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How a devout Hindu teen became a stranger to his parents on trial in an alleged terror plot Add to ...

A father's curiosity trumped all else on the day he decided to ransack his 15-year-old son's room. He swept through the young man's desk, shelf and closet in the family's Scarborough apartment, silently praying his suspicions wouldn't be confirmed.

The smoking gun he found that day wasn't a girlie magazine or sandwich bag filled with marijuana, but a copy of the Koran on a CD-ROM.

At the time, the devout Hindu thought he'd been struck with the worst kind of parental disappointment. But five years later, after spending $30 a day driving to and from a courthouse in Brampton to watch his son go through Canada's first terrorism trial, he has endured a worse fate - the experience of losing his son.

Although he has sat just 10 or so metres away in court from the young man, now 20, a religious gulf separates them.

In recent interviews with Muslim mentors, including an imam the young man clandestinely visited, and with his father, who believes his son was brainwashed, there emerges a picture of a muddled young man caught in an intense tug of war.

On one side, he seeks to please his strict, sometimes harshly disciplinarian father and on the other, to follow his own flawed interpretation of Islam.

His religious guides - at least the ones who aren't his co-accused in the so-called Toronto 18 - agreed he was ignorant of Islam.

"He's a kid who doesn't know very much, if at all, about the religion," said Muhammad Robert Heft, who was approached by the young man at Paradise For Ever, a non-profit centre he runs in Toronto for recent Muslim converts.

Mr. Heft was even more dismissive of the suggestion that the young man could be a terrorist. "I think if you ask the real terrorists in the world, they'd feel insulted, that he was nothing more than a Mickey Mouse kid who was venting some of his frustrations and talking," he said.

At an alleged terrorist training camp in December, 2005, the young man peppered RCMP mole Mubin Shaikh with questions about Islam, but Mr. Shaikh testified later that they "never ... indicated to me any reflective thought."

Raised in the Hindu faith in Scarborough, where ethnic grocery stores stack bags of cassava chips alongside brass statues of Hindu deity Lord Ganesha, the teenager made a transition to Islam that was unexpected and tumultuous.

After emigrating from war-torn Sri Lanka in 1994, the family of deeply devoted Hindus made weekly trips to local Hindu temples, said the young man's father. The first sign his son was drifting away from the faith was when the school principal called, telling him his son had been asking to use the Muslim prayer room in the school.

The father was baffled: Each week his son followed the family to temple, a place teeming with people kneeling before the statues of deities and spreading holy ash across their foreheads. The school principal was surely mistaken, he thought. But then he searched his son's room. When he found a CD-ROM version of the Koran, he warned the then-15-year-old to stay away from his Muslim classmates.

"By force they were taking him," the father said in a mix of Tamil and English, a translator at his side. "At that time itself I would've alerted police and he would've been saved."

But the young man's younger sister - the only family member the father said his son acknowledges in court - sympathizes with him.

"I think he was searching for God. He was confused, I guess," she said. "My parents don't understand. It's his decision ... I just wanted him to be careful."

The young man's father persuaded the principal to seal off the prayer room, thinking that once the meeting place disappeared, so would the conversion process. But that only made his son seek out a new hangout: the Salaheddin Islamic Centre. It was here that an imam at the mosque, Aly Hindy, said the young man got to know many of his co-accused in the Toronto 18, including the alleged ringleader.

Mr. Heft of Paradise For Ever said the young man seemed more attracted to a group he could vent about his father to, rather than one that would train him in the religion. "He was surrounding himself with people who had never read the Koran cover to cover, who don't know Arabic, who don't know very basic minimal things about Islam."

The father's patience was drained after he found Islamic literature stored among textbooks in his son's school locker and watched his religious observance manifest itself in a long, coarse beard.

The quiet young man wandered into Paradise For Ever at 15, seeking refuge at the organization's emergency shelter and claiming he was abused at home, Mr. Heft said.

"He was complaining that his parents were beating him up because he was a Muslim ... that he had to pray in the bathroom." Mr. Heft could not allow him entrance, since visitors must be at least 16 to stay at the shelter.

The young man also visited Mr. Hindy at Salaheddin.

Kneading his forehead in his hands, the young man's father admitted in an interview that he had beat his son, explaining that he believed it was the only form of discipline left.

At 17, the young man dropped out of school and left his parents' apartment for three to four weeks without a word, the father said. Although old enough to stay under Paradise For Ever's roof and take daily lessons on Islam, he instead fled to a Toronto mosque, where his family found him. His father pleaded with him to return home, but he refused.

It was that December that he attended an alleged terrorist training camp near Washago, Ont. During target practice at the camp, the young man unflinchingly fired at pictures of Hindu deities, a bold move to prove to the others he was committed to Islam, Mr. Shaikh, the RCMP informant, said in court. "[What]I told him was, 'Go home. Go to your parents,' " he said.

In January, 2006, the family finally coaxed the young man to return home. In a last-ditch effort to draw his son away from what he saw as a dangerous brand of spirituality, the father brought Hindu priests, Christian pastors and other religious leaders to the apartment to counsel his son. The young man dismissed them all: "Everything you're saying is a lie."

The turning point came later that year, in early June.

Two weeks after attending another alleged terrorist training camp, the young man was arrested in the spectacular finale to a long RCMP and CSIS investigation that rounded up 17 other suspects, 11 of whom still face charges.

The young man spent months in custody, and his religious conviction appeared to wane - or so his father thought. After he bailed him out of jail, it seemed as if a fruitful new father-son relationship was being born, the father said.

While shopping around for a house a short while after the young man had returned home, the family stumbled upon one in Markham that seemed worthy of a serious offer. But after noting that it was right beside a mosque, the young man vetoed it.

"He ran back to the car and said, 'I don't want to live there any more,' " the father said.

But according to Mr. Hindy, the young man had only hidden his faith. He secretly visited the Salaheddin mosque every week, peppering the imam with questions. "Sometimes he'd run away fast because he said, 'I don't want my father to find out I went to Friday prayer,' " Mr. Hindy said.

The seeming grace period at home unravelled as the months passed and this summer's trial date neared.

By April of this year, it seemed as if a stranger had moved in. The young man appeared to be stitching together his own rules for living from literal translations of the Koran. After reading about how the Prophet Abraham circumcised himself at the age of eight, the young man wanted to emulate him.

"He said he wanted to circumcise himself. I said, 'Are you crazy?' " Mr. Hindy said. "If I open a book in medicine, I can't do surgery."

He told the young man to consult a doctor about the procedure, which the young man's father said his son was serious about. Eventually, any form of communication with his son became an ordeal.

"He was almost mad-like. ... He would go into the closet and sit down like this," he said, closing his eyes, a blank expression setting in over his face. "I'd say, 'Put on the TV,' and he'd say, 'No, everything's corrupt on TV.' "

His parents had spent $3,000 on brand-name clothing to win their son's favour after his release from custody. One day they came home to find a mountain of shredded fabric and their son beside it, tearing through shirts and pants with a pair of scissors.

After several months at home, the young man was reduced to a gaunt version of his former self, declaring that most of the food was not halal. He even turned away water, his father said.

In that last 1½months in his parents' custody, life was bleak. "He said, 'I want to kill myself, I want to kill myself,' " his father said.

At his son's preliminary hearing on May 6, the young man tried to walk out on his own trial. "I want myself out of this," he said. "...This is not sharia court, that's the problem." He was rearrested and taken to Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton where he has since remained.

Disturbed by news reports of what happened that day, Mr. Hindy spent 45 minutes with the young man in jail, urging him to return to court, explaining that Canadian law and Islamic law were not contradictory. While the young man has remained in custody for three months, he has been co-operative in court, acknowledging the judge, but ignoring his father.

His father said that, during clipped phone conversations every two or three weeks, the young man tells his family that he doesn't call more often because he doesn't want to burden them with collect-call fees.

Mr. Hindy said he has become a stand-in parental figure and religious tutor for the young man, guiding him on the phone every two or three days. If the young man is acquitted, he plans to move into an apartment with his sisters, Mr. Hindy said.

Although the young man's father said he understands that his home may not be the right place for his son, he won't give up on him. His plan is to send his son, if acquitted, to England to live with his brother.

"He's an innocent kid," the father said. "He was cheated, he was forced."

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