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Sohail Qureshi credits a compassionate Jordanian intelligence officer with turning his life around. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
Sohail Qureshi credits a compassionate Jordanian intelligence officer with turning his life around. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

‘I wanted to join the insurgency but nothing ever happened’ Add to ...

Even then, Canadian intelligence officials try to keep track of them. Mr. Qureshi certainly attracted their attention, sporting a long beard and shalwar kameez (tunic with loose pants) and spouting anti-West rhetoric, including his desire to engage in holy war. He is clean-shaven now, favouring pressed slacks and dress shirts, but his move last spring to a basement apartment not far from 24 Sussex Drive, the Prime Minister’s residence, prompted security officers to pay a visit. They didn’t say much at the time about his case publicly, but in private they deemed him a top-level threat.

He says he is a changed man. “This whole story is not just about going from a terrorist to a citizen, but going from someone who’s a prisoner to someone who’s free,” he says.

Born in England, he moved to Canada as a child, first to Saskatchewan, then to Calgary at age 15. While studying computer science at university, he tired of what he calls a “thug life” and turned to the Internet. “That’s when I looked to religion and went deep and deep and deep,” he says of a faith that was so literal and extreme that it was all-consuming.

His parents – father Zia is a family physician of Pakistani descent, and mother Mahin is of Iranian heritage – were alarmed by his transformation into a fledgling jihadi. They sought the advice of a local imam, who told their son to “stand down,” but the situation grew so volatile that police were alerted.

Finally, a year after graduating in 2006, he left his family’s comfortable two-storey home in suburban northwest Calgary en route to Pakistan.

He had no plan or contact but was eager to reach Afghanistan. After a carpet salesman guided him to Kabul, he made his way to Kandahar and then Lashkar Gah, capital of volatile Helmand Province, before heading north to Musa Qala, where he cruised the markets until he met the Taliban.

After his unhappy stay in the poppy-growing camp, he went back to Pakistan but then crossed the border again and was picked up by police while in a taxi to Kabul. Tossed into the crowded Policharki prison, Mr. Qureshi says, he was terrified: “Are they going to torture the hell out me?”

He made up stories when pressed to confess, but says he wasn’t abused. Finally, despite allegations that he had been part of an international terrorist network, a would-be suicide bomber, a spy or a mule moving money, he found himself in court being told he had served his sentence for “some visa issue.” In October, 2007, he returned to Canada with a Mountie escort.

He was unrepentant even as he claimed to be innocent. “I deny the allegations made against me; however, the allegation made against me is terrorism from the point of view of those in the West, whose hands are still fresh with Muslim blood,” he told The Globe and Mail that November.

Back with his family (he has an older sister and younger brother) as men in vehicles equipped with cameras kept watch on their home, he worked at odd jobs – as a janitor and security guard – but still dreamed of the jihad. Diving even deeper into religion, he moved out of the house again, obtained a passport from Britain, his birthplace, and in July, 2009, got on a plane to Jordan, determined to join the Iraqi insurgency.

“In both cases – Afghanistan and Iraq – I went on pure faith,” he says.

When he landed in Amman, officers with Jordan’s General Intelligence Department were waiting and took away his new passport. Either “they knew what I was there for,” he says, or the fact that he was “pretty frightened” arose suspicion.

After several days of questioning, he was put in a room with someone new, an intelligence officer in his early 30s who, rather than peering into his eyes and making him feel like an “idiot,” gently asked what had motivated his visit.

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