A University of Toronto graduate who was arrested en route to Africa has become the first Canadian convicted of trying to join an overseas terrorist group.
On Friday, a jury in suburban Toronto convicted Mohamed Hersi, 28, of attempting to participate in a terrorist activity. The Crown had alleged he was on the cusp of joining al-Shabab – a group of Islamist insurgents in Somalia.
Police arrested Mr. Hersi on March 29, 2011, at Toronto Pearson International Airport, where he was holding a boarding pass that would have taken him to London, and then Cairo.
Police, who had been closely monitoring the young man for six months, were convinced he was bound for Somalia. Federal security services had become frustrated by similar cases involving young men from Toronto, who had escaped the reach of Canadian law by going overseas to join with Islamist fighters.
At least two Canadians have reportedly died fighting with al-Shabab. One of them was said to be a commando who was part of a faction that stormed a justice complex in Mogadishu, killing about 30 people, himself included, in 2013.
Court heard that the investigation into Mr. Hersi started when his dry cleaner called the police. A memory stick with The Anarchist Cookbook explosives manual was found in his bag of clothes.
That discovery led police to quickly recruit a young Toronto Police constable of East African heritage for undercover work.
A university graduate, Mr. Hersi had been working as a security guard downtown. And that was where the undercover officer went, on the pretext that he was a consultant conducting opinion surveys of security guards.
The two men became fast friends who began hanging out at shawarma restaurants and shopping malls, before going to a Toronto Raptors game and Friday prayers at the Salaheddin mosque in Scarborough.
The officer testified that Mr. Hersi confided much – including that he knew a Toronto man who had previously joined al-Shabab. They also discussed an English-language al-Qaeda propaganda article that was making the rounds at the time: “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”
Mr. Hersi relayed that he was planning to join al-Shabab, the officer testified. During testimony, the accused denied this, saying he simply wanted to live in a Muslim country.
Searches of Mr. Hersi’s laptop revealed downloads of The U.S. Navy Seal Sniper Training Syllabus and The Anarchist Cookbook.
He now faces up to 10 years in prison. Though Mr. Hersi was arrested on a catch-all charge of the 2001 Anti-terrorism Act, the Conservative government has since passed a law that criminalizes “leaving or attempting to leave Canada” to commit terrorism.