Who is Abdullah Almalki?
Syrian-born Canadian Abdullah Almalki, of Ottawa, was at the centre of an RCMP national security investigation that cast suspicion on Maher Arar. Like Mr. Arar, Mr. Almalki was tortured in a Syrian jail. He believes Canadian officials were complicit. Unlike Mr. Arar, there are no answers forthcoming about Canada's alleged role in his torture. Indeed, the RCMP maintain he is still under investigation. Andrew Duffy sat down with Mr. Almalki for three hours last week with one question in mind: Who is Abdullah Almalki?
October 30, 2005
In the living room of his father's Ottawa home, Abdullah Almalki tries to explain what happens to a man's mind while his body is secured to a tire and his feet are lashed with cables.
The emotional centre of the brain, he says, is disconnected. The tender world of family and children is buried as the mind organizes a desperate defence to pain, more animal than human, that devours a man's intellectual reserves.
"With time," he says from experience, "you become less and less susceptible to the effects of the torture."
Mr. Almalki endured 22 months in Syrian detention. Most of that time was spent in a cell as small and dark as a broom closet. He was repeatedly tortured before authorities decided he was not a terrorist, and allowed him to leave the country.
Since returning to Ottawa in August 2004, Mr. Almalki has struggled to reconnect emotionally with his family and society. "This is a problem I have since I've come back: I live in one box and the world is in another box," says Mr. Almalki, 34, a Syrian-born Canadian and a father of five.
Abdullah Almalki is one of at least eight Muslim-Canadians who have been imprisoned in a foreign country after being questioned by Canadian security agents. Some of those men, including Maher Arar, Muayyed Nureddin, Ahmad El-Maati and Mr. Almalki, say they were tortured overseas.
They suspect Canadian intelligence and those who gather it played an important, and still unexplained, role in what happened to them.
A federal commission of inquiry is examining the case of Ottawa computer engineer Maher Arar, but the federal government has so far resisted calls to broaden the scope of that inquiry to include the other cases.
Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor, who heads the Arar inquiry, this week released a report by Professor Stephen Toope, a fact finder charged with investigating Mr. Arar's claims that he was tortured in Syria. Mr. Toope interviewed Mr. Arar at length and compared his story with those of Mr. Almalki, Mr. El-Maati and Mr. Nureddin. He found all of their stories credible.
"I believe that they suffered severe physical and psychological trauma while in detention in Syria. Mr. Almalki was especially badly treated, and for an extended period," Mr. Toope concluded.
Mr. Almalki, a Canadian citizen, holds a high school diploma from Lisgar Collegiate and an engineering degree from Carleton University. His five children -- he has another due in January -- have grown up in Ottawa. He wants answers for them and for Canadian Muslims like them.
"I gave them all my trust," he says of Canada's security agencies, "and I think most people in the Muslim community gave them all their trust. I think the problem now -- and it's very crucial -- is that they get the trust back. They have acted in a way that has made everyone lose trust in them."
As a boy, Abdullah Almalki loved to tinker with radios. He would pry open the back panels and unpack their components, seeking to understand how each worked. He would always try to put them back together, not always successfully.
"I broke a lot of radios for my parents," he says sheepishly.
That boyhood fascination would set him on a path toward engineering science, toward a career in electronics and, ultimately, straight into a perfect storm of suspicion in the months after Sept. 11, 2001.
It was a storm that was a lifetime in the making.
Abdullah Almalki was born into an upper middle-class family in Damascus, Syria, in 1971. His father, a lawyer, sent his four boys to the best private schools in Damascus where they studied English, philosophy and science and produced test scores that made their parents proud.
But Abdullah's father wanted to expose his children to more than book learning. He would bring them to his law office and include them in meetings with his clients.
At one of those meetings, 15-year-old Abdullah recognized a business opportunity. A lone pear grower, he heard, was unable to bring his crop to market because Damascus fruit buyers woul d not travel to assess his harvest because it had been a poor growing season. Abdullah volunteered and later arranged with his older brother to buy the crop.
He turned a good profit when he sold the fruit in Damascus. "That was really my first business venture," he says. The pears gave Abdullah a taste for business that he would never lose.
In many ways, the Almalkis were not a typical Syrian family. Abdullah and his brothers had travelled Europe with their father. They were fluent in English. They were not strangers to western culture.
What's more, in 1987, Abdullah's father decided to move his family to Canada after carefully considering other destinations. He decided on Canada chiefly because of the country's fine public universities. Mr. Almalki would not be able to practise law in Canada, but he felt the move was important for his children's futures. "The feeling I had is that my father always lived for us," says Abdullah.
The Almalkis arrived in the summer of 1987. In the fall, the three older boys started high school careers at Lisgar Collegiate because their father had heard it was the best school in town.
But his formal English training did not fully prepare Abdullah for life among Ottawa high school students. "They did not speak English the same way," he says. "You know, it was a hundred words in one sentence. It was hard to grab the English in high school."
He was shocked by the humidity of Ottawa's summers and the bitterness of its winter winds. He had never seen so much snow. In Damascus, schools would shut down anytime it snowed more than a centimetre or two.
Still, he found the adjustment relatively easy. Lisgar played host to many immigrants so he did not feel out of place. He also enjoyed being able to choose his academic menu, an unknown luxury in Syria. He loaded up on maths and sciences in Grade 13.
His boyhood fascination with radios had crystallized into a plan: he would pursue a degree in electrical engineering. "What you can do with the electron, by controlling its movement, that was the fascination of it," says Mr. Almalki.
At the same time, his interest in business continued to develop. He distributed flyers for the Pennysaver, then launched his own window cleaning business. At Carleton University, all of his elective courses focused on business: accounting, marketing and management.
After Mr. Almalki completed his second year of engineering, he went to work as a research assistant on a project financed by Bell-Northern Research, a company that is today part of Nortel. The project sought to design cordless communications devices that could be used inside large buildings. "That was the first time I was introduced to wireless communications," he says. "It was extremely interesting, to see the applications side of technology."
After third year, Mr. Almalki decided to take advantage of an internship program that gave Carleton students the chance to gain up to 16 months of work experience before completing their degrees. He landed a job with Human Concern International, an Ottawa-based charity that performed development work in the Muslim world. The mother of one of Mr. Almalki's friends worked at HCI and helped arrange the placement.
One of HCI's main development projects was based in Peshawar, Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan. The area was then flooded with Afghan refugees. HCI operated "Hope Village," a housing complex and school for orphans. Mr. Almalki travelled there in fall of 1992.
"That changed my perspective on a lot of things," he says. "I had never seen refugees before. I've never seen people as poor. And I hadn't seen before kids aged five, six and seven working because they had to support their families. I felt, if I can do something for them, I will."
Mr. Almalki came back to Canada to attend university for another semester, but returned to Pakistan the following summer to work on a United Nations Development Program reconstruction project that had been awarded to HCI. The project involved buil ding irrigation to fields in southern Afghanistan.
He returned to Canada that summer to marry Malaysian-born Khuzaiman Kalifah, a Carleton economics student who had attracted Mr. Almalki's attention with her demure manner, piousness and decency. After their wedding in October 1993, the couple went to Pakistan where Mr. Almalki resumed his work with HCI. He was now head of the engineering division and was responsible for all of HCI's development projects in Afghanistan.
His new boss, the regional director of HCI in Pakistan, was Omar Said Khadr. An Egyptian-born Canadian, Mr. Khadr had graduated from the University of Ottawa with an engineering degree in the early 1980s before going to work for HCI.
Mr. Almalki soon clashed with Mr. Khadr; he didn't like his domineering management style.
"I thought the people working with you -- the engineers, the staff-- I wanted my relations with them to be very close. The way he was dealing was authoritative. It has to be done now."
Mr. Almalki also wanted more control over his budget, but Mr. Khadr didn't want to cede such power. It was one of the reasons the Almalkis returned home earlier than planned, in April 1994.
(Mr. Khadr would soon become a controversial figure. He was arrested in Pakistan the following year and accused of diverting money from HCI to finance the November 1995 bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, an explosion that killed 15 people. He was released shortly after Prime Minister Jean Chretien intervened in the case during a visit with then-Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto in January 1996.)
Back home in Ottawa, Mr. Almalki decided to go into business. He used his overseas contacts to establish himself as a supplier to Microelectronics International, a major electronics manufacturer in Pakistan that sold wireless equipment to the army, police and security services.
He worked long hours to secure and expand his business. He began to import cellphone accessories in addition to exporting wireless components and systems, such as hand-held two-way radios. The equipment, he says, did not require military export permits and was in no way related to weapons production.
"This business combined the trading aspect and the engineering background: it was a perfect fit for me. I was in business but I was dealing with electronics."
While his business prospered, his family expanded. His wife gave birth to a child every two years between 1994 and 2002. Yet his memory of that time is tinged with a certain sadness.
"I was putting all my time in my business," he says. "What I was looking at was expanding my business as much as I could. I got to a point where I was working 12 hours a day or more. I regret I did not spend so much time with my kids. It only hit me when I got in jail.
"I hope I'll be able to get back into business, but I do not want to be the same workaholic. I want to work eight hours and then spend the weekends and afternoons with my kids."
Mr. Almalki's first contact
with Canada's security agencies came in the summer of 1998 when a female Canadian Security Intelligence Service agent phoned out of the blue and asked to meet. "It was a friendly meeting," he says. "I was very open."
He recounted his life story and work history. She asked if he ever sold equipment to the Taliban. He told her he only sold to Pakistan's Microelectronics International; what they did with the equipment that they manufactured, he said, was out of his control.
The same agent returned later that summer to ask more about Mr. Khadr and Mr. Khadr's relationship with Osama bin Laden.
Mr. Almalki didn't think he was the subject of national security investigation until a series of strange occurrences made that fact plain. Every one of his incoming cellphone accessory shipments was opened and searched. He was repeatedly stopped in airports, questioned and searched. A man in the Ottawa Muslim community told him he had been approached by CSIS to uncover whether Mr. Almalki possessed bomb-m aking equipment.
He met for a third time with two CSIS agents, who questioned him about his travel.
Uncomfortable with the nature of their questions, Mr. Almalki retained a lawyer who advised him not to meet CSIS agents again without legal representation.
Mr. Almalki didn't hear from CSIS for more than a year. Then, one week after the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001, an agent knocked on his door. He wanted to know everything Mr. Almalki could tell him about a Muslim acquaintance who held a commercial pilot's licence.
Events unfolded quickly in the supercharged atmosphere that followed 9/11. The RCMP established a joint forces team, Project A-O Canada, to investigate a list of suspected terrorists supplied by CSIS.
Mr. Almalki was a central suspect. His activities of the past decade understandably appeared suspicious. He had worked in Afghanistan, which was now al-Qaeda's home base. He was acquainted with Omar Said Khadr, now established as a member of Osama bin Laden's inner circle. He sold communications equipment to Pakistan, some of which apparently had found its way into the hands of the Taliban. He had a friend, Mr. El-Maati, who was closely related to a wanted al-Qaeda terrorist. He travelled extensively.
Mr. Almalki came under intense police surveillance. By the end of November, he felt under siege and left with his family for Malaysia, where his mother-in-law was ill. His wife was pregnant and they decided to stay in Malaysia for the birth of their fifth child, a son, in early 2002.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the RCMP raided his Ottawa home and the homes of his brothers in Ottawa and London, Ont.
In April 2002, Mr. Almalki travelled to Singapore and Saudi Arabia on business and decided to extend his trip by visiting his family in Syria. He had not been back to the country since leaving as a teen; his parents were in Syria at the time and he was eagerly anticipating a reunion.
His mother was waiting for him at the Damascus airport. They embraced and began to discuss Mr. Almalki's expanding family when an immigration officer intervened. He asked Mr. Almalki to follow him to the airport security office.
He was questioned by uniformed officers, then taken aboard a mini-bus to the notorious Palestine Branch prison complex. He was led to an office and blindfolded. An interrogator asked him about Muslim men in Canada, including Ahmad El-Maati. Mr. Almalki said he didn't know an Ahmad El-Maati. (He knew him by another name.)
He was slapped hard across the face.
"Once they slapped me, it just became a different world," he says. "I felt, 'How could I talk with them anymore? It's not two humans discussing an issue.
"I had never been slapped before. You just feel that they've crushed your dignity. You're not human anymore."
So began 22-months of deprivation and torture inside Syria's prison system. He was beaten with cables on the soles of his feet, kicked into unconsciousness and suspended over the ground by his wrists. He would live six months without ever seeing the sun; rats and lice became his bedfellows.
There was a game among prison-ers of the Palestine Branch to forestall despair.
In his first weeks in his cell -- it was part of a long row that looked like a set of lockers -- Mr. Almalki was too afraid to speak. Then, a faceless voice told him from a neighbouring cell: "It won't take long. You'll get out soon. Soon."
Mr. Almalki clung to that hope. One year later, he was telling faceless newcomers a similar story.
"In a couple of weeks, you'll be out," he'd say.
"How long have you been here?"
"I've been here a couple of months, but my case is really complicated," he'd say. "Yours is much easier."
The practice, he said, offered a measure of hope even though a false one. "It would be very hard not to go insane if you knew the truth, so I played the game."
Mr. Almalki would try to sleep during the day so he wouldn't have to endure the tortured screams of other men. At night, he would read t he Koran by sticking the holy book through the bars to catch light in the hallway.
Mr. Almalki found immense humanity among his fellow torture victims. Whenever someone's voice sounded weak and thin, other prisoners would shout encouragement. One prisoner asked Mr. Almalki if he could still pray even though his pants were soiled.
Although he wouldn't recognize the face of any of his fellow prisoners in the Palestine Branch, he considers those men among his closest friends on Earth.
It was a full year before Abdul-lah Almalki felt strong enough to tell his story in person to the Canadian public.
He had been released from jail in Syria on March 10, 2004. Six months later, a Syrian judge had cleared him of charges that he was a terrorist threat for lack of evidence. He arrived home on Aug. 2 of last year.
Mr. Almalki won partial standing at the Arar inquiry. It has given him the ability to defend his personal reputation, but examining what happened to him remains outside the inquiry's mandate.
He has many questions that he wants answered. What role did Canadian intelligence play in his detention by Syria? Was his torture -- and that suffered by Mr. Arar, Mr. Nureddin and Mr. El-Maati -- part of an unwritten Canadian policy to send terrorist suspects to Syria for interrogation? Why did he never receive a visit in prison from Canadian consular staff?
"I don't want this to happen to another Canadian, to another person," he says. "I think it's important for everyone in Canada, for all of us Canadians. It's not only a private matter. There is a public interest in this.
"This is very serious. We are from different relations and different religions in Canada, but we are a society because we have common values. And I think one of the main values we have is that we value human rights."
Mr. Almalki has struggled to regain his mental and physical health. Amnesty International Canada has paid for psychological counselling. He remains afflicted by pain in his hip, foot and shoulder. He's no longer able to play basketball and skate with his children.
He's frustrated, too, by the fact that the RCMP maintains he is still under investigation seven years after security agents first approached him. He has done nothing wrong, he insists. He maintains he has not given money or equipment to al-Qaeda.
What's more, he says, inquiries among Ottawa's Sunni Muslims would reveal he's part of the Shafi'i school of religious law, not the more radical Wahabi school commonly associated with al-Qaeda conscripts.
Mr. Almalki wants an independent public inquiry into his case and those of his fellow Canadian torture victims. He believes the Arar inquiry alone cannot address the disturbing pattern of events that resulted in four Canadians being tortured in Syrian jails. Nothing less than the reputation of the country he loves, he says, is at stake.
"I don't want Canada to be known as a country that is subcontracting torture or is involved in torture," he says. "I would like Canada to be known as a country that rejects torture in any way, shape or form, and pushes other governments to stop it."
Why Abdullah Almalki believes that Canada and its security intelligence agencies played some role in his detention in Syria, and by proxy, his torture:
- Mr. Almalki left Syria as a 16-year-old when his family moved to Canada; the Syrians had no reason to detain him based on his personal history in that country. He held a valid military exemption at the time.
- Mr. Almalki was the main target of the RCMP's A-O Canada investigation when he was detained in Syria. Similarly, three other Canadian Muslim men -- Maher Arar, Ahmad El-Maati and Muayyed Nureddin -- under investigation by the RCMP or CSIS were arrested and tortured in Syria.
- When he was first detained in the Damascus airport, Mr. Almalki overheard an official say they had just received a report about him from "an embassy."
- Mr. Almalki was later told by his interrogators that he was being questioned on behalf of Canada, and indeed, many of the allegations that he was forced to respond to in Syria involved his relationship with other Muslim Canadian men, including Maher Arar, Ahmad Al-Maati and Omar Said Khadr.
- Mr. Almalki was asked by the Syrians about corporate names he had registered with Industry Canada -- names he believes could only have been uncovered by the RCMP's search of his office.
- Evidence at the Arar inquiry shows that CSIS officials travelled to Syria in November 2002 to obtain information relevant to security threats to Canada. Mr. Almalki says he later saw his interrogators with a report titled, "Meeting with Canadian delegation of Nov. 24, 2002."
Profile of Abdullah Almalki. Ran with fact box "Almalki's File", which has been appended to the story. William Sampson details his 963-day ordeal, A9
© The Ottawa Citizen 2005
CanWest Interactive, a division of
CanWest Global Communications Corp. All rights reserved.
Optimized for browser versions 4.0 and higher.