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The Globe and Mail

An odd and welcome guilty plea from a would-be terrorist

Zakaria Amara sat there, knitted green skullcap on his head, occasionally pulling at his neat black beard, sombre and still as any good young Muslim might be at the mosque.

The only physical manifestation of whatever he might have been feeling was the slight occasional flush of colour on his cheeks.

Behind him, a row of female relatives - his bare-headed mother at one end, the two fully covered women, only their eyes visible, at the other, and head scarves on those in between - were still, unreadable, impassive.

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At the end of a long court day, Mr. Amara mouthed a quick "I'm okay" to his mom and bounced out of the room, a potential life sentence staring him in the face, his sentencing weeks away yet.

His family declined to comment.

Odd how a guilty plea can impose such silence.

Funny how welcome it is.

Ever since the Toronto 18 terror case first burst onto the front pages in June of 2006, Mr. Amara himself, in occasional jailhouse letters; his young wife, in occasional public statements; and a legion of other supporters had been loudly proclaiming his specific innocence and the general innocence of the entire group, later reduced to 11 accused young men as charges were stayed or withdrawn.

On Thursday, Mr. Amara abruptly pleaded guilty to two major terrorism offences and told Ontario Superior Court Justice Bruce Durno that he was doing so of his own volition, without inducement or threat, and admitted that the lengthy "agreed statement of facts" read into the record by prosecutor Iona Jaffe was correct.

Now he stands before the world not as a figment of an over-heated security service-police-prosecutorial imagination, but as a self-confessed terrorist, a rabid plotter of bombs which would, as one of his pals (still-accused and therefore not identifiable) once gleefully predicted would leave such a trail of "blood, glass and debris" that the day would come to be known as "the Battle of Toronto."

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Mr. Amara was a big fish, maybe the big fish, and certainly of the two identified leaders - the group eventually split in two, with Mr. Amara leading the bomb plotters and another young man whose identity is still protected leading the less-developed plan to storm Parliament - the only one who had actually taken concrete steps to move things along.

By his own words the plan was for the bombs - there were three in the works, one each for the Toronto Stock Exchange, CSIS headquarters and a Canadian Forces base that was probably CFB Trenton - to go off in September that year.

Mr. Amara had developed a working detonator that operated on a cellphone which was later tested by RCMP explosives experts and found to have "the technical and operational potential to be used as an arming or triggering mechanism in an improvised explosive device." Oh goody: The IED comes to Canada.

Prosecutor Jaffe Thursday played for the judge a charming little clip called "the trigger test video" wherein Mr. Amara did a dry run on his detonator. A successful spark is easily visible, as is, off to one corner, the baby seat the family presumably used to carry their infant about.

The bomb group had found a bankroll, the source as yet unclear. At the time of the arrests, for all that they were either students or low-level employees earning minimum wage, they nonetheless had found the cash to rent a warehouse unit, order a great whack of what they believed was ammonium nitrate (two of the lads were unloading same when the police moved in) and Mr. Amara was delivering to his minions orders to get hexamine tablets (fuel tablets that could be used to make a base charge).

Young Saad Gaya, who earlier pleaded guilty himself, was found with about $9,100 in cash; Mr. Amara had squirrelled away $12,360 in cash in envelopes at his home.

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And he was utterly consumed by the plot and by the explosions in his head. As one of my colleagues noted yesterday, Mr. Amara appears to have suffered not from OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) but ORD (Obsessive-Repulsive Disorder), in that he drenched himself in jihadi videos and propaganda, ghoulish manuals and lethal recipes.

Found in his house - and he took excerpts with him on a family outing, with wife and child, to Niagara Falls, because in this crowd, you don't leave home without your jihadi gear - was what came to be known in court as "the bomb manual."

It is not quite that, it turns out, but rather what appears to be the result of Mr. Amara, now 24, scouring the web for bomb-making information, culling and printing out his favourites, and pulling together more than 100 pages of hateful criminal intent.

On the first page are directions, complete with helpful drawings, for plastic explosive filler, and Mr. Amara's note, "What is potassium chlorate." On the second page is a scrawled shopping list, one of several, including the necessary ingredients for "Bleach plastique" made in part with the chemicals that keep swimming pools clean.

"Method of getting," Mr. Amara wrote. "1. steal - risky; 2. buy - risky."

On and on it goes - how to manufacture RDX explosive, plastique explosive from table salt, plastique from Aspirin, nitro-gelatin plastique, explosive from antifreeze; how to make nitroglycerin; instructions for detonators, blasting caps; pages and pages on nitrogen fertilizer, or ammonium nitrate; how to make fuels from eggs, latex, wax, and, my least favourite, from "animal blood systems," where the instructions consist of three simple steps. "A) Slit animal's throat by jugular vein. Hang upside down to drain. B) Place coagulated (lumpy) blood in a cloth or on a screen and catch the red fluid. C) Store in cool place."

And in the middle, excerpts from a jihadi screed, clearly written at the time the Russians were in Afghanistan, but eternal really: "These youths whose hearts are burning with a fire, spurting forth enthusiasm and blazing with zeal that their pure blood may irrigate the earth of the Muslims. The one who forbids a young man from jihad is no different from the one who forbids him from prayer and fasting."

Once, Mr. Amara and a buddy were talking about the great triumph of 9/11. The buddy said, "For every one of their dead, how many of us died?" and Mr. Amara replied, "We did it in style, okay. That was style. That was style."

But Mr. Amara's bombs didn't go boom, only the RCMP's, in a test explosion meant to show what he might have done: That, inshallah , is styling.

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