"Would you like oil for your car?" Zakaria Amara, then aged 20, was often overheard asking in the months before his arrest.
"How are you doing today, sir? Would you like any windshield washer fluid?"
After customers drove away from the Canadian Tire gas bar, police surveillance teams perked up their ears. That was when they usually caught the hidden side of the polite attendant.
Mr. Amara's paycheques were small. His day job was drudgery. But his schemes were big - very big.
He invited his friends to the gas bar as he spoke of masterminding a terrorist attack that would dwarf the 2007 London subway bombings.
The reaction, he predicted, would cow Canadians and prompt the country to pull its soldiers from Afghanistan, where he would be hailed as a hero.
His attack against Toronto would be so big it would reprise of the Battle of Badr, in which the Prophet Mohammed's forces won a decisive victory for Islam against a vast army of unbelievers.
It didn't turn out that way.
Instead, Mr. Amara issued a surprise guilty plea in a Brampton courtroom Thursday morning, more than 40 months after he and 17 others were arrested in connection with the most audacious and ambitious terrorist attack planned in Canada.
Thursday's muted courtroom drama came not long after matching guilty pleas from two minor actors in the plot: 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.
Pleading guilty to two counts of terrorism will likely garner Mr. Amara, the plot's ringleader, life in prison and render the upcoming trials of another six accused in the so-called "Toronto 18" case anticlimactic.
Raised in the suburbs by an Arab father and a Cypriot mother, Mr. Amara was an unlikely Islamic warrior. He says he was baptized in the Greek Orthodox church.
But while still in his teens he married an observant, niqab-wearing wife, who soon bore him a baby. She urged him to do something dramatic for Islam.
In Internet posts on Islamist forums, Mr. Amara condemned beardless men, immodestly dressed women and even his own parents for taking out a mortgage.
"I hate man-made laws," Mr. Amara once wrote. "… I love for the sake of Allah and I hate for his sake."
Many young extremists gravitated to the banquet-hall rally for Muslim prisoners in the fall of 2005. However, to the informant federal authorities sent to the event, Mr. Amara stood out.
He became fast friends with the long-bearded stranger - the undercover informant - and greeted the spy with a hug.
"I feel something in his pocket," Mubin Shaikh, the informer later testified, in a related case. "... I said 'Brother, what is that I feel on you?' "
Mr. Amara showed he was packing a handgun.
By late 2005, he was vetting potential recruits at a winter training camp where young participants learned to shoot guns and heard speeches about the glories of violent jihad .
But Mr. Amara grew impatient. "I'm sick of waiting," he said.
He struck out on his own in the spring. A singular idea obsessed him: Building fertilizer-based truck bombs to raze Toronto skyscrapers.
He hatched plans to rent U-Hauls and turn them into mobile bombs, hoping to plant one huge truck bomb outside a military base, probably Canadian Forces Base Trenton, along Highway 401; a second bomb would rip into the Toronto Stock Exchange; a third, into the Toronto offices of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
So he sought out accomplices and bomb-making chemicals. He avoided phones and e-mail. He communicated through pagers and files on USB memory sticks, passed from hand to hand.
Police had their eyes on Mr. Amara the whole time. He was spotted in public libraries, researching chemicals. He was seen in electronics stores, inquiring after circuitry. Covert police searches revealed he amassed a treasure trove of extremist literature, bomb manuals and prototype detonators.
Only a couple of comrades were fully brought into his confidence. But one of them turned out to be an informant. This agent, Shaher Elsohemy, arranged a shipment of three tonnes of ammonium nitrate on June 2, 2006.
"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.
Following the sting, Mr. Amara was sent to a special jail, segregated and locked up for 23 hours a day.
"My health, psychologically and physically is deteriorating," he said in one of many open letters. In another he reversed himself: Prison was probably good - "How can it not be? When the only person who [you]have any contact with is Allah!"
Mr. Amara complained authorities were keeping the case against him secret.
"I never asked anyone to believe that I was innocent," one letter said. "All I ever asked for was a chance to prove it."
But volumes of damning evidence - kept under a publication ban until Thursday to preserve his presumption of innocence - were disclosed to him.
The ban lifted Thursday as a 41-page statement of agreed facts was read into the court record.
"I do acknowledge they are correct," Mr. Amara said softly.
The gas jockey who schemed big now faces life in prison.Report Typo/Error