During the afternoon of June 2, Toronto residents were shocked to learn of the arrest of 17 would-be Islamist terrorists accused of planning an attack on the downtown headquarters of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), as well as other targets such as the CN Tower and the Toronto Stock Exchange. Police allege that three tons of ammonium nitrate was to be used for the creation of massive bombs.
Since the September 11 attacks, there have been several mass arrests of terrorist suspects in Canada, but typically charges have either been dropped or reduced to visa violations. Some of these incidents appear to have been the result of “terrorism hysteria” with the suspects guilty of little more than speaking Arabic. In other cases, such as that of the Toronto-based al-Khadr family, there are clear and undisputable ties to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The al-Khadr patriarch, Ahmad Sa’id al-Khadr, was a close associate of bin Laden until he was killed in a firefight with Pakistani troops in October 2003. Another member of the family is awaiting extradition to the United States, while the youngest is under detention at Guantanamo Bay awaiting trial for killing a U.S. serviceman.
Nearly all of those arrested are under 25 years of age, with five being minors. The men are of Egyptian, Somali and West Indian origin, and most are citizens of Canada. Two of those charged are already serving prison sentences for attempting to smuggle automatic weapons into Canada from the United States. The group appears to have been led by 43-year-old Qayyum Abdul Jamal, a Mississauga resident said to have been angered by government treatment of the al-Khadr family and Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.
Canadian Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day asserts that the arrests will build international confidence in Canadian security services, but denies that the alleged plot was in any way connected to the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan (Globe and Mail, June 5).
U.S. reaction has been mixed; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that she is unaware of any U.S. connection to the plot, even though an FBI spokesman confirmed that there were contacts between the Canadian suspects and two Atlanta-area residents (Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee) now under arrest in the United States on terrorism-related charges (Globe and Mail, June 5). Rice added that the arrests show that “Canadians are on the job,” although Rep. Peter King (chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee) claims that “there is a large al-Qaeda presence in Canada” (CanWest News Service, June 5).
The suspects regularly undertook weapons training at a rural property 150 kilometers north of Toronto. While “foreign-looking” individuals raise few eyebrows in cosmopolitan Toronto, the presence of a large group of Arab and African men in camouflage uniforms in backwoods Ontario inevitably aroused the suspicion of local residents who soon informed the police. The camp was quickly put under surveillance, including over-flights by police helicopters. The investigation of the group began two years ago through CSIS monitoring of jihadi websites and was later joined by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
There is no evidence that the suspects had any connection with al-Qaeda, although they were undoubtedly inspired by bin Laden’s ideology. Members of the al-Khadr family were present at the arraignment, where they advised the suspects’ relatives not to speak with anyone.
The group appears to have been rather inept, continuing their operations even after it should have been evident that they were under surveillance. More professional terrorists would also have been aware that large orders of ammonium nitrate are routinely reported to police. The three tons of fertilizer was a ridiculous amount that filled three pallets—only one ton was needed to carry out the devastating 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Police switched the fertilizer with a harmless substance in a “controlled delivery,” similar to the procedure used in narcotics investigations.
The arrests are bound to spark new debate about Canada’s liberal immigration laws and indulgent policies of multiculturalism. Until now, critical discussion of these issues has been largely taboo, but the threat of terrorism may allow the new Conservative government to re-examine these policies. Government authorities promise that further arrests will come this week.