Last two 'Toronto 18' defendants found guilty
TORONTO - Almost five years ago in Toronto's suburbs and beyond two plans were being hatched to terrorize Canada.
While chilling in their intent the schemes never got very close to fruition. One was short on details, both were deeply infiltrated by police.
The so-called Toronto 18 eventually split into two groups after the leaders had a falling out. One thing the groups still had in common was a misdirected paranoia.
They worried they were being watched by the authorities, but little did they know two of their trusted confidants were police agents.
At one meeting one of the plotters instructed a man who was actually an RCMP agent to take the battery out of his cellphone so their conversation couldn't be intercepted.
Another plotter gave an agent a test to see if he was a spy. He passed.
The story of the homegrown terror plot has only been told in bits and pieces because of various publication bans. But now, as a jury found Steven Chand and Asad Ansari guilty Wednesday of terrorist offences, the full story can be told.
In August 2005 two men, Ali Dirie and Yasim Abdi Mohamed, were stopped in a rental car at the U.S. border in Fort Erie, Ont., trying to return to Canada. Border officers found two loaded semi-automatic guns taped to Dirie's thigh and another loaded firearm in the waistband of Mohamed's pants.
The two were charged with weapons offences. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to two years. But the investigation didn't end there.
RCMP officers followed up on the rental receipt and found the car had been paid for using a credit card belonging to Fahim Ahmad.
CSIS sent informant Mubin Shaikh to a banquet hall in Toronto on Nov. 27, 2005, for a presentation on security certificates. He was shown a picture of Ahmad as a person of interest to CSIS, as well as Zakaria Amara and Amin Durrani.
CSIS had been monitoring Amara and Ahmad for years because of anti-western Internet chatter.
Shaikh entered the hall and sat alone. A man with a scarf covering his face approached him and identified himself as Ilyas. It was Amara. They began to chat and soon Shaikh followed Amara to a table with Ahmad, Durrani and Nishanthan Yogakrishnan.
Shaikh made up a story that he had been stopped by CSIS while travelling. Ahmad said, "Well, if CSIS came to the door they know what I'd do," and made a shooting gesture.
Shaikh showed the group his firearms licence and Amara showed Shaikh a gun he had in his pocket, calling the bullets "cop killers."
Ahmad, then 21, began to recruit Shaikh with emotional arguments about the oppression of Muslims. Ahmad defined the enemy as Americans and said because of Canada's close connection to the U.S. it was also the enemy.
He told Shaikh they wanted to hold a training camp to bring people to a level of readiness at which they could help carry out terrorist acts.
The RCMP began to investigate Ahmad and Amara for terrorist activities around that time after being advised by CSIS that they posed a threat to the security of Canada.
Amara, then 20, was working at a Canadian Tire gas bar. He was a first-year electronics student at Humber College and a father to a baby girl.
Amara and Ahmad made good on their talk of a training camp in December 2005. Shaikh picked up Ahmad and Yogakrishnan, then 17, from Ahmad's apartment and they went to a Wal-Mart to buy shovels, propane canisters and other equipment for winter camping.
The camp leaders and recruits drove up to Washago, about 90 minutes north of Toronto, early on Dec. 18, 2005. One of the cars got stuck in the snow during the drive.
The young winter campers were woefully underprepared for the extreme cold, and went to Canadian Tire for more supplies -- including a stop at Tim Hortons.
Such Canadiana pops up frequently in the tale of the plot to wreak havoc on Canadian society. Another young camp attendee showed up wearing a red toque with the word Canada on it.
At the training camp participants donned camouflage gear, masks and goggles. They wriggled through the wintry woods, engaged in target practice using a handgun and paintball guns, and marched through the forest.
In the midst of those scenes were decidedly un-jihadi activities: wrestling and rolling about in the snow, and making a van spin in circles in the middle of the night in a deserted Canadian Tire parking lot.
During an obstacle course participants would be put through the paces as the trainers simulated live fire.
Not all attendees knew the terrorist purpose of the camp going in, but by the end it was clear, after Ahmad gave a fiery speech urging attendees to band together and sacrifice whatever was needed to defeat western civilization.
"Whether we get arrested, whether we (get) killed, we get tortured, our mission's greater than just individuals," Ahmad said.
"Rome has to be defeated and we have to be the ones that do it, no holding back. Whether it's one man that survives, you have to do it."
Amara and Ahmad began to talk in January 2006 about finding a safehouse, a remote place they could use for target practice and training. They settled on a house in Opasatika, 12 hours north of Toronto, and in February Ahmad, Shaikh, Durrani and Steven Chand made the long drive up.
Intercepts show they were paranoid about cars and trucks following them -- not realizing Shaikh, the man driving the car, had recently become an official RCMP agent. Durrani can also be heard complaining about the cold and seemed very concerned with getting an iced cappuccino from Tim Hortons.
They did not end up liking the location of the house -- it was too close to the neighbours.
On the drive back Ahmad began to talk of his larger plans, to storm Parliament, behead politicians and take over the CBC to broadcast their victory. Ahmad was also plotting to attack electrical grids and nuclear stations.
Amara had built a rudimentary radio-frequency remote control detonator.
Also around this time Shareef Abdelhaleem was rekindling a friendship with Shaher Elsohemy with whom he had a falling out. Abdelhaleem sent Elsohemy an instant message in February and in the conversation he mentioned he was thinking about going home -- he is from Egypt -- to do the "ultimate duty."
What Abdelhaleem didn't know is that Elsohemy had been approach by CSIS two months earlier. He was shown several pictures and one of them was his former friend. CSIS asked him if he was "concerned" about Abdelhaleem, and though he said no at that time, the "ultimate duty" comment was enough for Elsohemy to report that to Canada's spy agency.
Meanwhile Amara and Ahmad's plans were starting to diverge. They had a falling out in March, leaving the burgeoning terror cell split into two -- one led by Amara and one led by Ahmad.
Amara expressed frustration and contempt for what he perceived as Ahmad's failure to move plans forward at an acceptable pace.
Amara got to work on speeding up his plans set off bombs and cause panic in the streets.
He used a public library's computer to conduct searches on "ammonium nitrate in agriculture," nitric acid, rocket fuel, fertilizer, explosives and "how to get ammonium nitrate." He also used the computer to order Student Farmer business cards.
He met with 18-year-old Saad Gaya at McMaster University in Hamilton and recruited him to become involved in the movement against Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.
Gaya and Saad Khalid, who Amara knew from high school, were kept in the dark about Amara's big picture, but still set to work renting a warehouse in which they could store their bomb-making materials.
Like so many other trusted allies and pivotal parts to their plans, everything was not as it seemed. The person they rented the storage unit from was an undercover police officer.
Not long after Amara got Khalid and Gaya involved Abdelhaleem, who was friends with Amara, introduced him to Elsohemy. CSIS asked Elsohemy to "dangle" his agriculture background -- a degree in agricultural sciences -- in the hopes Amara would latch onto it.
Amara tasked Elsohemy with obtaining the chemicals they would need for three massive truck bombs.
Amara revealed his plot to Elsohemy and Abdelhaleem on the evening of April 8. Amara was planning to set off three truck bombs outside the Toronto offices of CSIS, at the Toronto Stock Exchange and an eastern Ontario military base. He talked of adding metal chips to the bombs to exact maximum casualties. Evidence later found at his home suggested he was making explosives and building circuitry.
By the end of May, Amara felt his recruits needed a refresher course so he and Durrani held a second training camp, this one in Rockwood, Ont., near Guelph.
At Rockwood the recruits went rafting, cliff climbing as well as marching through the woods and participating in military-style exercises.
While Ahmad and his group were going through their second round of training combined with May long weekend camping, Amara and his group were nearing the climax of their plans -- or so they thought.
Khalid and Gaya set up corrugated boxes lined with garbage bags at the warehouse, readying them to store the fertilizer they believed they would receive.
Then, on June 2, 2006, Gaya and Khalid donned "Student Farmer" T-shirts and prepared to receive delivery of an inert substance disguised as ammonium nitrate. As the two young men began to unload the truck police swooped in and arrested them.
Meanwhile, 15 other men and boys were also arrested that day as the culmination of the large-scale investigation. An 18th man would be arrested months later, prompting the group to become known as the Toronto 18.
Years later, with all the legal complexities ironed out and the cases finally finished winding their way through the courts, the plotters and their key minions are behind bars.
As with many mass arrests some have been let go -- charges were dropped or stayed against seven people -- but the core group remains. Amara, Ahmad, Abdelhaleem, Dirie, Khalid, Gaya, Chand, and Ansari are behind bars. James, Durrani and Yogakrishnan were convicted but have already been released from prison.