Two boys are in high school in London, Ont. One attends A.B. Lucas Secondary, the other is across town at London South. Both are Muslims and doing well, and both are athletic – one plays hockey, the other football.
A few years later, both come to public attention.
Nazem Kadri has a breakout season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is one of the leading scorers on the National Hockey League team, and finds himself being kissed on national television by Don Cherry after recording his second three-goal game.
Ali Medlej is found dead in North Africa. He and another Canadian appear to have been among 29 members of al-Qaeda of the Maghreb, a deadly terrorist group, who died after attacking an Algerian gas plant. No fewer than 38 of the hostages they had taken perished when Algerian forces moved in to end the attack.
What made Mr. Medlej choose the road that led to Algeria?
“I have no idea,” says Sikander Hashmi, the 30-year-old Canadian-born imam of a mosque in Kingston, Ont. “But it would have come as he was trying to figure out just who he was,” he adds. “So many cases are about identity.”
Mr. Hashmi welcomed the announcement this week that Canadian police and intelligence officers had arrested two young men and broken up an alleged plot to bomb a Via Rail/Amtrak train en route to New York from Toronto.
“At first, I thought, ‘Uh-oh, here we go again,’ ” he says, remembering past accusations of terror. “Then I saw the diverse Muslim leaders who were also at the press conference, and breathed easy. It was very impressive.”
Including community and religious leaders when the RCMP met the media was both novel and substantive.
One imam, reportedly working through a Toronto law firm, is said to have been a source of information that assisted the investigation and led to the charging of two Muslim men.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Mr. Hashmi says. He is concerned not only with detecting extremists but with an equally grave issue: how to keep Canadian Muslims, or members of any religious, ethnic or political group, from becoming such radicals in the first place.
The remarkable news conference was a big step forward in winning the trust of Canadian Muslims, many of whom are skeptical of government policy and the security forces’ practices.
It was also the culmination of a journey that began almost 28 years ago – on June 23, 1985, when Air India Flight 182, bound from Montreal for New Delhi, was blown out of the sky over the North Atlantic. A bomb planted in the luggage killed 329 people, most of them Canadian, making it the biggest terror attack in Canadian history.
Ron Atkey was then chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), the body appointed by Parliament to oversee the operations of the newly formed Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which was responsible for gathering intelligence on threats by and against Canadian security.
“Air India,” he says, “was a complete failure on our part.” CSIS knew from international intelligence that Sikh nationalists were plotting attacks on Indian targets, but could not get inside the large Punjabi community in the lower mainland of British Columbia.
“It was impenetrable,” Mr. Atkey says. As a consequence, the plot to down the Air India flight was never detected. “It was the darkest day in Canadian security history.”
And, from that day, Canadian intelligence, police and political leaders have attempted to grapple with the issue of homegrown terrorism, and the radicalization of Canadians. “Everything that changed in Canadian strategy and tactics, came as a result of that failure,” Mr. Atkey contends.
The developments along the way weren’t always pretty. They included the 2002 case of Maher Arar and his rendition by the United States to Syria, where he was tortured in an attempt to reveal sources and information that might lead Canadian and U.S. officials, both barred from conducting torture themselves, to terrorist plots.
It yielded nothing of the kind; only lawsuits and a black eye for the security service, says Mr. Atkey, who helped with the subsequent inquiry into the Arar debacle.