It was such a letdown. After years of anticipation back home in Alberta and weeks of wandering around Afghanistan, Sohail Qureshi had finally connected with the Taliban in war-torn Helmand Province – only to find himself in a terrorist training camp that he says was more “like a social party.”
The aspiring jihadi and recent computer-science graduate from the University of Calgary spent a month at the base north of Kandahar, where conditions were, as he puts it, “pretty ghetto” – no working toilets and a blanket on the ground for a bunk. He expected to receive combat training and profound Islamic inspiration. Instead, the Taliban spent their time eating, mingling in the marketplace, fixing radios and tending to the poppy fields for the next opium harvest.
“I wanted to join the insurgency,” Mr. Qureshi recalls, “but nothing ever happened.”
So he left, heading to Kabul, the capital, in search of action. Instead, he was arrested, questioned and, when the authorities couldn’t make a case against him, shipped home to Canada.
Five years later, in the wake of reports from Algeria that two Canadians took part in, if not led, the al-Qaeda attack on a massive gas plant last month that left at least 37 hostages and 29 militants dead, Mr. Qureshi says he feels fortunate he didn’t meet a similar fate.
Despite repeated efforts to join the fray, “it seems destiny deemed that my life was not to end in such a manner,” explains the man once called “little bin Laden” by his neighbours. He has done an about-face, he says, and now wants to have “a positive, rather than negative, impact on the world.”
Mr. Qureshi’s views were so extreme that he was considered a top terrorist threat in Canada before landing in an Afghan prison and, later, being scooped up while trying to join the insurgency in Iraq. Yet he was never tried for terrorism; instead, he eventually was shown the error of his ways in the least likely of places: a Jordanian interrogation room.
Now 29 and living in Ottawa, he is jumping between jobs and dabbling in poetry as he tries to find his place in Canada.
“I could be in some remote prison somewhere.… I might be dead. So many things could have happened,” he says, explaining his decision to end his long silence in an attempt to inspire others contemplating a radical path. “That’s the last poem I wrote – Lucky. I am so lucky.”
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How many homegrown terrorists has Canada produced?
Security officials recently told a parliamentary committee that the threat of terrorism has not diminished, and the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has estimated that 45 to 60 Canadian citizens have gone to Somalia, Yemen and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for terrorist training. This week, Ottawa confirmed that a Canadian dual national, who resided in Lebanon, is connected to the bombing of a bus loaded with Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last July, killing seven.
The best-known offender is Omar Khadr. The Toronto-born man has made headlines since being captured in 2002 during a firefight in Afghanistan, accused of killing a U.S. soldier and shipped to Guatanamo Bay. He was convicted and returned to serve his sentence in a Canadian prison where, now 26, he has been since September.
In 2006, 18 young men were arrested in Toronto as part of a domestic bomb plot. Some cases were dropped, but most went to prison, as did Tahawwur Rana, the Pakistani-born Canadian sentenced last month in Chicago to 14 years for his role in plotting an attack, which never happened, on a Copenhagen newspaper.
For all the young extremists heading overseas, Toronto Muslim leader Muhammad Robert Heft, who has worked with the Mounties and other agencies to combat radicalism, says “everyone believes you can just go over” and start fighting. In fact, foreign recruits generally require local contacts to connect with insurgents, he says.