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Sunday, June 04, 2006

How Internet monitoring sparked a CSIS probe

Last night's dramatic police raid and arrest of as many as a dozen men — with more to come — marks the culmination of Canada's largest ever terrorism investigation into an alleged homegrown cell.

The chain of events began two years ago, sparked by local teenagers roving through Internet sites, reading and espousing anti-Western sentiments and vowing to attack at home, in the name of oppressed Muslims here and abroad.

Their words were sometimes encrypted, the Internet sites where they communicated allegedly restricted by passwords, but Canadian spies back in 2004 were reading them. And as the youths' words turned into actions, they began watching them.

According to sources close to the investigation, the suspects are teenagers and men in their 20s who had a relatively typical Canadian upbringing, but — allegedly spurred on by images of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and angered by what they saw as the mistreatment of Muslims at home — became increasingly violent.

Police say they acquired weapons, picked targets and made detailed plans.

They travelled north to a "training camp" and made propaganda videos imitating jihadists who had battled in Afghanistan. At night, they washed up at a Tim Hortons nearby.

One was a math and chemistry whiz from Scarborough who grew up to become a 22-year-old husband and father.

It's unclear why the authorities decided to act on their suspicions yesterday. None of these allegations has been proven in court, where the suspects are expected to appear for the first time this morning.

Sources say the arrests involve a "homegrown" terrorism cell — Western youths who have never set foot in Afghanistan but allegedly were radicalized here, and who are thought to be potentially as dangerous as the cells that once took orders from Osama bin Laden. Western governments, including Canada's, have repeatedly warned of this phenomenon and blamed recent attacks, such as last July's bombings in London, as the work of such groups.

The Canadian investigation involves a complicated web of connections, with alleged ties to two men from Georgia who came to Toronto in March 2005 to meet with "like-minded Islamic extremists," according to U.S. court documents.

Details of the Canadian investigation will be officially released this morning at a news conference.

For the spies who work on the 10th floor of a Front St. office building, with the CN Tower looming above and a hub of Toronto's tourist district buzzing below, this investigation was personal.

The group arrested yesterday allegedly had a list of targets, sources have told the Star, and the Toronto headquarters of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was one of them.

So were the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa and a smattering of other high-profile, heavily populated areas. But since most of the suspects lived in the GTA, it was the potential threat to the spy service's office and the chaos an attack would create in the heart of Toronto that concerned CSIS most.

According to sources, the suspects allegedly planned to target the spy service because many of them had encountered agents early in the investigation, when they were interviewed and put under surveillance. They also were allegedly angered by media reports accusing CSIS of racial profiling of Muslims.

Many of the agents were known to members of the group only by aliases, but the belief that the office had been targeted led to months of unease among CSIS staff, sources said.

Some of the group's members had even been spotted taking notes around the building, and at least one had reportedly visited the basement, one source told the Star.

`We are seeing phenomena in Canada such as the emergence of homegrown second and third generation terrorists'

Jack Hooper, CSIS deputy director

The investigation began back in 2004, when CSIS was monitoring Internet sites and tracing the paths of Canadians believed to have ties to international terrorist organizations. Local youths espousing fundamentalist views drew special attention, sources say.

Since it was created 21 years ago, the spy service's mandate has been to protect Canada's security. It is not a police force; its agents don't carry weapons, have no power of arrest and traditionally have preferred to stay out of public view.

But CSIS does have a relationship with the RCMP, albeit one traditionally fraught with turf wars and communication problems, and the focus of criticism and concern since 9/11.

The two federal agencies work independently, but when CSIS is monitoring someone who could be prosecuted criminally, the spy service notifies the Mounties in what's known as an "advisory letter."

That happened in this case on Nov. 17, 2004.

Four months after authorities began to fear that Canada might have its own homegrown terrorist cell, two Americans entered the picture.

Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi descent who had attended high school in Ontario, and Syed Haris Ahmed, 21, a student at Georgia Tech, boarded a Greyhound bus in Atlanta on March 6, 2005, and travelled to Toronto to meet "like-minded Islamic extremists," a U.S. court document alleges.

At the time the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force was watching the U.S. pair, Sadequee, according to court documents, was already on a no-fly list. But they crossed the border uneventfully and met three people associated with the group the Canadian authorities were watching.

Ahmed later told authorities that the meetings were to discuss U.S. locations suitable for a terrorist strike, including oil refineries and military bases, court documents state. They also allegedly talked about how to dismantle the Global Positioning System in an effort to disrupt military and commercial communications and traffic, and their plans to go to Pakistan to train at "terrorist-sponsored camps." (The FBI claims Ahmed "later travelled to Pakistan in an attempt to receive just such training.")

Ahmed is now in U.S. custody, indicted in March for material support of terrorism. He has pleaded not guilty.

Sadequee is accused of making false statements in connection with a terrorism investigation. He was arrested in April in Bangladesh and handed over to American authorities — a transfer his lawyer later characterized in court as being closer to a kidnapping than an arrest. Sadequee was flown to Alaska, according to U.S. news reports, and, having waived a preliminary hearing, consented to being transferred to Brooklyn, N.Y. He has been denied bail and is awaiting trial.

Fahim Ahmad, who was arrested as part of yesterday's sweep, was living with his wife and children in a Scarborough apartment in August 2005, while authorities were watching him closely. The 22-year-old allegedly rented a car for two Toronto-area men to go to the U.S.

The licence plate was flagged so it could be pulled over upon its return to Canada, sources told the Star and court documents confirm. On Aug. 13, at 5:30 a.m., a student working with the Canada Border Services Agency at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie pulled over the white Buick that Ahmad had rented, which was being driven by Yasin Mohamed, 24, of Toronto, with Ali Dirie, 22, whose last address was in Markham, as a passenger.

The car was targeted because its plate number came back with the warning: "Look out, possible narcotic involvement," on a customs database, court documents state.

After the two were briefly questioned, a superintendent was called over, and Dirie and Mohamed were told to wait outside the car as it was searched.

"The customs inspector noticed that Mohamed seemed to fidgeting with his hands in his pockets, and unable to stand still despite being told to keep his hands where the officers could see them," states the summary that was read into the court record during a hearing last October.

Both appeared nervous, frequently looking at each other. At one point Mohamed tried to push his back away from the wall where he was placed, the documents state. It was at that point that the customs officer discovered a loaded Highpoint .380 calibre handgun that Mohamed had tucked inside his waistband. Ammunition, some of which did not match the guns the men were bringing in, fell out of his pockets as he was being handcuffed.

Officers later found two loaded handguns taped to Dirie's inner thighs — a Millennium PT 19mm and a .380 Calibre Jennings. In his socks they found a magazine for a semi-automatic handgun and "several rounds of ammunition," according to the court transcripts.

Both men, who are landed immigrants, had minor criminal records and told the court they were buying the guns for their own "protection." They pleaded guilty last October and were both given two-year sentences.

"Whether they were mules, whether they were going to use them for their own protection, which is all we have right now, we have nothing to indicate that they were going to be sold," St. Catharines Crown attorney Ron Brooks told the court, according to a transcript of the October sentencing hearing.

"But the bottom line is — the mayor of Toronto indicated fairly recently in an interview — is that there's only one thing that you can use weapons of that nature for, and it's either to kill somebody or to give them to somebody else to kill somebody."

Ahmad, who rented the car, was not charged in the incident.

As to laying such as charge, "I think the only thing we'd be looking at there is if they aided in the commission of the substantial offence. Did they send them on this mission with a rented car? To my knowledge there was not any information that would support the laying of a criminal charge in that case," Niagara police Insp. Brian Eckhardt said in an interview earlier this year.

"I'm sure it was looked at at the time, which is what we always do."

`I do believe that when the time comes, a number of these people will attempt to do something quite serious.'

Dale Neufeld, retired CSIS deputy director

The Star contacted Ahmad last March to discuss the incident, but he refused to meet or answer questions about why he rented the car for the two men.

"I don't want to be discussing this," Ahmad said. When asked about the car rental, he replied: "The police and whatnot, they know my side of the story and that's all that matters."

Mohamed and Dirie both declined the Star's request to be interviewed. Mohamed's brother also said his family did not want to comment.

Although there was no public acknowledgement of this investigation, by last fall, officials were beginning to send out frequent warnings about a homegrown threat.

In the only interview CSIS director Jim Judd has given since taking the helm of the service, he told the Star in September that homegrown terrorism was a pressing concern mainly because it's so difficult to detect.

Unconnected to the case, but being watched closely during this time by Canadian authorities, was the Netherlands investigation into the assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh and a young local extremist cell dubbed the Hofstad Group.

Made up of mainly Dutch-born youths angered by van Gogh's critical portrayal of Islam, Canadian authorities believed the group was eerily similar to the Canadian group, sources say. They appeared to be unsophisticated, disenfranchised youths, but the group became a growing threat, killing van Gogh and forcing a number of political figures to go into hiding or flee the country.

That the Canadian group shouldn't be underestimated was a message that hit home.

Last winter, the investigation took a turn when some of the younger members allegedly went north to what police were referring to as a "training camp."

By February this group was being viewed in police and intelligence circles as Canada's greatest terrorism threat. Chiefs of Ontario police forces, including Toronto's Bill Blair, met in Toronto for a high-level briefing.

While the public denials of any specific threat continued, hints were dropped.

During a Senate committee review of Canada's anti-terrorism legislation, now-retired CSIS deputy director Dale Neufeld spoke at length about Canadian-born radicalized youths.

"It's the second generation, the children of Muslims who are born in this country. They have a very normal upbringing, according to our analysis, but at some point in their teenage years or young 20s, they decide that radical Islam is the path they want to take," Neufeld said.

"The other (concern) is young Canadians who are generally quite disillusioned, which is again very disturbing because it's hard to detect and hard to investigate. They're the kids who don't do well in high school, but could do anything. They could become petty criminals. They could get involved in the drug culture. They might join a motorcycle gang. We're now seeing a number of examples where they decide to take up Islam in the radical form.

"It's not just rhetoric. I do believe that when the time comes, a number of these people will attempt to do something quite serious."

On Monday, as final preparations were being made for yesterday's arrests, current CSIS deputy director Jack Hooper again spoke before senators of the threat posed by young people radicalized at home.

"We are seeing phenomena in Canada such as the emergence of homegrown second- and third-generation terrorists. These are people who may have immigrated to Canada at an early age who become radicalized while in Canada. They are virtually indistinguishable from other youth. They blend into our society very well, they speak our language and they appear to be, for all intents and purposes, well assimilated," Hooper said.

He talked about youths absorbing radical ideas from the Internet.

"You are satisfied from the information you have that the homegrown terrorist is primarily looking at targets in Canada?" Senator Michael Meighen asked.

The normally verbose Hooper answered with a curt, "Yes."

Michelle Shephard covers terrorism and security issues for the Toronto Star. She can be reached at mshephard@thestar.ca or 416-869-4391.
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