At Canada Terror Trial, the Accused Take on a Less Sinister Cast
BRAMPTON, Ontario — The story that first emerged about the 18 men and teenagers, all Muslims, who were arrested in and around Toronto in June 2006, was deeply disturbing. Police officials and prosecutors told of plots to bomb government offices in Toronto and Ottawa as well as a nuclear power station, and of a planned attack on Parliament with the aim of capturing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and decapitating him.
But as a judge in this Toronto suburb prepares to release the verdict on Thursday in the first trial of a member of the Toronto 18, as the accused have come to be known, the group has taken on a less sinister cast.
Charges were dropped this year against seven of the defendants. And evidence presented at the first trial suggests that the group was long on inflammatory talk about plots but short on the means and methods to carry them out, and that it was aided — and perhaps provoked — by paid police informants.
From the first terrifying charges outlined by prosecutors to the gritty, often comically deflated details that have emerged in court, the case of the Toronto 18 seems to fit a well-established pattern in terrorism prosecutions. Whether the result of trumped-up charges, conflicting demands of intelligence agencies or difficulties of trying cases where evidence is withheld by governments looking to protect their sources and methods, numerous terrorism trials in the United States and Europe have similarly foundered over the years.
This month, for example, a London jury dealt a blow to counterterrorism officials when it convicted three of eight defendants of conspiracy to commit murder but failed to reach verdicts on the more serious charge of a conspiracy to blow up seven airliners with liquid explosives.
While no expert observer is willing to forecast this week’s verdict, many agree that the Toronto 18 may be more a gang that could not shoot straight than Canada’s first serious homegrown terrorist threat since a group of Quebec separatists kidnapped a British diplomat and kidnapped and killed a provincial cabinet minister in 1970.
“There was certainly a portrait drawn of this being a serious terrorist cell involving a large number of individuals who had bloodthirsty objectives,” said Wesley Wark, of the Munk Center for International Studies at the University of Toronto. “We didn’t get a chance to assess those claims until this trial. Then things became instantly much murkier.”
Because the man on trial was 17 years old when arrested, he cannot be identified under Canadian law. But evidence presented in court made it clear that, at best, he was a minor character in the group, one who appears to have been more interested in chopping firewood than in jihad.
No matter how minor his role, though, the evidence presented in the case presents a broad picture of the months leading to the raids, which, the police said, were timed to prevent the group from acquiring fertilizer to create bombs. The evidence was so broad that a court order prevents the publication of the identities of other people described in it to avoid prejudicing later trials.
The man, who was accused of participating in terrorist training, moved to Canada from Sri Lanka in 1994 and was raised a Hindu. He converted to Islam in high school and met many of his accused accomplices, including a man prosecutors depict as the ringleader, at a mosque in the Scarborough area of Toronto.
But there was no evidence offered directly linking the defendant to the bomb plot or plans to storm Parliament. Instead, most of the case focused on his attendance at two camps that the police described as terrorist training sessions but that prosecution witnesses characterized as recreational or religious retreats. Both were videotaped by a paid police informant who was part of the group and who testified that he choreographed some of the scenes.
Video from a camp north of Toronto in December 2005 shows a car spinning around in a nearby, snow-covered parking lot. Prosecutors characterized that as special driver training but the defense, and many outsiders, said it was nothing more than “cutting doughnuts,” a favorite winter pastime of young Canadian motorists. Other video from the camp shows paintball fights, military clothing and members marching with a group flag.
Video from a second camp shows participants trying to ford a small stream by walking across logs (many of them fell in), sitting in a circle around two machetes (both apparently dull) and a book on the floor of a tent in what witnesses said was a bid to mimic online Islamic videos, and people jumping over a campfire.
Inexperienced at camping and not fond of the cold, the participants at the winter camp spent much of their time retreating to the heat of a nearby outlet of Tim Hortons, the ubiquitous Canadian coffee shop chain. Both camps provoked reports of suspicious activity to local police officers who, at one point, roused a group of campers who were sleeping in a van.
But a handgun was used for target practice at the winter camp. Wiretaps and evidence from two witnesses who were at the camp also show that inflammatory, if sometimes cryptic, remarks were made, particularly by the alleged ringleader, who regularly preached about the need for young Muslims to avenge attacks on their faith and its homelands.
But whether most of the campers knew anything about targets in Canada is, at best, unclear. Conversations about bombings and attacking Parliament appeared to involve only a small subset of the group. They showed little planning. When discussing the attack on Parliament, the group debated whether the prime minister was Mr. Harper or, as one suspect put it, “Paul — um what’s his name — Paul loser,” apparently a reference to Paul Martin, the Liberal whom Mr. Harper defeated.
One of the suspects suggested during the talk that the current defendant, who was not part of that conversation, should cut off Mr. Harper’s head because he was the only camper who had shown interest in cutting firewood.
In his closing arguments, the prosecutor, John Neander, cited the suspected ringleader’s repeated calls for the destruction of “Rome” as evidence that the defendant should have known the group planned attacks in Canada. (Although one witness testified that when some of the youths at the second camp complained about Canada, he reminded them about the quality of its roads, schools and health care system.)
Whatever its motives, the group was able to attend both camps thanks in part to Mubain Shaikh, the police informer, who was paid nearly $300,000 to infiltrate it. Mr. Shaikh provided a vehicle to transport the participants (it was wired by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and participated enthusiastically in the most incendiary discussions. According to a defense filing related to another suspect’s case, he provided the 9-millimeter handgun used at the first camp (a claim not disputed by prosecutors). He later purchased a rifle and ammunition at the request of the ringleader.
Mr. Shaikh, who pleaded guilty in July to threatening physical harm to two 12-year-old girls, was by far the most colorful witness at the trial. But he frustrated the government. Mr. Neander repeatedly clashed with him over his view that the group, including the defendant, were not any sort of threat.
“It was obvious to me from Day 1 that I didn’t have to keep too much of an eye on them,” Mr. Shaikh testified about the younger members. “They were sheep. Nonentities.” He described the apparent leader as being “a few fries short of a Happy Meal” and declared his plans to be merely a “jihadi fantasy.”
Whatever the outcome of the current trial, said Faisal Kutty, the general counsel for the Canadian-Muslim Civil Liberties Association, police and national security agencies have lost the trust of many Muslims in Toronto. “They’ve gone from one plus one equals two to one plus one equals five,” said Mr. Kutty, who is not defending any of the suspects. “We’re not questioning their right to try these individuals, if there’s evidence. But there is an ethical issue here about taking troubled young teens who had certain beliefs and thoughts and then sending in someone who is young and charismatic to egg them on.”