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When Muslim youth were accused of plotting to kill the prime minister and storm Parliament, it set off a moral panic in the 2000s. Now, they are beginning to move on with their lives. Can the rest of us do the same?

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A courtroom sketch from June 3, 2006, shows five members of the so-called Toronto 18, a group accused of planning terrorist acts in Toronto and Ottawa.Marianne Boucher/CityTV

Adnan Khan is the author of There Has to be a Knife.

On June 2, 2006, around 400 members of the RCMP and local police services were deployed on homes in Toronto and throughout the GTA. They arrested 10 men and five youth. Along with two already in prison on weapons charges, and another taken into custody later, the group came to be known as the Toronto 18.

The crimes they were accused of planning are startling: sawing off then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s head; storming Parliament Hill; detonating truck-bombs at the Toronto Stock Exchange and CN Tower; attacking a military base.

Their motivations, it was said, were simple and clear. They had apparently been “radicalized” by Islam while on Canadian soil. Born or raised in the West, but, especially since 9/11, considered by some to be forever apart and unable to fit in to Western society because of their faith, the “homegrown” Toronto 18 become the first major example of domestic radicalization in Canada. Five years after 9/11 and the start of the War on Terror, this motley group of young men was accused of bringing the battle to Canada.

Only four days before the arrests, Jack Hooper, former deputy director of CSIS, warned Canadians about the potential threat at a Senate Committee hearing. “These are people who may have immigrated to Canada at an early age and become radicalized while in Canada. They are virtually indistinguishable from other youth. They blend into our society well, they speak our language and they appear, for all intents and purposes, well assimilated.”

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Surveillance footage shows two of the 18, Saad Khalid and Saad Gaya, being caught in a police sting operation.

A swift publication ban was imposed by courts, but details snuck out, including footage of two men unloading what they thought was the explosive material ammonium nitrate from the back of a truck parked in downtown Toronto. Photographs of the suspects show sullen young men in various degrees of Islamic garb, and there is talk of a training camp in the woods where they learned how to kill.

The race toward moral panic was on.

“The jihadis among us,” railed the National Post; “Your neighbour, the terrorist,” warned the Ottawa Citizen. Everything was up for grabs, as a Toronto Star headline noted: “Immigration, diversity under the microscope.” Columnist Christie Blatchford wrote in The Globe and Mail that “the accused men are mostly young and mostly bearded in the Taliban fashion. They have first names like Mohamed, middle names like Mohamed and last names like Mohamed.”

Front and centre was the existential question Muslims raised for some in the West. The debate disregarded the political issue the accused say motivated them – the war in Afghanistan – and instead focused on the perceived fit of a specific minority population. As Mark Steyn articulated in Maclean’s: “One can simultaneously be Canadian and Jamaican and gay and Anglican and all these identities can exist within your corporeal form in perfect harmony. But for most Western Muslims, Islam is their primary identity, and for a significant number thereof, it’s a primary identity that exists in opposition to all other.”

It wasn’t only the media. Battling accusations that Canada had been soft on terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, the government was eager to do its part. Globe and Mail reporter Omar El Akkad combed through 1,700 pages of government correspondence – obtained by The Globe through an Access to Information and Privacy request – and wrote that it showed “scenes of controlled chaos – a small army of communications officers crafting talking points, hurriedly updating speeches and correcting their bosses’ miscues. They also reveal meticulous government monitoring of virtually every media account of the arrests, as well as a consistent focus on getting all key players in Ottawa to echo the same talking points about the Conservative government’s dedication to fighting terror.”

The actions of the Toronto 18 and the subsequent shaping of their story by government and media embedded deep into the Canadian consciousness, and continued to find expression nearly two decades later.

“Radicalization” became a buzzword with momentum, spawning the global multibillion-dollar Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) industry, involving government, universities and think-tanks, all dedicated to examining “radical” and “homegrown” threats. Yet its usefulness is questioned by its own practitioners. After all that money spent, there is still no clear understanding of what factors will lead someone from being radicalized – holding extreme thoughts, motivated by political, religious or ideological grievances – toward violence.

Six months after the arrests, polling from Environics showed that six out of 10 Canadians believed an act of terrorism by a Muslim Canadian would be imminent. The Islamophobia that cut to the surface in the immediate aftermath of the 2006 arrests stayed. Between 2016 and 2021, more Muslims were killed in targeted hate attacks in Canada than any other Group of Seven country, most notably in the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting and the 2021 London, Ont., truck rampage. And yet, despite all the handwringing about homegrown terrorism and the radical threat, there have only been six successful jihadist attacks in Canada between 2000 and 2020, with a fatality rate far lower than that of far-right inflected terror.

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Mubin Shaikh, a paid police informant in the Toronto 18 case, speaks to the news media in Brampton, Ont., just after the first conviction in 2008.J.P. Moczulski/The Canadian Press

Police presented evidence gathered at the home of Zakaria Amara, the alleged ringleader, including circuitry, cellphones and notes on supplies to buy. Police and court handouts

After the initial shock and awe of the arrests, the narrative became complicated. Unbeknownst to the members of the Toronto 18, there was a kind of safety net for the public in place. Police informants knew about the Toronto 18′s planning from the early stages. One informant, Mubin Shaikh, led a training camp, purchased bullets for the crew and even last year described the Toronto 18 as being “at a very low level of capability. Their reach did exceed their grasp.” Shaher Elsohemy, who had earlier applied to work at CSIS, hoping it would be “like the movies,” was paid an unprecedented $4.1-million, and befriended major member Shareef Abdelhaleem early, going on vacation with him to Morocco in 2005. He remains in witness protection.

Most of the members were young: Three could not be named as they were under 18; the youngest was 15. Another turned 18 in between the “training camps.” Zakaria Amara, alleged ringleader and gas-station attendant, was 20 when arrested.

The depth of the police informants’ involvement came under heavy scrutiny: One admitted to drug use and another was accused of settling scores. Mr. Abdelhaleem, a 30-year-old software engineer who described his indulgent lifestyle as making him feel like “a grown pig whose sole purpose was to consume,” unsuccessfully attempted an entrapment defence. It was revealed during trials that his religiosity was not as deep as portrayed, that he was motivated by wanting to fit in with a group – and that he did not fully support the plans until the idea of profiting off bombs at the Toronto Exchange by shorting stock occurred to him.

Eventually, seven pleaded guilty, four were convicted for various crimes at trial, and four adults plus three youth had their charges stayed. The most severe, like Mr. Abdelhaleem, were handed life sentences. Others received time-served for shoplifting camping gear for the apparent training camps.

This counted as a much-needed War on Terror win. Only three years earlier, the RCMP botched Project Thread, arresting 22 South Asian Muslims after a seven-month-long operation before eventually releasing them, leading then-RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli to admit that “there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there is any terrorist threat anywhere in this country related to this investigation.” There were other blunders; by 2007, Maher Arar would receive an apology and $10.5-million from the Canadian government for its role in his 2002 extraordinary rendition and torture.

Despite the severity of some of the charges, prison sentences were not the end of the Toronto 18. A life sentence in Canada allows for the possibility of release through parole. And 16 years after the arrests, Toronto 18 members are leaving prison and moving on with their lives.

Many have kept their heads down and worked; others continued on the path predicted.

Mohamed Dirie, already in prison on weapons charges when the wider arrests happened, eventually went to Syria to fight with ISIS; reports suggest he has died. The two who were given life sentences, Mr. Abdelhaleem and Mr. Amara, currently live in halfway houses in Montreal and Toronto.

Mr. Amara, granted three months’ day parole in November, 2022, and planning to study social work, told the board: “I just hope to go back to society. I want to be a contributing member … I’d really like an opportunity to fix what I did wrong 17 years ago.”

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In 2008, protesters outside the Brampton courthouse hold signs defending the Toronto 18 suspects' Charter rights to a fair trial.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

There has been a general shift in public discourse over the past decade as we’ve slowly tried to step out of the shadow of the War on Terror. Questions of diversity, mental health and privilege have become mainstream. But talk only takes us so far. The intersection where convicted offender meets Islamic radical remains fraught. For some Muslims in the community, the treatment the Toronto 18 experienced at the hands of the media and the government remains a sore spot. But how can anyone defend someone with terror charges against them?

Not surprisingly, Mr. Amara and Mr. Abdelhaleem had difficulty obtaining parole. In both instances, the spectre of “radicalization” and the path to “deradicalization” hovered over the men. How could the Parole Board of Canada be convinced that these men had successfully rehabilitated their minds from radical Islam? This is a crucial question, as a bedrock of Canadian sentencing principles is rehabilitation toward the eventual reintegration of offenders into society.

The problem: Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) offers little to no deradicalization programming, geared toward radical Islam or otherwise.

Despite CVE and the study of radicals blooming into a global industry after 9/11, radicalization remains a tricky concept. Even the RCMP has admitted that radicalization itself is not automatically a danger; progressive social change often comes from radical thinking. The step from radicalization to violence is the threat. But as countless think-tanks, non-profits and universities have found, there are no clear, identifiable behaviours that guarantee a person who is radicalized will flip the switch to violence.

When the federal Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence released its National Strategy on Countering Radicalization to Violence in 2018, it made clear that “the main terrorist threat to Canada continues to be violent extremists inspired by terrorist groups inspired by Daesh and al-Qaeda,” but was unable to offer a provable, repeatable pathway that depicted radicalization to violence. For every person scrolling through social media, taking in hateful imagery and morphing toward violence, there are a million happy to scroll, retweet and never take action beyond. The gap between them is impossible to predict with certainty.

This gap causes consternation. In 2015, Aaron Driver, a Muslim convert born in Canada, was arrested after communicating with individuals involved in terror plots in Australia and the U.S. Mr. Driver, who lived in Strathroy, Ont., was put on a peace bond and deemed a non-threat by experts – academics who had studied the problem of radicalization extensively and determined, the best they could, that he would not turn to violence. The courts agreed. He was released under 18 different conditions and wore a GPS tracking device. For a while, he held down a job and stayed steady while under surveillance. Then, in 2016, he tried to blow himself up in the back of a taxicab, and was instead shot dead by RCMP. He left nothing behind, and no one, even those who spoke extensively with him, knows what changed.

Did surveillance under the peace bond trigger him? Did a conflict at home drive him toward violence? In the National Post, Queen’s University professor and extremism expert Amarnath Amarasingam shared Mr. Driver’s last e-mail to him, sent only a few months before the botched attack: “Weather is beautiful, plenty of good friends, work is going great. I’m always busy, which is nice. I don’t like to sit around too much and waste time.”

“The problem today is that a target can go from mildly radicalized to highly ‘weaponized’ in a matter of weeks – or sooner,” said former CSIS assistant director of intelligence Ray Boisvert to Reuters about the Driver case.

“You don’t know who is going to be the one guy who is not just talking, but may take action,” added Mubin Shaikh, who in the decades since his involvement in the Toronto 18 has built a career as a national security expert. “It’s better to assume that they are going to be a threat.”

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Shareef Abdelhaleem sits in court as his trial opens in January, 2009.John Mantha

Mr. Amara and Mr. Abdelhaleem’s Parole Board hearings gave rise to a difficult question. What do we owe convicted offenders? What could we possibly owe those convicted of existential crimes to our society – crime whose goal is to dismantle that which might now protect them?

There is no doubt that the Toronto 18′s planned crimes were extreme and required intervention. And it’s uncomfortable to consider what rehabilitative prospects we owe convicted offenders. But this discomfort squares up against pragmatic reality: Most people convicted under Canada’s post 9/11 anti-terrorism legislation will have parole hearings. And many will be granted it. How can we uphold Canadian sentencing principles of reintegration if we can’t offer the appropriate institutional support?

In Mr. Amara’s 2021 parole hearing – which was denied – the Parole Board said they could see the “change” in him, but did not know how specifically to account for it. Members of the Parole Board blamed Correctional Service Canada for not taking steps toward offering deradicalization programming, despite continuing prosecutions under terror legislation introduced after 9/11. Rather than release him, they directed him toward a minimum security facility, for “hopefully some opportunity for the institution to find and recruit those specialized services that address the future risk of harm related to terrorist activity.” But beyond hope, there was no actual plan.

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Zakaria Amara in a high-school yearbook photo from 2002.

Ottawa-based lawyer Reem Zaia has looked extensively into this odd situation CSC finds itself in. In 2016, she submitted an ATIP for CSC correspondence regarding rehabilitative programs tailored to inmates convicted of terrorism offences. Her findings were stark: While CSC acknowledges the merits of these programs, a cost-benefit analysis suggested not applying them.

If the CSC will not administer deradicalization programming, where can the Parole Board go from there? They can keep offenders in prison, trapped in the same situation, or can reignite old tropes connecting Islam to terrorism. In the same study, Ms. Zaia noted that while the Parole Board admits there is insufficient evidence to support it, around half the decisions impose the mandatory condition that the offender undergo religious counselling in place of a treatment plan. This despite there being no evidence that it is strictly religious motivation, rather than grievance toward the West’s foreign policy, that pushed those convicted of terrorism offences toward violence. As Ms. Zaia wrote in the Manitoba Law Journal, “In many cases, the Board’s decision presupposes that religion is the underlying issue associated with the inmate’s grievances, and that re-engineering one’s thoughts is required for successful integration into the community. Without evidence that this nexus is in fact possible, the imposition of religious counselling amounts to no more than a wild guess.”

And so Mr. Amara and Mr. Abdelhaleem’s religion, and its proximity to terrorist violence and radicalization, gave the Parole Board pause – fitting, as it was the Toronto 18 case itself that marked a significant movement in Canada toward domestic terrorism being linked closely, and almost exclusively, to Islam.

For the Noor Cultural Centre, legal academic Azeezah Kanji studied post-9/11 Canadian media, and its approach to language around terrorism. Her study showed that the intercepted 2013 Via Rail bomb plot was labelled terrorism in 96 per cent of mentions, and Abdulahi Hasan Sharif’s failed 2017 truck attack in Edmonton 68 per cent of the time; both had zero fatalities. Alexandre Bissonnette’s Quebec mosque shooting, which killed six, was labelled terrorism by media only 13 per cent of the time; in only 1 per cent of the mentions for the Moncton RCMP shootings, which claimed three lives, was it called terrorism.

In general, according to Ms. Kanji, acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims generated 1.5 times more coverage than those linked to right-wing extremists, and were more likely to be labelled terrorism, even though right-wing extremists caused 11 times more deaths. Despite fatalities and ideological evidence, the Quebec mosque shooter, the Toronto van attacker of 2018 and the Moncton RCMP shooter were not prosecuted under terror legislation. The Via Rail plotter and Toronto 18 were.

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In January of 2017, a bullet hole in the front window of the Quebec City mosque attacked by a white gunman.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Muslims in Canada feel like they constantly have to prove their worth as Canadians; Muslims are depicted as risky and deviant, unable to adapt to Western society. This condition, which scholar Nadine Naber calls “an internment of the psyche,” has a profound impact on the Muslim population.

In dozens of interviews conducted by University of Ottawa sociologist Baljit Nagra, Muslims used the terms “accidental Canadian,” or “hyphenated-Canadian” to describe the distance they felt and its impact on them – distance pressed on them from the majority. They reported feeling like they would never be allowed to integrate and participate the way “white” Canadians would. Yet these same Muslims reported being proud to be Canadian and to participate in Canadian society and feeling like their identities can co-exist.

Short of renouncing Islam, what could Mr. Amara and Mr. Abdelhaleem do? In both their hearings, they each thoroughly condemned their prior political beliefs and outlined the informal steps they took to “deradicalize” themselves. In Mr. Abdelhaleem’s case, he noted that while he felt anger at the West’s treatment of Syrian refugees when contrasted with that of Ukrainian refugees, he knew violence was not appropriate.

Mr. Amara – having been denied parole a year prior – took it one step further. Knowing the Parole Board acknowledged the situation he was in, but was powerless to fix it, Mr. Amara invited officers from the RCMP’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team to interview him for two days. They agreed, and gave him the all-clear, telling his parole officer that he was no longer radicalized and they believed the change to be long-term and substantial. According to his parole officer, a psychological report came to the same conclusion, stating, “It is important to consider the political climate during the commission of the index offences, which includes the war on terror in the time following 9/11 … This entire minority population had to live under a cloud of suspicion where the actions of the 9/11 perpetrators were reduced to their religious beliefs, painting all Muslims as political terrorists, which ultimately transformed the lives of Canadian Muslims.”

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'Terrorism has no religion,' reads a protest sign in Montreal on March 17, 2019, after a white Australian gunman killed dozens of people at two mosques in Christchurch.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

No matter the type of conviction, offenders continue to face many barriers to re-entry, some caused by pre-existing conditions prior to incarceration, and some by the harsh nature of prison itself. And while government and corporations loudly pay lip-service to “BIPOC” initiatives, reported hate-crimes against Muslims went up 71 per cent between 2020-21.

Mr. Amara and Mr. Abdelhaleem’s byzantine hearings are just the first of the roadblocks they will have to overcome in the process of reintegrating into society. What space do we have to welcome these men back into our world? Decades after being tucked away in prison, with little rehabilitative options, what exactly can we expect upon their re-entry?

It would be no surprise if they hid away – if they lived quiet, ashamed lives, withholding their names from strangers for fear of being googled. That could be the right way to atone: silence after decades of taking up air-space and having their names used to direct the conversation around Muslims. Or perhaps there’s another way: to push forward into a world that is wary.

Saad Gaya, upset about the war in Afghanistan, was 18 years old when he was caught on camera unloading what he thought was ammonium nitrate from the back of a truck. It was the biggest mistake of his life. The courts admonished him for the “willful blindness” he displayed toward the potentially disastrous consequences of his actions. Pleading guilty in 2010, he was sentenced to 18 years. That would have been the end for many.

Instead, his family demanded he make up for what he’d done. Over the years, he slowly rebuilt himself: he finished his education by correspondence, took active leadership roles in prison programs and spoke out against extremism. These small building blocks showed his dedication toward recrafting a life. In 2016, he was granted day parole, and by 2020, he had graduated from – and excelled at – Osgoode Law School.

The lack of CSC programming did not matter. He was young, friendly, intelligent, helped by the community and possessed an inborn tenacity. He was lucky.

Early in 2022, the Law Society of Ontario held a hearing to determine if Mr. Gaya was of “good character,” and would be allowed to practise law. The evidence was overwhelming: 26 letters and nine oral witnesses, ranging from priests to lawyers, spoke in support.

RCMP Inspector Marwan Zogheib, who collected early evidence against Mr. Gaya, stayed in close touch throughout the years. In his letter of support, he wrote, “I see Saad Gaya’s journey as a successful outcome for the combined effort of police, family, the community and the courts. Saad has faced various pressures and challenges that could have easily put him in a state of despair. Yet I have observed him deal with each set of challenges with a sense of calm and level-headed practicality. The Saad Gaya in front of you today represents what is best about humanity and our ability to grow, to learn, to mature. Saad is simply a better person for himself and for each one of us.”

Allowed a second chance by those around him, Mr. Gaya strode purposefully into his new life. The common theme in Mr. Abdelhaleem, Mr. Amara and Mr. Gaya’s hearings is their gratitude for this second chance. All three acknowledged the space prison gave them to think through their behaviour and to reconsider how they want to live their lives. They’ve all said the right things – now let’s see if we let them prove it.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said a former journalism professor studied access documents when in fact, it was Globe and Mail reporter Omar El Akkad.

War on Terror revisited: More from The Globe and Mail

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