TORONTO, Canada — A man found guilty of Canada’s biggest terrorist conspiracy since the 9/11 attacks seems to have given new meaning to the term “homegrown” extremist.
Shareef Abdelhaleem was found guilty last week of being a key player in a plot for mass murder on the streets of downtown Toronto, Canada’s financial capital.
The twist comes from evidence that Abdelhaleem’s inspiration did not solely come from extremist interpretations of Islam. It also came, the court heard, from the practices of high-rolling Wall Street investors.
The plan was to blow up a truck packed with explosives in front of the Toronto Stock Exchange, another in front of the headquarters of Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and a third at a military base.
“The potential for loss of life existed on a scale never before seen in Canada,” Justice Bruce Durno said last week, while sentencing another of the accused ringleaders, Zakaria Amara, to life in prison.
The plot was stopped by Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, which paid two Muslim civilians to infiltrate the group of conspirators. The infiltrator who befriended Abdelhaleem received about $4 million for his work, which included a new home and identity under the witness protection program.
The infiltrator helped arrange a sting that saw the plotters buy a truckload of fake ammonium nitrate. Police arrested two of them in June 2006 as they unloaded the material, which, if it had been real, could have been used for a bomb. Sixteen others allegedly involved in the conspiracy were arrested minutes later.
The group became known as the Toronto 18. The infiltrator testified that Abdelhaleem, now 34, hoped the Al Qaeda leadership would eventually endorse the carnage as “an act of Al Qaeda in Canada.”
The plot came with a U.S. connection: In March 2005, two Georgia residents traveled to Canada to meet some of the Toronto 18 members. Ehsanul Islam Sadequee and Syed Haris Ahmed were convicted in American courts last summer of supporting terrorism in the U.S. and abroad.
In Toronto, four people were accused of being at the heart of the bomb plot — Abdelhaleem, Amara, Saad Gaya and Saad Khalid. All have been found guilty. Abdelhaleem, however, has not been convicted. His lawyer has introduced a motion to stay the case, which would see his client walk free, on the grounds of entrapment.
The others were accused of taking part in a jihad training camp in a wooden area north of Toronto, where they practiced shooting at targets with paintball guns and a handgun. Seven have had charges against them stayed or dropped, four face trials this spring, the rest were found guilty.
Fourteen of those arrested were young adults and four were under 18 years old. All were either born in Canada or spent most of their lives here. By any definition, they were homegrown. As an RCMP report recently noted, they communicated “in a sort of ‘hoser-gangsta’ patois,” and repeatedly proclaimed their love of Tim Horton’s doughnuts and the beauty of rural Ontario.
In many ways, they mirrored the profile of European or American jihadists. Some were marginalized or naive suburban youths influenced by extremist websites and angered by Western wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the plight of Palestinians.
Khalid, now 23, was shaken by personal trauma. When he was 16, he returned home from school to find his depressive mother dead, submerged in the bathtub. He turned to Islam for comfort, eventually hanging out with youths who held extremist views.
Amara, a Canadian citizen, was the lost, troubled type. Born to a Cypriot mother and a Jordanian father, he was baptized a Christian but turned to a fundamentalist brand of Islam while living in the Toronto bedroom community of Mississauga.
He married when he was 18 and became a father a year later. He dropped out of university to support his family and got a job pumping gas. His defense lawyer said he turned to extremism to get over the divorce of his parents and escape the drudgery of his life.
After pleading guilty last week, Amara apologized and read an “open letter to Canadians” in court: “I deserve nothing less than your complete contempt.”
The twist in the homegrown profile comes from Abdelhaleem. At the time of his arrest, he was a computer engineer with a six-figure salary driving a BMW. That in itself isn’t unusual: Some extremists have come from affluent backgrounds.
Also typical was evidence that he wanted change through violence; namely, getting the Canadian government to pull its troops out of Afghanistan. What made him different is evidence that he wanted to profit financially from the bombings.
The police agent who befriended him testified that Abdelhaleem said he wanted to attack the Toronto Stock Exchange, cause markets to plunge and make money by selling stocks “short.”
This is the Wall Street alchemy where investors profit by betting that stock prices will decline. Abdelhaleem, the agent testified, wanted to use the money to fund future terror attacks in New York and Chicago.
There were suspicions that “short-selling” occurred with airline stock prior to the 9/11 attacks. The Security Exchange Commission investigated but found no evidence.
Short-sellers on Wall Street were widely criticized for making a fortune by betting on the recent market collapse, helping to bring down Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers, and precipitating the latest recession.
Some might argue that when it comes to economic sabotage, Abdelhaleem learned from the real professionals. If so, he’s as homegrown as they come.