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Hunting al-Qaeda: Inside the RCMP's search for a terror cell
James Gordon
Citizen Special

TORONTO - In the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Canadian police and intelligence officials fanned out across Ontario and Quebec in search of an alleged homegrown al-Qaeda "sleeper" cell.

The Ottawa-based RCMP investigation -- Project A-O Canada -- would eventually take officers to a small, nondescript apartment complex just a 10-minute drive from Toronto's soaring downtown office towers.

It was here, the Citizen has learned, that the Mounties, secret search warrant in hand, descended in January 2002.

It was one of seven warrants executed that day. At the same time in Ottawa, officers were busy rifling through the residence of Abdullah Almalki, a Canadian citizen who spent two years locked up in a Syrian prison and claims to have been tortured.

As with the Almalki raid, police were searching for detailed banking records, travel documents and information about explosives and government buildings. But with the shock of 9/11 still setting in, Toronto officers were looking for more.

Newly released court documents show that, in addition to papers and instructions relating to Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaeda terrorist network and the 9/11 attacks, police also sought general information about "jihad and holy wars," airline information and aviation instruction and training manuals.

Whether they found anything remains a state secret. The Citizen has obtained the name and address of the warrant target, but cannot publish either. The target moved out of the apartment in December 2004, and couldn't be reached for comment.

Interviews with former neighbours paint two different pictures of the target. To those who knew him as just another tenant passing in the dim hallways, he was polite, quiet and kept to himself.

One neighbour who frequently spoke with the man called him "odd," however. Telling her he was an Egyptian engineer, the target explained his sometimes lengthy travel was the result of a career with the Canadian government.

The man's name isn't currently listed on a federal employee database.

The neighbour, speaking on condition her name not be used, added that the target "liked a lot of women," and often went to a nearby gym to work out.

Without being told of the secret warrant, the woman said she was aware of a police raid at the apartment. Some residents understood agents with Canada's spy agency, CSIS, had stopped by earlier and told building managers they "would be around."

She added in the months leading up to, and following, the search, strange things were happening.

"There was a guy who used to sit outside in a beat-up old Jeep, and no matter what time of day it was, he was there," she said.

The neighbour considered calling the police on several occasions, but eventually came to suspect it was spies at work.

Then, on two separate occasions, the intersection in front of the building was shut down and "everyone was there," including the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, Toronto police and others.

Despite documentary proof that an RCMP raid took place, one angry building manager said the suspect was a "very nice man" and denied police had ever been to his property.

Four years after Project A-O Canada was launched, it remains shrouded in mystery. The RCMP insists near-blanket secrecy over the warrants is necessary to protect an ongoing operation, but a legal challenge by the newspaper continues to provide new details.

The search in Toronto and another at Abdullah Almalki's residence are the only two revealed thus far in court papers. A Citizen investigation revealed late last year that CSIS was tipped off days after Sept. 11, 2001, about activity at a townhouse belonging to Mr. Almalki's brother, Nazih Almalki. A suspicious neighbour claimed to have called the spy agency and later watched a police raid there. Nazih Almalki couldn't be reached for comment.

Maher Arar, an Ottawa man secretly shipped by the United States to a Syrian prison and an acquaintance of the Al malki brothers, has confirmed he later learned about a search at the townhouse.

Mr. Arar was released last year after his case mushroomed into a full-blown international incident. A public inquiry is currently examining the role of Canadian officials (including members of A-O Canada) in the case.

None of the men targeted by the 2002 warrants has been charged with a crime, and none of RCMP's allegations against them have been proven in court.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2005

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