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Christie Blatchford

Three guilty pleas - and terror case is no longer near collapse Add to ...

Guilty, guilty, guilty: Three times in recent months have young Canadian Muslim men confessed to a judge their roles in the so-called "Toronto 18" terror case, the very one once mocked as shrinking and near to collapse.

The latest guilty plea came this week , when 21-year-old Saad Gaya, a first-year McMaster University student from Oakville who, as my colleague Colin Freeze rightly noted had been a cause célèbre for those who claimed to believe the terrorist plot was a figment of overheated police and prosecutorial imagination, told Ontario Superior Court Bruce Durno, "I plead guilty … it's the right thing to do."

Pleading guilty earlier last month was 26-year-old Ali Dirie. Pleading guilty in May was 23-year-old Saad Khalid. Add to this the conviction of Nishanthan Yogakrishnan, 17 at the time of the offences but who received an adult sentence (he was immediately released given the time he'd served in pre-trial custody) last September.

In fact, once prosecutors had sorted the wheat from the chaff and stayed charges against seven of those originally arrested in the summer of 2006, they appear to have done nothing but win.

It is worth noting that all four young men were vigorously represented by capable lawyers, some of them better than that. The pleas were each accompanied by a lengthy "agreed statement of facts" (it means the defence lawyers and clients agreed to the accuracy of the statements, left quibbling either about nuance or the credit that should be given for time spent in jail), and though Mr. Yogakrishnan was convicted and given an adult sentence at his judge-alone trial, he was also immediately released given the time he'd served in pre-trial custody.

So none was the victim of shabby lawyering and none was treated harshly.

Only Mr. Dirie, who was already in prison on a gun-running conviction when the plots were hatched, was ever viewed as anything close to a major figure in the group, his role (due to his unfortunate incarceration) that of a jailhouse recruiter. He was sentenced Friday to serve two more years of a seven-year term. The others were never alleged to be anything but minor figures, dopey and malleable young men who weren't in on the details of the plot.

But Mr. Gaya, for all that he was widely portrayed as a confused lamb duped by the more serious and committed in the group, did frankly acknowledge, as he told Peel Regional Police Detective Blaise Doherty shortly after his arrest, "like I knew something was gonna happen" and "I wasn't told anything specific but I can … like I can put two and two together" and he knew the group had "ideas causing, like you know, something big."

He was dopey and malleable, no question, but he was also a college student who had graduated with top marks from high school: He was not an idiot.

Indeed, Mr. Gaya was arrested with Mr. Khalid as they were unloading boxes of three tonnes of what they believed was fertilizer (it was not, thanks to the police, who had the group under surveillance) and which was labelled "ammonium nitrate."

Later, tests by the RCMP explosives-disposal unit showed that a blast from a bomb made with one tonne of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel was "equivalent to 768 kilograms of TNT and would have caused catastrophic damage to a multi-storey glass and steel frame building 35 metres from the bomb site, as well as killing or causing serious injuries to people in the path of the blast waves and force."

It wasn't suggested that Mr. Gaya had knowledge of the magnitude of the explosive force of the fertilizer or of the group's proposed targets: the Toronto Stock Exchange, CSIS headquarters and an unidentified-by-name military base which appears to have been CFB Trenton.

But, as he told Det. Doherty, "Yeah, it didn't have to be the worst consequence that we're thinking of, you know … could've been something like, something like, maybe hopefully didn't involve people themselves."

I am trying, unsuccessfully, to be consoled by the fact that young Mr. Gaya hoped people wouldn't be hurt. It certainly didn't trouble his heart enough that he walked away from the bomb plotters, who are separate from the second alleged group, whose members attended a terrorist training camp (persistently portrayed in the press as a sort of benign affair meant to toughen up soft Muslim boys and men).

Having just recently learned that Canadian soldiers were in Afghanistan ("like three thousands of them, like I didn't know that," he told Det. Doherty), within a couple of months Mr. Gaya nonetheless had decided that, whatever the targets were (and he genuinely didn't know, precisely as the leaders intended), he had determined that the way "to fix the situation" was a nice blast or three.

Also disconcerting was the language he used, this nice Mac student from what The Toronto Star columnist (and Mr. Gaya's unofficial biographer) Tom Walkom called an "achingly normal family," to describe his fellow citizens. "Like the Canadians there [in Afghanistan]" Mr. Gaya told the detective once, "tell them it's not their job, they should leave, something like that," and another time, describing the Canadian Forces as "their military's there," and yet another saying they "have bases, like you know, in Toronto."

They?

That is not normal, not even close in my books, though Mr. Walkom's description does make my head ache.

Bottom line, as a smart friend said last week of young Mr. Gaya's plea, "Bombs go boom. And hurt people."

Apologia: A few weeks ago, writing about the kidnapped journalist Stephen Farrell who was rescued in Afghanistan by British commandos, I suggested that though British soldiers might "bitch" about having lost one of their own in the raid to save a journalist, they would recognize that Mr. Farrell also had been doing honourable work. He was, I still think, but my use of the word "bitch" to describe the grief certainly felt by the soldiers' mates was clumsy and insensitive, especially from me, who knows well how deeply such men feel.

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