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17 arrests part of bigger plot: investigators
'The state exploited their rage?: defence
Stewart Bell
National Post, with files from Melissa Leong

The 17 suspects arrested in Toronto one year ago today for allegedly belonging to an al- Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell were part of a larger group of almost 50 that were under investigation, sources say.

A year after the RCMP led Canada's largest counter-terrorism bust since the 9/11 attacks, the National Post has learned that almost two-thirds of the suspects probed during the investigation were not charged.

They include those who were believed to have trained overseas and provided supplies to the group but who were not among the 12 adults and five youths arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Act on June 2, 2006.

The fate of the suspects who were targeted, but not charged, is not known.

The RCMP's top counter-terrorism officer said in an interview this week that while the investigation into the 17 has concluded, police continue to examine their associates.

"We're still watching the periphery of the file, if you will, and where all the associations go," said Assistant Commissioner Mike McDonell, adding the probe would continue "until we're 100 per cent satisfied."

Asked what had happened to the two-thirds of suspects not charged, he said: "That would be part of the continuing investigation. ? Some would be written off, some wouldn't. You just keep going. ? You require enough evidence to get them before a court. There has to be a reasonable expectation of conviction or we don't arrest them.

"It's no different than any other criminal organization. If you look at the hang-arounds with bikers, if you look at people that supply outlaw motorcycle gangs with the material that they require, knowing full well that they're going to be used for a criminal offence, it's not a bad idea to keep an eye on them."

Intelligence expert Martin Rudner said terrorists are usually surrounded by a circle of supporters who help with recruitment, training, finance, arms acquisition, documents fraud, logistics, safe houses, espionage, planning and reconnaissance. "Terrorist organizations, and indeed terrorist activities, involve an array of people and processes other than just the attackers," said Prof. Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies.

But defence lawyers accused police of over-reaching out of fear they will be accused of not doing enough should a terrorist attack occur.

"The question becomes: the net that they cast, did they cast it too broadly?" said lawyer Michael Moon, who represents Steven Chand, one of the accused.

The language in the Anti-Terrorism Act is so broad that it allows police to arrest anyone they want, he said. "A lot of the guys in this case are really guilty of nothing more than saying the wrong thing at the wrong age."

Edward Sapiano, the lawyer for accused Yasin Mohamed, said the suspects were youths with "vague notions of injustice" who were approached by police agents to participate in jihad. "The state exploited their rage."

The so-called Toronto 17 are accused of plotting to explode truck bombs in downtown Toronto and take hostages on Parliament Hill until the government agreed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

But a de-classified version of a Canadian intelligence report, released this week under the Access to Information Act, says that ending the fighting in Afghanistan will not eliminate the current terrorist threat.

"While a resolution of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq could decrease support for jihad and remove what is currently a key component for radicalization and recruitment, this will not remove the threat," it says.

The terror suspects, some of whom are to begin a preliminary hearing in a Brampton court next week, have been portrayed by government authorities as "homegrown" terrorists, Muslims who were radicalized and recruited into the al-Qaeda cause -- within Canada.

"We remain vigilant to the threat of terrorism and we are unwavering in our determination to safeguard our national security," Stockwell Day, the Minister of Public Safety, said yesterday.

He said the government had increased the size of the RCMP, placed several groups on Canada's official terrorist list and improved cooperation between the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

A year after the Toronto arrests, the main terrorist threat facing Canada is "externally influenced homegrown radicalism," Assist. Comm. McDonell said.

One of those foreign influences is Pakistan.

Since the arrests, the RCMP has been probing the Toronto group's alleged links to that country. The investigation has not tied the Toronto group directly to al-Qaeda, but some of the suspects are believed to have close ties to Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the most important al-Qaeda proxy in Pakistan.

"I think we're all, ourselves and our allies -- in understanding this phenomenon that is domestic radicalization and the speed in which it works -- we're looking at the behaviours of those that have been apprehended to date, those that we're all watching and then the links that they have to other countries," Assist. Comm. McDonell said.

"It is a global threat, so we're trying to understand. And as with anything else, trying to lay down the indicative markers that could pre-warn us to an attack. So the international travel is certainly up there, and international communications. It's a global threat. Some of the angst, if you will, is generated from countries other than Canada."

The investigation, known at first as Operation Claymore, originated in 2004, when CSIS began monitoring a group of youths who were active on Islamist extremist Internet forums. CSIS infiltrated the group, using two paid agents.

The RCMP began its own parallel investigation late in 2005, called Project OSAGE, using the agents recruited by CSIS. Police watched the group for six months before making arrests after the suspects allegedly ordered a large quantity or ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer but also a common component of terrorist bombs.

The following morning, the RCMP said at a packed news conference that the group had ordered three tonnes of ammonium nitrate and other bomb components. An 18th man was arrested in August but charges were later dropped against another.

A CSIS intelligence report released this week says Canada has a "long history" of Islamist and other forms of extremism. But while in the past it revolved around things like raising money and recruiting, today's extremists are prepared to carry out terrorist attacks in Canada, the report says.

The study adds that, "individuals have been radicalized in Canada and recruited to participate in terrorist activity both in Canada and abroad, as well as to fight in Iraq."

Islamist extremists "believe they are at war with the West and have brought the fight to the West, seeing Canada and other Western countries as legitimate targets where terrorist acts can be planned and executed," it says.

Another newly released intelligence report, this one by the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre, says al-Qaeda now views Canada as "a legitimate, but not highest priority, target."


For a full transcript of the Q&A, as well as a downloadable version of the CSIS study, visit

© National Post 2007


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