The 'Toronto 18' Terrorism Case

Before he was an accused terrorist, Shareef Abdelhaleem designed computer databases for drug companies. His salary was six figures, his car was a convertible BMW (metallic blue, with black leather seats) and his boss was everyone's dream boss: himself.

The 'Toronto 18' Terrorism Case

Before he was an accused terrorist, Shareef Abdelhaleem designed computer databases for drug companies. His salary was six figures, his car was a convertible BMW (metallic blue, with black leather seats) and his boss was everyone's dream boss: himself. "I had a successful career," says Abdelhaleem, now 32. "God blessed me with a little bit of talent."

God also blessed him with a big heart, and not only because he shared his Mississauga home with seven stray cats rescued from animal shelters. Abdelhaleem was literally diagnosed with a growth on his heart, an unusual condition that required major surgery in the spring of 2006. He was still recovering a few weeks later when heavily armed officers stormed through his front door and pinned him to the floor. "To tell you the truth, I wasn't concentrating," he says now, recalling the raid. "I was looking to see if the cats were running out." Days after the bust - days after his name was forever linked to the "Toronto 18" - Abdelhaleem was still fretting about his felines. "Who knows where some of them are now," he says, shaking his head.

Abdelhaleem certainly knows where he is: Maplehurst Correctional Complex, a maximum-security jail just a short drive from his old neighbourhood. This morning - like so many mornings since June 2, 2006 - he is dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit and a pair of blue, prison-issued running shoes. His black beard is full but trimmed, and the hair on his head is starting to show some grey. "I've lost more than 50 lb. already," he says. "I have had the runs for two years. No matter how much I eat the crap in here, my stomach can't get used to it." Abdelhaleem is speaking into a black phone, his round face a few inches from a thick plate of Plexiglas.

"I went from a successful professional to an inmate," he continues, waving his arms as he speaks. "My career, the one that I worked ever so hard for, is destroyed. And I'm wondering: if I'm acquitted, if I'm wrongfully in prison and my name is tarnished, who is going to give me these years back? Who?"

Two summers ago, nobody was talking acquittal. The morning after the roundup, the RCMP told the world an imminent attack had been thwarted, saving hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. The "homegrown" suspects, they said, were "adherents of a violent ideology inspired by al-Qaeda" - Muslim men (and teenagers) bent on bombing Canadian buildings and beheading politicians. When the group appeared in court for the first time, a team of army snipers lined the roof.

Fast-forward 24 months. The sharpshooters are gone. Seven of the 18 accused are no longer facing charges. And a cornerstone of the case - that the bulk of the suspects underwent military training in the snowy woods near Orillia, Ont. - is starting to lose some of its sinister shine. In a recent affidavit, one defence lawyer describes the campers as a "hapless F-troop" who slept in their cars and made daily bathroom visits to Tim Hortons. So much for martyrdom.

It's hard to blame the casual observer for assuming that two years after the arrests, the country's largest-ever anti-terror case is crumbling. The only suspect to reach trial so far is an unnamed youth whose alleged crimes can be summed up as shoplifting for jihad, and it could be another year, maybe five, before the adults ever face a jury. In the meantime, the inevitable public relations battle has begun. Some of the suspects' families have launched websites, proclaiming their innocence and decrying the "black hole of the justice system." One - toronto18.com - features jailhouse poetry and paintings. "Like you," the site reads, "these men have families." The Web page dedicated to Shareef Abdelhaleem is called captiveincanada.com. "I am the last person to be a threat," he says. "This whole thing was staged to impress the public, to give them fear."

If they were granting interviews, which they're not, prosecutors would tell a much different story. They would remind Canadians that millions of pages of damning evidence remain under wraps, protected by a sweeping publication ban that is designed not to hide the truth, but to protect the fair-trial rights of the accused. Media outlets, Maclean's included, are not allowed to disclose the vast majority of details that explain why police were keeping such a close eye on this group. In one of the few court filings that can be printed, the Crown describes the evidence as "shocking and sensational," and says the ultimate goal was "to cause harm and death by attacking innocent lives."

As confident as they are, though, the prosecution also understands that these men are not one and the same. Their media-approved moniker - the "Toronto 18" - is hugely misleading. Even if you ignore the fact that the group has shrunk to the "Toronto 11," those who still face charges played very different roles in the RCMP's version of events. Some were leaders. Others were followers. A few fell somewhere in between.

In fact, Maclean's has learned that if the Crown has its way, it will sever the remaining 10 adults into two separate trials, starting with the most serious suspects first: four men charged in the alleged plot to detonate truck bombs in downtown Toronto. Forget the training camp. Forget the gun smuggling, the storming of Parliament, and all that tough talk about how "Rome has to be defeated." The outcome of this case (not to mention the reputation of Canada's anti-terror cops and spies) hinges on the "Toronto 4" - a core group of young, educated men whose former lives once seemed so ordinary.

Zakaria Amara, a 20-year-old gas station attendant and father of a young daughter.

Saad Gaya, an 18-year-old honours student from suburban Oakville, Ont.

Saad Khalid, a 19-year-old business major at the University of Toronto.

And Shareef Abdelhaleem, a single, self-made entrepreneur who enjoys the odd drink. And joint.

Zakaria Amara worked the afternoon shift at a Canadian Tire gas bar, swiping credit cards and selling antifreeze from 4 o'clock until midnight. He was a model employee, pleasant and well-spoken. Neither his customers nor his bosses had any reason to suspect what Amara now knows: that his every move was being closely shadowed by both the RCMP and CSIS, Canada's intelligence service.

Exactly why the authorities were so interested in the kiosk cashier cannot be divulged, due to the publication ban. But this much has been widely reported: if police did foil a bomb plot in the nick of time, Amara, then 20, was a major player. According to the few snippets of evidence that have leaked out since the arrests, it was Amara who allegedly built a remote-controlled detonator, and it was Amara who allegedly discussed the targets (the Toronto Stock Exchange, the CSIS offices nearby, and a military base).

Come trial, investigators will testify that the alleged plot might have succeeded, if not for the heroic efforts of an anonymous civilian, who - after negotiating a $4.1-million payday from the Mounties - helped set up a sting operation involving fake ammonium nitrate, the same explosive fertilizer Timothy McVeigh used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. When the delivery truck arrived, the cops moved in. And the informant vanished into the witness protection program.

Like all the accused, Amara is an innocent man unless proven guilty. None of the accusations, no matter how sensational, has been tested in court, and his lawyers will have every chance to tell his side of the story when a trial eventually begins. Until then, though, Amara remains in solitary confinement at Toronto's Don Jail, locked inside a tiny cell with little more than a toilet, a sink and a mattress. For the past two years, he has spent almost every minute in complete isolation - more than 730 days and counting. He stopped going to the exercise yard months ago, out of protest. And when he wants to call home, a guard passes a phone through the metal door. "You forget how to socialize," he says in a telephone interview. "The loneliness starts to take over."

The son of a Christian mother and a Muslim father, Amara was born in Jordan on Aug. 18, 1985, and lived in Saudi Arabia and Cyprus before moving to Ontario as a boy. He is a Canadian citizen, just like all the other accused. High-school friends in Mississauga remember him as the class clown, but he was also a devout Muslim with a lyrical side. At age 16, he wrote "A Little Muslim from Palestine," a poem he posted online: "I'll always be a contender / Yes, I know my bones are very tender / And by Allah you won't see me surrender / Look at my eyes? You'll see no butterflies."

Those amateur rhymes, along with so many other Internet musings, became media fodder in the weeks after the bust. Amara's own personal blog offered an intimate glimpse of an intelligent young man caught between two worlds: the West and Islam. He loved video games, but knew they turned his mind to mush. He loved his parents, but hated that they paid interest on their mortgage. After high school, he enrolled at Ryerson University but later dropped out to support his wife, Nada, and their new baby daughter, Nour. When police dragged him away in handcuffs - two years ago this week - he was taking part-time electrical classes at Humber College and living in his mother-in-law's basement.

Amara phoned Maclean's a few months ago, after the magazine mailed numerous letters to his cell. His voice is cautious but polite. After introducing himself, he apologizes for not calling sooner, then explains that his wife is also listening on the line (the jail only allows Amara to phone pre-approved numbers, such as his house, so any outside calls must be patched through three-way). "I think the public is starting to realize that the Crown's case is breaking down," he says. "But I don't want to be one of those guys who proclaims his innocence from his jail cell. I don't want people to believe me based on what I say. Let them come to court."

When asked if he was trying to destroy the Toronto Stock Exchange - and everyone inside it - Amara repeats the same answer. "People should come to court to see what's really going on," he says. "I don't think it's a very complicated story. They should be able to come to a simple, quick conclusion."

And what is that conclusion? "No comment," he says. "Everyone should just come to court to see what's really going on."

Those who follow Amara's advice are sure to see Saad Gaya's family at the Brampton courthouse. His mother, Rukhsana, and his 25-year-old sister, Beenish, have faithfully attended almost every court date. They were here in the spring of 2007 for the start of the preliminary hearing, which was supposed to end with a judge deciding which suspects, if any, deserve to stand trial. And they were here five months later, when prosecutors filed a "direct indictment," abruptly cancelling the prelim in favour of going right to trial.

The Gayas are back in court today, a Thursday morning in early May. The direct indictment triggered a new round of bail hearings, and Gaya's lawyer, Paul Slansky, is trying to convince Judge Casey Hill that his client can be trusted to live under strict house arrest until his trial begins. Again, the details, including Gaya's alleged role in the bomb plot, can't be repeated. But the gallery is packed with friends and relatives who have come to hear the evidence for themselves.

As they listen, Gaya, now 20, sits quietly at the defence table. He is short and slender, and although he has grown a slight beard behind bars, he maintains the same boyish look as the 18-year-old version who made the dean's list at McMaster University. He is wearing a light blue dress shirt and a black blazer. The handcuffs are off, but two armed police officers are leaning against a nearby wall, ready to escort Gaya out of the courtroom through a special side entrance.

To the experts, Saad Gaya seems the textbook example of a "homegrown" terrorist - a peaceful, law-abiding Muslim driven to radical violence by the atrocities (or perceived atrocities) facing fellow Muslims on the other side of the world. As Mike McDonnell, the RCMP's top anti-terror cop, recently phrased it, the new threat is not Osama bin Laden, but his "sound-bite Islam" that inspires a new breed of "wannabe" jihadists. But if Saad Gaya is one of those wannabes, his family had no clue. He was, by all accounts, the perfect son. Every parent who knew him urged their children to be more like Saad.

Born in Montreal on Nov. 17, 1987, Gaya spent his early childhood years in Quebec. Even when his family moved to Oakville, his loyalties remained with his beloved Montreal Canadiens. His parents are hard-working immigrants from Pakistan (his father is a tool and die engineer; his mother a manager at the Bay) and in a courtroom full of people wearing beards or burkas, the Gayas stand out. They practise their religion, but they're the furthest thing from fundamental.

Saad appeared that way, too. He attended Friday prayers at Oakville's Al-Falah mosque, but nobody recalls him ever uttering an extremist word. Like most teenagers, he was more interested in sports than politics. He played everything - soccer, rugby, basketball - and still found time to maintain a 92 per cent Grade 12 average. Which was enough to earn a science scholarship to McMaster, a short drive down the highway in Hamilton.

During his first and only year in university, Gaya spent the weekends at home and the weekdays living at a friend's house near campus. He couldn't afford the $400 for rent, but his friend's mother agreed to cut the price in half if he handled the household chores. Whenever she dropped by to visit, the floors were clean and the toilets were scrubbed.

That school year ended in April 2006. Two months later, Gaya was in shackles.

Unlike most of the "Toronto 18," he and his family were spared the media circus that followed the raids. Police mistakenly grouped him with the other four youths, whose names, by law, cannot be published. Only later did authorities realize that Gaya turned 18 six months before the bust, and was actually an adult at the time of his alleged crime. Today, though, his family remains wary of the spotlight. His mother and sister have granted the odd interview, but they declined to speak to Maclean's for this story.

Instead, Beenish Gaya is using the Web to tell the world about her younger brother. A chartered accountant who took a leave of absence from work to attend the preliminary hearing, she is the driving force behind toronto18.com, a collection of news clips, photos and editorials about "18 local Torontonians" who "have been or are currently being deprived of their basic human rights." She also has produced a video montage of Saad, complete with childhood pictures, report card quotes, and a home-movie clip featuring his driveway jumpshot. It's called: "A Message of Hope."

Back in the courtroom, hope will have to wait a little while longer. Justice Hill tells the lawyers to return in three weeks to hear his ruling on Gaya's bail application. After the judge steps down from the bench, a crowd gathers near the front of the gallery and watches in silence as Saad spends a few moments consulting with Slansky. When he finishes, he turns toward the police officers, waves twice to his family, then scurries through the side door.

Gaya's next stop is an armoured paddy wagon that will drive him back to Maplehurst. He is alone this afternoon, but in the days before the preliminary hearing was canned, he and his fellow suspects would ride in the back of the same truck to and from the jail. Along the way, they would jokingly sing their own version of "The wheels on the bus go round and round," replacing the chorus with: "My lawyer says we're gonna get bail, we're gonna get bail, we're gonna get bail ... "

Other than Zakaria Amara and two other suspects at the Don Jail, the group shares a segregated wing - Unit 1K - at Maplehurst. They spend the bulk of their days and nights inside their cells, minus some group time in a narrow hallway that includes some steel benches and a small TV. Most of the guys, including Abdelhaleem, have their own cell. Gaya has a roommate: Saad Khalid.

Of the four main bombing suspects, Khalid is the most elusive. His older sister, speaking for the family, "respectfully declined" an interview request from Maclean's. But she did speak out during a recent information forum at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus, where her brother was once a 19-year-old business management major. She told the packed auditorium that Saad was a typical Canadian, the son of Pakistani immigrants who moved here when he was eight and loved "Hallowe'en, the arcade, and Canada's Wonderland." He played soccer during his years at Meadowvale Secondary School, and coached kids in his spare time.

Zakaria Amara was one of Khalid's close friends and classmates, and like Amara, he worshipped at the Al-Rahman Islamic Centre, a storefront mosque in Mississauga. Khalid also founded the Religious Awareness Club (RAC) during his years at Meadowvale, preaching the Quran during lunch hour.

When authorities arrested Saad Khalid, he was at a warehouse in Newmarket, Ont.

The men who live in Unit 1K are allowed 40 minutes of visiting time each week (not including meetings with their lawyers). Tariq Abdelhaleem comes to see his son every Saturday morning, and although today marks his 134th visit to the prison, his eyes still well with tears as the clock expires. "This never gets normal," he says. As Tariq turns to leave, Shareef gives him a thumbs up from the other side of the glass. Saad Khalid is in the booth to his left, speaking to a relative.

Born in Cairo, Shareef shuffled between Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and England before his family moved to Canada in 1989. He is the oldest of four siblings. His seven-year-old sister often asks why Shareef is stuck behind that glass. Tariq doesn't want to scare her, so he lies: he tells his daughter that her older brother is very sick and contagious, and that the jail is actually a hospital. "It's so unfair," he says, steering his Lexus out of the prison parking lot. "It's so unfair and sad."

A civil engineer by trade, Tariq Abdelhaleem does contract work as a project manager for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Crown corporation that oversees the country's nuclear reactors. Since his son was thrown in jail for TERRORISM, the 65-year-old has taken on a second job: captiveincanada.com. "I believe in the power of the media," he says. "Sometimes it's an evil power, and sometimes it's a good power. But in both cases, we have to use it." Traffic to his website is growing by the week, he says - with some help from CSIS agents. "I know that they visit every day, three times," he says with a smile. "But they help pump up the numbers, so that's not a problem."

If anything, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service started keeping tabs on Tariq Abdelhaleem long before his son was ever an accused terrorist. And he knows it. "They don't bother me, but I am watched," he admits. "My phones are tapped, and my emails. Everything." When asked why, his answer is simple: "Because I talk."

He made headlines four years ago after issuing a fatwa that urged young Muslims to boycott a major gathering at SkyDome because he considered some of the speakers to be un-Islamic. His rationale included a reference to the "Crusaders and Zionists" who keep the Muslim community "under oppression." Tariq has also written letters to the editor, criticizing Canada's mission in Afghanistan. The Globe and Mail once described him as the "fundamentalist's fundamentalist."

"I never condone violence," he insists, driving home along Highway 401. "I'm portrayed as the most radicalized. You're talking to me now. Do I look like somebody who would put a bomb somewhere?" When asked if there are Muslims in Canada who might "put a bomb somewhere," he is adamant. "Never," he says. "I swear to God, to Allah in heaven, if I know somebody is going to do this, the first thing I would do is go and report it. I'm not going to hesitate for one second."

Ironically enough, it is that very scenario that seems to have landed Tariq's son behind bars. According to previous reports, it was Shareef who first befriended the mystery man who would later tell the Mounties about the alleged plot - and then join in the sting. Shareef confirms that version of events, but is hesitant to divulge many more details. "I knew him. I considered him an acquaintance, and I always knew what a low-life he was."

It is a convenient characterization, considering the evidence is still under wraps and the informant himself has not had a chance to explain his side of the story. Two years later, the only thing the public knows about the unnamed mole is that he received millions of dollars for his efforts - and a lifetime in hiding. But that lack of context hasn't stopped many in the Muslim community from concluding that he's a money-hungry traitor. As one visitor wrote on captiveincanada.com, may he "suffer in this life and the next."

Shareef shares that sentiment. "I don't care to see him again in my life, but I do need him to go on the stand so I can get the answers I want so I can walk." He is careful not to reveal too much of his lawyer's strategy, but he does offer a few pertinent points. For one, he is a full decade older than the other three bombing suspects. In fact, he never met Saad Gaya or Saad Khalid until they all ended up in the same jail. He did visit the gas station where Amara worked, he says, and sometimes there were heated discussions about world politics. But if there was ever talk about bombs or terrorism or ammonium nitrate, he says it was just that. Talk. "To tell you the truth, whenever it came out, I disagreed with it," he says. "And the Crown knows that."

So why not call the police? Why not warn authorities that men you know might be plotting an attack in Toronto? "Because I knew nothing was ever going to happen," he says. "I'm going to tell the truth, and then it's up to a judge to decide whether this ridiculous talk actually amounts to terrorism or not."

Abdelhaleem even goes so far as to say that some of those incriminating conversations were drug-induced. "Sorry Dad," he says over the phone. But the situation is a little more serious than Dad finding out about a joint.

"I was not involved," he adds later. "I am just listening to people talking. I didn't do anything. I didn't build no damn detonator. I didn't pay for anything. I didn't rent anything. It wasn't my idea."

Defence lawyers have filed an abuse of process motion, claiming the Crown reneged on a signed deal when it cancelled the pretrial back in September. Both sides have returned to court this afternoon for some preliminary arguments. The suspects are also here, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a special row encased in bullet-proof glass. Zakaria Amara is slouched on the far right side, dressed in a black suit and a white, button-down shirt.

Though dry with legalese, today's court appearance is a rare respite for Amara, who, along with two other suspects (Fahim Ahmad and Ali Dirie) is still in solitary confinement. The mere sight of someone other than a prison guard is a welcome distraction.

Amara remains locked in 24-hour isolation because of a court order that prohibits him from talking to his alleged cohorts. But two years later - and with no end in sight - some are beginning to question his confinement. In April, placard-waving protesters marched in the courthouse parking lot, demanding better conditions for all the accused. That same day, a coalition of 17 Muslim and Arab community groups issued an open letter, asking the government to reconsider its stance on solitary confinement. "Extreme isolation, conditions more severe than the majority of Canada's convicted murderers and rapists are subject to, is hardly appropriate for persons who have not been found guilty by our justice system," the letter says.

In his phone call from prison, Amara puts it this way: "I thought you were supposed to be treated innocently until proven guilty?"

In the court of public opinion, Amara was found guilty a long time ago - thanks in no small part to his wife, Nada, a Pakistani-born Canadian who, like her husband, grew up in Mississauga. Within weeks of the arrests, reporters uncovered some of her now-infamous chat-room rants, in which she praises the Taliban, berates homosexuals, and describes Canada as "this filthy country." In one posting, she wrote that if her husband "ever refuses a clear opportunity to leave for jihad, then I want the choice of divorce."

Amara has read the resulting headlines, and everything else written about his case. "I don't trust anybody," he says. His wife is equally cautious. Although she is listening in on the call, Nada doesn't say a word.

"You're entitled to make your own opinions," Amara says, just before hanging up. "But let the people come to court."

A few minutes after saying goodbye, Amara phones back. "I just want to apologize," he says. "My wife said I was rude to you. It's the segregation. I don't know how to interact with people anymore."

Every row in Courtroom 107 is full. Saad Gaya's friends and relatives have packed the gallery, including aunts and uncles and cousins who have promised to post their life savings in exchange for his freedom. His immediate family huddles in the front row, except for his mother, Rukhsana, who has chosen to stay in the hallway while everyone else finds out if her son will be coming home.

The whole thing is over in a matter of minutes. Prompt as always, Justice Hill enters the courtroom at precisely 2:00 p.m., climbs up to the bench, and informs Saad Gaya that his bail application is denied. The judge has outlined his reasons in a 64-page decision, but rather than recite the entire ruling, he has brought along a few dozen copies for anyone who wants to read the details (it, too, is covered by the publication ban).

Gaya, who had been shaking nervously a few moments ago, is now still. He is going back to jail tonight, back to his cell in Unit 1K. His sister, Beenish, rushes out of the courtroom in tears.

Inside 1K, those left of the "Toronto 18" are given $60 a week to spend on junk food. Order forms are filled out on Mondays, and the canteen cart arrives on Saturdays, loaded with Mars Bars and Kit Kats and Caramilks. "Sixty bucks," says Shareef Abdelhaleem. "I used to make that in half an hour."

Like all the suspects, Abdelhaleem has a laptop computer in his cell. Provided by the prosecution, it contains millions of pages of disclosure, including all the raw RCMP evidence collected during the investigation. Wiretaps. Surveillance photos. Briefing notes from the undercover informant. He's read most of it, but Abdelhaleem has started using the keyboard for something else: the first draft of his book. The working title is Terror or Tyranny? "We are starving for due process," he says. "We get remanded month after month. I am challenging the prosecution - and this is a challenge - to give us back our preliminary hearing tomorrow. It's been two years. I am not afraid. Why are they afraid?"

Abdelhaleem is never short on words. He speaks quickly and passionately, both on the phone and in the prisoners' box. When court is in session, he spends most of the day whispering to the person beside him. He is convinced this whole case was a political creation to sell the war in Afghanistan, to appease George W. Bush, and to justify the ever-increasing budgets of Canada's national security regime. In one breath, he longs to be out on bail. In the next, he says he's willing to sacrifice a few years of his life if it means "exposing certain elements of filth in CSIS and the RCMP."

Not to mention the guards at Maplehurst. "This is the thing I really would like you, as a personal favour, to write about," he says. "Our conditions have deteriorated. They have intentionally - and I repeat, intentionally - put in guys that are extraordinarily racist and extraordinarily bigoted. The ones that have sharp teeth, so to speak." Officials are now investigating allegations that Steven Chand, another of the "Toronto 18," was dragged from his cell while praying and thrown in solitary confinement. "Steven has always been treated the worst," Abdelhaleem says.

The specific details are sure to be covered in his upcoming book. Readers can only hope that the finished product includes something else: a believable explanation that goes beyond the conspiracy theories. If Abdelhaleem is truly innocent, if this entire case really is "garbage," how can his laptop be loaded with so much evidence that seems to say otherwise? If he did nothing wrong, why are police and prosecutors so certain that he and his alleged accomplices - Zakaria Amara, Saad Gaya and Saad Khalid - were plotting mass murder? Or, as the charge sheet reads: "intent to cause an explosion" that "was likely to cause serious bodily harm or death."

Abdelhaleem has his own question. "How big is my lawsuit against the government?" he asks with a laugh. "My lawyer says $12 million. I can't believe this happened to me. This is like winning the lottery."

Maclean's June 9, 2008