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The Buffalo News June 5, 2006

A portrait of terrorist suspects

By Vanessa Thomas and Maki Becker

TORONTO - They are being called "homegrown terrorists."

But they are not believed to be al-Qaida. More likely, they are a group inspired by the terror organization but with no formal links, according to law enforcement.

They are young men, all residents of Canada. Most of them citizens.

Some are so young the Canadian government won't release their names because they're minors. The oldest is 43.

Many came to Canada with their families, many when they were children. They came from Afghanistan, Egypt and Somalia. At least one is from the Caribbean.

Many of them live in the well-to-do suburbs of Toronto.

They are all Muslim, a couple of them converts from other religions. At least four worshipped at a tiny prayer room in a strip mall.

But what they all had in common, allegedly, was outrage over the West's treatment of Muslims abroad and particularly, the U.S invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

And they met, according to the Toronto Star, about two years ago through Internet chat sites where they spouted their anger and allegedly began to plot attacks.

At least some of them are believed to have traveled to a terrorist training camp in northern Ontario modeled after al-Qaida camps that spawned many of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers, according to the Star.

An imam who says he knows nine of the 17 suspects, however, says he believes that the authorities are mistaken about the young men.

"I have doubts that any of these guys did anything wrong," said Aly Hindy, the imam of Salaheddin Islamic Centre in the Scarborough section of Toronto, told The Buffalo News. "I think they're innocent. If some of them are guilty, I don't think it's terrorism. It may be criminal, but it's not terrorism."

Suspects known to imam

Hindy said at least four suspects attend his mosque: Fahim Ahmad, Jahmaal James, Steven Chand and an underage Sri Lankan who converted from Hindu to Muslim.

Hindy said of all the suspects, Ahmad, 21, may be guilty - but only of participating in gun smuggling.

"He rented a car for two guys to go the U.S. and to go get guns and sell it into the black market," Hindy said.

James, Hindy said, is of African descent and was a convert to Islam. He had come to Hindy, known as a matchmaker in his community, to find him a wife.

"I said go to Pakistan," Hindy said.

James, 23, traveled to Pakistan four months ago, married a woman there, but apparently couldn't get her a visa to come back to Canada with him.

Chand, 25, had come to Hindy to ask for financial help at one point, Hindy said. The Star reported that he had been unemployed for some time but recently found work at a Middle Eastern fast food stand.

Four other suspects regularly prayed at a tiny prayer room in a strip mall in Mississauga, Ont.

Among them was Shareef Abdelheen, 30, a computer programmer. There was also Qayyum Abdul Jamal, 43, whom Hindy said was very vocal about his distaste for the Iraq War.

"When he sees a Muslim being killed, he can't keep quiet," Hindy said.

The Star also reported that Jamal was a widower with four sons and that he drives a school bus.

Another was Ahmad Mustafa Ghany, 21, the son of a physician who is in medical school at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. Hindy said he recently officiated at Ghany's wedding to a 17-year-old.

He also said he knew Zakaria Amara, who like, Jamal, wasn't shy about vocalizing his hate for the Iraq War.

"They're all from different areas, different social levels in society, education," Hindy said. "The whole thing doesn't make sense. Some of them are highly educated. You doubt that it's terrorism. This has nothing to do with violent acts. It should be handled as a criminal case."

Security experts say that, just because they're not taking direct orders from Osama bin Laden, that doesn't mean they're to be taken less seriously.

Leaderless cells are the MO of terror today, experts say.

The train bombings of late in Madrid and London are examples of how terror cells can operate, and be successful in their deadly plans, without any direct contact with a leader.

"There aren't commands coming down from a central authority," said Mike German, a former FBI agent who specialized in counterterrorism and is a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Globalsecurity.org.

"These groups, they are following a methodology," German told The News. "They're leaderless. There are actual manuals out there on how to be a lone-wolf terrorist."

German also cautioned against dismissing the Toronto suspects as simple wanna-bes.

"There's a tendency when they're caught before they're able to do anything, for them to be seen as bumbling idiots," German said. "Like Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. You tend to think he's a clown. But this guy, in a post-9/11 environment, was able to get a bomb on a plane. Only intervention from passengers stopped him . . . It's really just a matter of luck whether one is successful or not. Thankfully in this case, the good guys were able to stop it."

Canadian targets alleged

Canadian authorities say the 17 suspects tried to obtain 3 tons of ammonium nitrate and were "planning to commit a series of terrorist attacks against solely Canadian targets in southern Ontario," Mike McDonnell, assistant commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said in a statement.

According to the Star, the RCMP participated in a sting and provided the explosives to the cell before arresting the members.

The cell wanted to blow up the offices of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, near the CN Tower in downtown Toronto, and the Parliament buildings, according to the Star.

The Los Angeles Times reported that members of the group also had discussed the possibility of hitting targets in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

But White House officials said there was no known threat to the United States.

"We certainly don't believe that there's any link to the United States," said Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation.

However, authorities began to grow more suspicious of the alleged Toronto cell after two U.S. citizens from Georgia traveled to Canada last spring to meet with them to discuss attacks on oil refineries and military bases.

One of them, Syed Haris Ahmed, was a Georgia Tech student who tried to go to Pakistan to train at a terrorist camp. A second man, Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, was arrested later in Bangladesh.

More arrests expected

A government official close to the investigation told the Associated Press that more warrants were pending and more arrests were expected, possibly this week. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is open.

The terror sweep in Toronto has left many unsettled, particularly in the Middle Eastern and Muslim communities that make up this diverse, multicultural city.

In Rexdale, a neighborhood made up of Indian, Pakistani and Indo-Caribbean communities where the pungent smell of spices of oils fill the air, locals were shakened and saddened by a vandalism attack on a local Islamic center following the arrests.

Overnight, about 30 windows were smashed at the sprawling International Muslim Organization of Toronto. Several car windshield were also broken. "It's sick," Ameer Ali, secretary of the center, told The News. "Whoever did this destroyed a place of worship. It hurts us because we try our best to serve this country as Canadians. We open the doors to show people that Islam is a religion of peace."

In downtown Toronto around the CN Tower Sunday evening, security didn't seem any tighter than usual.

Azucena Rocha, 24, an immigrant from Mexico who works feet away from the CN Tower in a downtown coffee shop, said the arrests left her concerned.

"I feel it was disturbing," she said as she stacked chairs in the patio. "It's a shock for a lot of Canadians. You expect these things to happen in the States, not Canada. I'm not saying the U.S. is a bad country. They're just usually the targets.

David DiLella, who was out on an evening stroll by the tower with his girlfriend, Erin Dimeno, described the weekend's events as "a wake-up call" for Canda.

He also said he believed peaceful Muslims aren't doing enough to quell the violence within their ranks.


Copyright 2006, The Buffalo News