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Fahim Ahmad, now 30, is shown in a 2002 yearbook photo. He was the spiritual leader of a group that had aspirations of exploding truck bombs in Toronto and beheading parliamentarians in Ottawa.

Looking back, "Toronto 18" ringleader Fahim Ahmad says his jihad had less to do with religion than his urge to escape a mundane marriage.

Mr. Ahmad, now 30, had led a double life when he was arrested eight years ago. At the time, he was a lonely, jobless dropout whose wife was on welfare. Their two crying babies kept him up at night.

So Mr. Ahmad developed an alter ego that gave him a sense of escapism and, he said, made him feel as if he was living in a video game.

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The story Mr. Ahmad told Wednesday in his first bid for parole was a detailed account of a "homegrown" Canadian jihadi's descent into violent plans, at a time when government officials are struggling to understand the exodus of extremists from the West to the Islamic State in the Middle East.

"Those guys are on the exact same footsteps as I was," Mr. Ahmad said.

He argued that he is a recovered jihadi – but the Parole Board of Canada immediately rejected his bid for early release from a sentence that is up in 2018.

Repeating extremist propaganda he had learned on the Internet, Mr. Ahmad became a dangerous firebrand with a following. He nudged other youths toward terrorism, leading them in activities that got them all arrested in 2006: setting up a makeshift terrorist training camp in the winter woods, smuggling a handgun across the border, and even discussing whether they ought to one day try to storm Parliament and behead politicians.

"When you are 19, 20 years old you want to do what is glamorous," Mr. Ahmad told the parole panel.

He was raised in an immigrant Afghan family in Scarborough that rarely practised Islam. Yet after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which he witnessed on TV in his high school history class, he preferred "conspiracy theories" making the rounds at his mosque to al-Qaeda's admitted culpability. He felt Muslims were wrongly singled out, and his sense of grievance only built after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. "This is Americans killing Muslims," he recalled feeling.

He told the parole board he started wearing a kufi – an Islamic hat – whose appeal only increased to him after it angered his mother. He started proselytizing with a peaceful, global Islamic outreach movement.

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But that was just the start of the radicalization. "I personally believe that most of it happened on the Internet," Mr. Ahmad said, adding he was soon reading every al-Qaeda-inspired piece of propaganda he could find.

On more mainstream Islamic Internet forums, he found like-minded youth who one-upped each other by being more devout. He met his wife in such a chat room.

He soon found real-life relationships are harder than ones cultivated online. "She was very difficult to get along with," Mr. Ahmad said, speaking of how he spent entire days at mosques, as a refuge from his responsibilities.

Federal officials at the parole hearing found problems with Mr. Ahmad's narrative – pointing out he admitted to having lied during his conspiracy. They expressed fears he would return to radicalism the way a drug addict might reoffend upon release.

Sentenced to 16 years, Mr. Ahmad has seen his term reduced for the years he spent in custody prior to his guilty plea. He admitted to participating in a terrorist group, and smuggling a handgun across the Canada-U.S. border.

He said that when he gets out of prison, he'd like to try to reconcile with his ex-wife and children. She has divorced him, he told the board, adding that his visiting children often call him "uncle."

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Mr. Ahmad said his radicalism cost him everything and that he understands Islam better now. He also said that dying in battle as a jihadi warrior has lost any appeal it once had. "I don't feel, for myself, like I'd be going to paradise on a golden ticket."

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