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Zakaria Amara is seen in this undated photo.STR

Zakaria Amara, the 24-year-old Canadian mastermind of an al-Qaeda-inspired plot to explode truck bombs in downtown Toronto, entered a surprise guilty plea to terrorism charges in the so-called "Toronto 18" case this morning.

Mr. Amara pleaded guilty to two counts of terrorism.

He faces life in prison - prosecutors are unlikely to show any leniency.

He was presumed innocent during the three years he maintained a not-guilty plea. But his plea today may render the prosecution of related cases anti-climatic as the six remaining suspects head toward trial this winter.

Until now, the evidence against Mr. Amara has been covered by court-ordered publication bans. That evidence suggests there is no other suspect in this conspiracy, or any known conspiracies hatched since 9/11, who was as much of a direct threat to Canadians.

Mr. Amara, a 20-year-old gas station attendant and married father at the time of his arrest, stands out for his single-minded devotion to a bloody dream. He relentlessly worked toward a goal of causing mayhem and mass casualties on Canadian streets, in hopes that a major atrocity would convince Parliament to pull Canadian soldiers from Afghanistan.

He was the prime actor in the bomb plot and the main reason why federal agents hired an undercover agent at an unprecedented expense - $4-million - to gather evidence in the probe.

Though extremely motivated, Mr. Amara wasn't slick or surveillance-conscious. Before the June, 2006, roundups, police infiltrated the plot and engineered a "sting" operation - the shipment of three tonnes of fake ammonium-nitrate fertilizer that suspects hoped to make into bombs.

"To put this in context, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people took one tonne of ammonium nitrate," RCMP Assistant Commissioner Mike McDonell said at the time of the arrests.

It was Mr. Amara who had ordered the three tonnes.

In recent weeks, two of his self-described henchmen themselves entered surprise guilty pleas. Saad Gaya, 21, and Saad Khalid, 23, confessed that they were directed to acquire fertilizer and start building bombs, while being kept ignorant of key details and told "have faith in the highest level." This was all at the behest of Mr. Amara, who can only now be named in relation to the others.

His plea leaves only six other suspects who remain before the courts in the so-called "Toronto 18" conspiracy. The rest of the 18 suspects arrested three years ago have either been found guilty (five in total now) or had charges against them stayed (seven).

All the remaining accused are lesser players, compared to Mr. Amara. Only one remains accused of having a direct role in the bomb plot, the core conspiracy, while others face charges along the lines of being members of a terrorist group or facilitating its activities.

Many media accounts have ascribed a distinct conspiracy to the group - a supposed plan to storm Parliament and behead politicians. But there is no evidence any steps were taken toward this goal apart from certain suspects musing about the possibility of such an attack on a wiretap.

Deeply inspired by jihadist propaganda and given to blogging about it before his arrest, Mr. Amara clearly was pained that infidel armies from the West - NATO and the United States - occupied Afghanistan, a Muslim country.

He split from a larger, but less capable, group of young extremists, to form a splinter cell.

Not only did Mr. Amara try to acquire tonnes of fertilizer, he created prototype detonators - ones that operated by radio and others that could be activated by cellphone calls. He hatched plans to rent U-Hauls and turn them into mobile bombs.

In recorded conversations, Mr. Amara expressed hopes of planting one massive truck bomb outside a military base, probably Canadian Forces Base Trenton, along Highway 401.

A second bomb, he hoped, would rip into an economic target downtown, the Toronto Stock Exchange.

A third bomb was to be detonated outside an intelligence target, the Toronto offices of the Canadian spy service on Front Street near the CN Tower.

Police models presented in court calculate that the blasts would have blown panes of glass from skyscrapers to rain down on busy streets. Some evidence indicates that Mr. Amara said he didn't care about civilian casualties - and that he even hoped to embed shards of metal in the bombs.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service agents had been watching Mr. Amara since he was about 16 years old - and frequently let him know it, too. But little could be done.

Mr. Amara resisted all efforts to turn him away from extremism. Yet even as he became more radical, he never crossed the line of criminality until he began plotting bombings.

Much of the evidence against him was drawn from an undercover police agent who gained Mr. Amara's confidence. This informer, Shaher Elsohemy, was an entrepreneur who posed as an extremist to infiltrate the bomb conspiracy, and who arranged the "sting" shipment of fertilizer.

He has since disappeared, with much of his family, into the RCMP's witness-protection program.

Beyond that, police spent months watching Mr. Amara's every move. As they watched and waited, they ran wiretaps and surveillance operations against him. They covertly broke into his house and computers, many times over.

After a sting, police searched Mr. Amara's properties and found a slew of bomb building manuals, several prototype detonators and $12,000 cash.

Discovered were Islamist tracts with titles such as " The Permissibility of Self-Sacrifice Operations: Suicide or Martyrdom?" and "The Clarification Regarding Intentionally Targeting Women and Children."