eventually backed out, believing he would attract too much attention.
The group had business cards printed up to pose as fictional "student farmers" to raise fewer suspicions as they bought the fertilizer for a bomb.
But as the conspirators talked and made plans, they fractured in disagreement. Zakaria Amara wanted to use truck bombs. Fahim Ahmad favored an attack with guns. Amara thought Ahmad was taking too long.
In the end, they settled on both methods, the government contends. Amara and the Mississauga group would bomb a site in Toronto -- the final list included a downtown Toronto skyscraper containing the offices of Canada's spy agency, the Toronto Stock Exchange and a military establishment. At the same time, Ahmad, who had moved to Scarborough with the group there, was to storm the Parliament or some other public place.
By last month, Amara had concluded that they needed three tons of ammonium nitrate -- the group wanted to make a bomb bigger than the two-ton explosive that Timothy McVeigh used to shatter the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.
When the youths ordered the fertilizer, agents intercepted the shipment and substituted an inert powder. Police watched as Khalid and one of the youths worked at a rented warehouse June 2 to prepare to receive the shipment. The two lined cardboard boxes with plastic to store the material. When Amara paid $4,000 to an undercover officer for the fake fertilizer, the police descended. Khalid and the juvenile were arrested at the warehouse. Squads of officers positioned around Toronto rounded up the others through the evening.
Khalid is now at Ontario's Maplehurst Correctional Center in solitary confinement. His cell has a metal bed, two blankets, and a light bulb that stays on all night. He met with his lawyer Thursday, but the two were separated by a glass shield and were able to talk only on a telephone. Khalid held it awkwardly, with his wrists still handcuffed together, said the lawyer, Arif Raza.
"Obviously, he's very down," Raza said. "Very depressed."
Researcher Natalia Alexandrova contributed to this report.