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Canada's dossier on Maher Arar
 
Juliet O'Neill

The existence of a group of Ottawa men with alleged ties to al-Qaeda is at the root of why the government opposes an inquiry into the case. The Citizen's Juliet O'Neill reports.

There is said to be a sign in an office at the RCMP that reads like this: "Beware rogue elephants -- The Easter Bunny."

It's a half-joking reference to "rogue elements" of the RCMP that Solicitor General Wayne Easter has said may have passed information about Maher Arar to authorities in the United States, from which he was deported to Syria last year.

The other half of the joke is no joke at all. The RCMP -- not rogue elements, but workaday investigators -- had caught Mr. Arar in their sights while investigating the activities of members of an alleged al-Qaeda logistical support group in Ottawa. RCMP watchers were suspicious when they saw Mr. Arar and their main target, Abdullah Almalki, talking outside in the pouring rain away from eavesdroppers.

It is the existence of that now-disbanded alleged group, most if not all of whose members, including Mr. Almalki, are now in prison abroad, that a security source cites as the root of why the Canadian government is so fiercely opposed to a public inquiry into the case of Mr. Arar.

And it was in defence of their investigative work -- against suggestions that the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, had either bungled Mr. Arar's case or, worse, purposefully sent an innocent man to be tortured in Syria --that securityofficials leaked allegations against him in the weeks leading to his return to Canada.

One of the leaked documents is about what Mr. Arar allegedly told Syrian military intelligence officials during the first few weeks of his incarceration.

It contains minute details of seven months of supposed training at the Khalden camp in Afghanistan by the Mujahadeen in 1993. It alleges he was trained in small arms use and military tactics and names specific instructors. It even contains a code name he is said to have confessed to: Abu Dujan, after a legendary Muslim fighter who was recognized by a red headband that signalled a determination to fight to the death for the prophet Muhammad.

Mr. Arar says he confessed to training in Afghanistan when he was tortured, agreeing to an Afghan camp name at random. He had never been in or near Afghanistan.

The document also tells of a purported trip by Mr. Arar to neighbouring Pakistan while en route to the Mujahadeen camp. It says he went at the behest of Montreal members of a group named the Pakistani Jamaat Tabligh, described as an Islamic missionary organization not know to be involved in acts of violence or terrorism. It said he had been assigned in the early 1990s, while studying at McGill University, to recruit followers for the Jihad.

There was nothing in the document about any terrorist activities in Ottawa or anywhere else. It gave an account of his work record, including his salary at one company, and said his lawyer had told the RCMP he would speak with them when he returned from a trip to Tunisia in January, 2002, but there had been no further contact from the RCMP.

The document said Mr. Arar had told U.S. interrogators in New York City that he had travelled to Pakistan with the Tabligh group, but he denied going to Afghanistan and that he first met Mr. Almalki at a family gathering. He allegedly told the American interrogators that Mr. Almalki approached him and one of his brothers in 1994 or 1995 with a proposition for a joint business venture in the communications/computing field in Ottawa. But the brothers decided against it because conditions in Ottawa were too competitive.

One of Mr. Almalki's brother's had told Mr. Arar in 1998 that Mr. Almaki had worked for an aid organization in Afghanistan. The last time the brother had seen Mr. Almalki was in October, 2001. Mr. Arar later heard from the brother that Mr. Almalki had moved to Malaysia. (Mr. Almalki's family says he was arrested in Syria during a visit from Malaysia. Mr. Arar saw him in prison in Syria and said he had been tortured.)

Mr. Arar is demanding a public inquiry into the role of the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) into his deportation. He also wants to know if Canadian officials devised the questions he was asked in the United States and during torture sessions in Syria, says Mr. Arar's spokeswoman, Kerry Pither. She said the questions focused on Afghanistan and his knowledge of Mr. Almalki.

When the RCMP called on Mr. Arar in January, 2002 -- the same month that RCMP executed a search warrant against Mr. Almalki, seizing computers and files and interrogating two of his brothers -- Mr. Arar was out of the country.

He telephoned the RCMP from Tunisia and later agreed to meet them, accompanied by his lawyer. The RCMP never followed up, Mr. Arar says. Mr. Arar had disappeared, says a security source -- a notion Ms. Pither says is outlandish. Mr. Arar was in Canada for the next six months and could have been contacted with a phone call.

When an RCMP investigator knocked on his door a couple of weeks later, he found Mr. Arar and his family were gone. Neighbours said he and his family had held a garage sale, packed and moved. However, Ms. Pither says the RCMP could have contacted Mr. Arar through his lawyer. She did not know whether they had moved at that time.

Eight months later, while returning to Canada from Tunisia, where Mr. Arar's family was on an extended family visit that had begun in June, Mr. Arar was pulled aside at New York's JFK airport, detained and then, under a deportation order citing him as a member of a prohibited terrorist group -- al-Qaeda -- was spirited to Syria, from where he had emigrated when he was 17 years old.

It is the existence of a suspected Ottawa-based al-Qaeda "cell" and what its members were believed to be up to, that a security source cites as the root of why the Canadian government is so fiercely opposed to a public inquiry into the case of Mr. Arar.

Such an inquiry could open a can of worms involving Syrian, American and Canadian investigations into alleged terror plots in Ottawa and alleged shipments of electronic and computer equipment to al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Perhaps most difficult for the government, an inquiry would present a dilemma over what to do about suspects who have wound up in prison in their native countries, including Mr. Almalki. If Mr. Arar has caused such an uproar, others may do likewise.

An inquiry might also put the spotlight on allegations of a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy and on allegations that the plot had been abandoned in favour of apparently easier targets -- on Parliament Hill and elsewhere in the nation's capital.

Right suspect, wrong target was how one source put it when the CanWest News reported last summer on Mr. Almalki's suspected involvement in an alleged U.S. Embassy bombing plot. The RCMP officially denied knowledge of the plot last July, effectively shutting down the story that stemmed from a report in the New Yorker magazine by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

The story told of how after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, the Syrians had emerged as one of the Central Intelligence Agency's most effective intelligence allies in the fight against al-Qaeda, sharing hundreds of dossiers on al-Qaeda cells throughout the Middle East and in Arab exile communities in Europe. Syria had accumulated much of its information, Mr. Hersh wrote, because of al- Qaeda's ties to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic terrorists who have been at war with the secular Syrian government for more than two decades.

The contents of seven search warrants issued to the RCMP by an Ontario Court of Justice judge the day before Mr. Almalki's apartment was searched, remain sealed. And most, if not all the targets of the RCMP investigation into the alleged cell are said to be in prison abroad. Only Ahmed Said Khadr, an Egyptian-Canadian, is said to be at large, possibly in Afghanistan.

The Foreign Affairs Department has for months had a list of seven Canadian men with alleged links to terrorism in prison abroad. Until a few weeks ago, that list included Mr. Arar. The seven are among the more than 3,000 Canadians in prison in foreign countries, most of them in the U.S. and most of them on more common criminal charges, such as possession of drugs.

Gar Pardy, the recently retired consular affairs chief from Foreign Affairs, says the RCMP and CSIS persistently opposed Foreign Affairs' efforts to bring Mr. Arar's case to the prime minister for intervention.

"The RCMP and the security people, that's where the division came down," Mr. Pardy said in an interview. "They were saying we have our responsibilities and we don't agree. I think it delayed our efforts to get him out of there to some extent, although I don't think by a heck of a lot quite frankly.

 Copyright 2004 Ottawa Citizen



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