A Canadian terrorist was sentenced yesterday to life in prison in a precedent-setting judgment in the case of young al-Qaeda-inspired extremists who plotted to blow up their fellow citizens.
Calling the conspiracy "spine chilling," Mr. Justice Bruce Durno of the Ontario Superior Court imposed the stiffest sentence since Parliament put terrorism laws on the books in 2001.
"The potential for loss of life existed on a scale never before seen in Canada," Judge Durno said as he read aloud his 48-page decision. Nearly all of the plan was hatched, he said, by the young man standing in front of him, whom he called the "directing mind of a plot that would have resulted in the most horrific crime Canada has ever seen."
Four years ago, Zakaria Amara was a university dropout working as a gas jockey in Mississauga. Then 20, he lived a secret life, relentlessly, almost rabidly, pursuing a goal: bombing Canadian targets to force the government to end its military mission in Afghanistan.
Mr. Amara will be eligible for parole in about six years, which will coincide with his 30th birthday. However, he must persuade authorities that he should regain his liberty.
Yesterday's hearing was packed with Mr. Amara's friends and family, and journalists, lawyers and federal agents, who had gathered for the zenith of the "Toronto 18" case.
Born to a Cypriot mother and Jordanian father and baptized as a Christian, he was a lifelong misfit. His family bounced around to several countries before immigrating to Canada.
In Toronto's suburbs, Mr. Amara steeped himself in fundamentalist Islam. After graduating from high school in Mississauga, he dreamed of studying Islam in Medina. The Saudis denied him permission.
He married, and struggled at his job as a Canadian Tire gas station attendant to support his newborn daughter.
A desire for escape, defence lawyers say, led Mr. Amara to reinvent himself. By 2006, his life began to revolve around building truck bombs.
According to court documents, federal agents who had been watching Mr. Amara for years, grew concerned their surveillance wasn't enough. Police began paying two people to penetrate his inner circle.
The agents discovered that Mr. Amara was building prototype detonators in his basement and had young acolytes. And, they found out, he hoped to explode massive truck bombs on a busy weekday at 9 a.m. in November, 2006.
The blasts were intended to destroy the facade of the Toronto Stock Exchange, gut the spy-service offices in the city and take out whatever they could at Canada Forces Base Trenton, according to evidence heard in court.
The RCMP ended the plot with a sting, a shipment of tonnes of fake fertilizer - real ammonium-nitrate fertilizer can be used as an ingredient in a bomb - to the group. Mr. Amara and 17 others were arrested in June 2006. Some have been convicted, others acquitted and some trials are pending.
Yesterday, Judge Durno also sentenced a 21-year-old to 12 years in prison for helping Mr. Amara. Police caught Saad Gaya and his friend Saad Khalid (already sentenced to 14 years) unloading fake fertilizer from a truck.
The two pleaded guilty last fall, saying they did the job at the behest of Mr. Amara. Parole within the next two years remains a possibility for these helpers.
After avowing innocence during three years of legal battles centring on constitutional rights, the three bomb plotters all threw in the towel a few months ago. A fourth and final bomb-plot suspect is on trial.
As well, a group of suspects who are accused of setting up and attending a terrorism training camp north of Toronto will go on trial this spring.
Mr. Amara, now 24, said at his sentencing hearing last week that he no longer holds extremist views. His lawyers submitted a psychiatric report saying he is very capable of changing, and maybe already has.