More than anything, Zakaria Amara wanted to serve God. But it was never easy, especially not while living in Canada.
During the summer of 2004, the then-18-year-old felt disgusted by women who were immodestly dressed. For the same reason, he couldn't watch television. He and his wife Nada Farooq stopped going to movies. One of his devout friends in England sent him a desperate e-mail asking for help in beating an addiction to pornography.
But the forces tugging at Mr. Amara -- who now stands accused of being one of two leaders in a terrorist plot -- in the years leading up to his arrest this month extended well beyond those annoyances.
In 2004, he had just married a woman whose own take on Islam was often far more extreme than his own. His wife would soon become pregnant with their first child and, on little income, he struggled to balance the needs of his family and his dreams for the future. Some of his closest friends, and later fellow suspects, were also becoming more extreme. The preachers he admired -- both on-line and in Mississauga's mosques -- expressed often anti-Canadian sentiments.
While Mr. Amara found a close circle of like-minded friends and mentors, his attempts to sell others on his beliefs were often futile.
"Trying to convince these people is like trying to subdue the Mercury Guy from Terminator 2, impossible," he once wrote on his personal blog, adding: "Unless we can get some liquid Nitrogen that is (CSIS, I was just joking)."
Mr. Amara now is accused of plotting to blow up Canadian landmarks using massive amounts of ammonium nitrate.
The Globe and Mail has uncovered thousands of on-line posts made by Mr. Amara and his friends on his personal blog and other forums in 2004 -- around the same time the young man showed up on the authorities' radar screens. This is the story of a teenager's transformation from outgoing high-school student to high-profile RCMP suspect.
The GO train is late. Apparently, it has run over someone in Cooksville in suburban Toronto.
It is the spring of 2004 and, sitting alone at the train station with some time to kill, Mr. Amara pulls out his hand-held computer and begins playing a game of Risk. By the time the train finally shows up two hours later, he has conquered the world.
Like so many teenagers, Mr. Amara has a thing for video games. Whenever he is at his in-laws' house, he forgoes polite conversation in favour of playing Halo, a hugely popular real-time shoot-'em-up.
But video games poison the mind, according to an article Mr. Amara eventually finds on a website called FocusIslam. Taking the article to heart, he reposts it on his own blog.
(All posts are as they appeared on-line.)
"Why do you want to destroy yourself with useless things?" the article says. "Life is to short, if you don't act, work and behave now, then life will fly like an arrow."
Mr. Amara is, after all, a teenager, and despite his sombre tone his posts often reflect a juvenile side. In the middle of a heated post about the perfection of God's message and Islam's superiority to Western culture, he takes a swipe at the chastity of non-Muslim women. Except he does so using one of his favourite forms of communication: freestyle rap.
"OUR SISTERS ARE PURER THAN YOUR JENNY AND YOUR HEAHTER," he composes. "THE ONLY GOOD THING ABOUT YOU IS YOUR TIM HORTEN"S MUFFIN FRITTER."
Temptation is everywhere for Mr. Amara -- wherever he turns, someone is disobeying God's will, including his parents.
Judging by the few references he makes to them on his blog, Mr. Amara's parents don't appear to be the main influence on his life. Indeed, while he makes his love for them clear, they incur his wrath when they buy a house using an interest-paying arrangement and when they ask him to cut his hair after he returns from a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in late 2003. His Cypriot mother and Arab father are now believed to be separated.
Mr. Amara advises his young male friends to get married in their teens, as he did, so that a pious wife may keep them away from temptation. He worries that his blog is getting more and more "UnIslamic," and he advises his readers to think of others first -- "Let us learn to be selfless," he writes.
But Mr. Amara's efforts pale in comparison to those closest to him. While his answer to temptation is to lower his gaze when he sees a woman, his close friend Fahim Ahmad -- now another one of the suspects -- is busy reminding readers on another forum not to sin because 72 maidens of unearthly beauty wait in heaven.
Mr. Amara's wife, Nada, meanwhile, uses the same forum to discuss her love for the idea of dying in the name of her religion. "May Allah give us enought strenth and eeman [faith]to be of those who fight and die in the cause of Allah," she writes.
But if Mr. Amara's life in the West made obeying Islam difficult, obeying Islam also complicated his life. He tries to cram the night before a high-school final exam, but the next day all he can recall is the religious sermon he left playing in the background while he tried to study.
It is symptomatic of a bigger struggle with which he is wrestling.
"I just feel that there are too many demands and too many formalities. A lack of freedom to do what is halal [permissible]and a big door wide open to do what is haram [forbidden]" Mr. Amara writes. "The people are enslaved to themselves or to their parents or to someone else. . . . The direction is to everything Allah made haram."
Exasperating his frustration is the fact that adulthood is closing in fast. At only 18, Mr. Amara is getting a crash course in responsibility. He already has a wife, a job and some tough decisions to make: Will he keep working or go to college? And if he goes to college, which one? The Islamic University of Al-Madinah in Saudi Arabia, on which his heart is set? Or Toronto's Ryerson University, a distant runner-up?
Eventually, his decision-making becomes a little easier: Al-Madinah University rejects his application. It is, telling by his description, one of the worst days of Mr. Amara's life.
"I now believe that I have witnessed in a practicle way that NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU TRY TO GET SOMETHING, if it is not written for you, you won't get it," he writes. "Also no matter how much you try to avoid something, if its written for you then you cannot avoid it."
In September, he would begin attending Ryerson. His heart, however, isn't really in it.
It's a Saturday in June and Mr. Amara is at the Istiqamah Islamic Centre, a mosque he frequents tucked into an industrial strip mall at the western end of Mississauga. Every Saturday, the mosque's imam, Abu Owais Kais Hikmat Istephan, an Iraqi-born Christian who converted to Islam at 16, gives a lecture. Mr. Amara admires the imam, and listens closely to what he has to say. On this particular Saturday, Mr. Istephan is using analogies to make his point.
When Muslims first came to Canada, Mr. Amara recalls the imam saying, there was no halal meat store. If Muslims simply decided to shop at Dominion rather than do anything about it, halal food wouldn't be sold in Canada today. If Muslims decided there was no choice in Canada but to buy a house in an interest-paying arrangement, no one would have established another method. Mr. Istephan's point: If Muslims don't get up and do something about the current situation, nothing will change.
Mr. Istephan's Saturday speech is one in a series about the revitalization of Islamic civilization -- re-establishing Islamic rule.
The imam's message is clear: Voting in Canadian elections is forbidden under Islam.
Lessons like these seem to stick with Mr. Amara. He frequently espouses his admiration of Mr. Istephan. In his post describing the Saturday speech, Mr. Amara describes Muslim Canadian politicians such as Mississauga-Streetsville MP Wajid Khan as part of the problem. Trying to change the system from the inside, he writes, is "kind of like digging your own grave."
But compared to another man who figures prominently in Mr. Amara's life, Mr. Istephan's views are downright moderate.
It's not difficult to mistake Qayyum Abdul Jamal and Zakaria Amara for father and son. Not only does the teenager turn to the 40-something for guidance, the two are also good friends. They attend many of the same mosques, including the Al-Rahman Islamic Centre in Mississauga, where Mr. Jamal ostensibly works as a janitor but preaches to teenagers on the side.
(Today, Mr. Amara and Mr. Jamal now have one more thing in common: They are both in prison awaiting trial on charges of plotting to kill Canadians and destroy some of the country's best-known landmarks.) Despite the 20-year age gap, the two often go back to Mr. Jamal's house after Friday prayers to chat. They play soccer together. Mr. Jamal's wife is a sort of maternal figure for Mr. Amara (and indeed many Muslim girls in Mississauga), offering advice on everything from weight loss to feminine hygiene.
But primarily, Mr. Amara looks to the older man for inspiration, such as the kind he receives on the night of Sunday, June 13, 2004, while riding in Mr. Jamal's car. As the teenager notices, Mr. Jamal looks stressed. He asks him why.
How can anyone be happy at a time like this? Mr. Jamal replies, pointing to the injustices being committed against Muslims around the world. Most adult Muslims are willing to turn a blind eye to these injustices, he says, and lose their spirit. They usually forget about fighting for their faith and focus on raising families and making money.
But young Muslims, Mr. Jamal adds, still have that spirit. Looking at his teenage passenger, Mr. Jamal stresses the need to never give up the fight for Islam -- those who do, he says, may as well be dead.
"At this point of the conversation, I felt like crying," Mr. Amara writes afterward. "You could feel pain with every word he said."
The teenager begins seeing signs of the decline of that spirit everywhere, from the infighting among his Muslim friends in Mississauga to the growing number of Muslim youth shaving their beards.
"Did we grow up? Have we just settled down and surrendered?" he asks on his blog.
"I think we did."