"Turns out they don’t have to find us. They are us.”
This statement by Toronto journalist Joe Warmington sums up perfectly the arrests last Friday of 17 suspected Islamist terrorists, mostly in the Toronto area, who were planning multiple attacks on targets in southern Ontario. Shockingly for Canadians, almost all the suspects, who range in age from 17 to 43 years, were either born in Canada or had arrived here at an early age and possess Canadian citizenship. Five are under the age of 18 and thus will be tried as young offenders under Canadian law; most of the others are in their early twenties.
According to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (Canada’s CIA), the group intended to blow up government buildings, including the CSIS and RCMP headquarters in Toronto, in retaliation for Canada’s support of America in the War on Terror. To do so, they had procured three tons of fertilizer of the type used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which took only one ton to destroy. In raids across the Greater Toronto Area and in Kingston, CSIS seized a cell phone detonator and military paraphernalia that had been used at a training camp the accused had set up in an isolated Ontario area. At the police press conference after the arrests on Friday, even the door the suspects had been using for target practice at the camp was put on display, riddled with bullet holes. CSIS also said the investigation is ongoing.
Many of the arrested are of Middle Eastern or Somali background, while at least two are converts to Islam. Some have jobs and some don’t, while others are high school or university students. The father of one of the accused works for Atomic Energy of Canada, while the father of another is a doctor. Two are related by marriage. They live in nice suburban houses or in city apartments, sometimes close to each other. Moreover, one Toronto newspaper reported that the AEC contract employee had once posted bail for an Islamist currently being held in an Ontario jail on a security certificate, awaiting a deportation order.
The group’s members, according to security officials, had met through radical Islamist internet sites, now one of the chief means of recruiting jihadists in the West. But CSIS officials say it was their surveillance of these fundamentalist web sites in 2004 that first attracted the intelligence community’s attention to the group. It was also CSIS who had arranged the sale of the fertilizer to the alleged terrorists in a sting operation, arresting them shortly thereafter. An earlier visit to Toronto by two Islamists from Georgia, now in American custody, may also be connected with the investigation. It was reported that one of the two had attended high school in Toronto.
Security officials say this group is part of the new wave of homegrown Muslim terrorists appearing in the West. Like the British subway bombers, these second and third generation Muslims have never lived in an Islamic country, at least for any length of time, and have never attended an al Qaeda training camp, but are inspired by Osama bin Laden’s hatred for the West. Their motive, they claim, for plotting to kill their neighbors and for attacking the countries that have opened their doors to them and their families is the West’s supposed persecution of Muslims in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya and for their support of the United States in the War on Terror.
Despite al Qaeda having mentioned Canada twice as a potential terrorist target and a top al Qaeda official telling Canada last week to get its troops out of Afghanistan, Canadians were shocked by the arrests. Up until now, terrorists, some of them Canadian citizens, have mostly used Canada to raise money, find recruits and plan attacks in other countries. The most noteworthy example was Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian living in Montreal, who had intended to blow up the Los Angeles airport as part of the Millennium Plot. American officials arrested him at Washington State’s Canadian-American border with a car-load of explosives en route to Los Angeles.
But the arrest in 2004 of a Canadian-born Muslim indicated that Canada had a homegrown terrorism problem. Mohammad Momin Khawaja, whose father is Pakistani, was arrested in Ottawa for his involvement in a terrorist bomb plot that was to unfold in London.
A large problem in Canada’s fight against terrorism at home was the previous Liberal government, which was voted out of power earlier this year after 12 years of rule. The Liberals are Canada’s party of multiculturalism. As a result, the Liberal government hesitated to crack down hard on terrorist groups, enforce deportation orders (such as the one against Ahmed Ressam) or tighten lax immigration and asylum laws for fear of alienating the urban ethnic vote that forms a large part of their constituency.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien once even had the temerity to say that there were no terrorist groups in Canada, causing CSIS to go to the Canadian public via the media to contradict him, saying there were at least 50 terrorist organizations operating on Canadian soil. A vindictive Chretien then cut CSIS’ budget. So is it any wonder that Canada’s only court-recognized expert on jihadism, Tom Quiggen, recently told a Canadian national newspaper that “…some of the world’s most infamous terrorists have operated in Canada almost unhindered for years.”
Meanwhile, Canadian Islamic groups have reacted differently to Friday’s arrests. While one Muslim leader sensibly said that Muslims themselves must fight against this extremism in their community, another blamed the federal government for not giving Muslim groups enough money to study why young Muslims are turning to fundamentalist ideologies. Families and friends of those arrested, predictably, have said those charged are good people who have been wrongly accused despite the fact that two of them are already in jail serving a two-year sentence for smuggling weapons into Canada.
But Joe Warmington, who was present in the courtroom for the shackled suspects’ bail hearing last Saturday, termed some of the alleged terrorists’ behavior “bizarre”, saying they were smiling and laughing, as they waved to family members, some of whom were clad in burkas.
“You could see that they were proud of themselves,” said Warmington.
And with the police still searching for two suspicious men who were filming the Toronto subway system last week, their twisted sense of pride may not yet be misplaced.