*** His claim of deradicalization requires scrutiny and monitoring. MS ***
The mastermind of a deadly plot intended to cripple the economy and unleash mass carnage in downtown Toronto says he is "regretful and sorry" and wants "to pay the moral debt I owe."
"I will turn myself around, from a man of destruction to a man of construction," said Zakaria Amara, the linchpin of the so-called Toronto 18 homegrown terror cell, while addressing a Brampton court at his sentencing hearing Thursday.
The former Ryerson student pleaded guilty to participating in the activity of a terrorist group and intending to cause an explosion that was likely to cause serious bodily harm, death or damage to property.
The Crown is seeking a life sentence, while the defence is asking for a sentence in the range of 18 to 20 years. Under either scenario, Amara would be eligible for parole in about six years, but a life sentence would subject him to some kind of supervision for the rest of his life.
Had Amara been successful in carrying out his chilling plot, the lives of countless people would have been forever changed and those not personally touched by the devastation would have had their sense of security shattered, argued Crown prosecutor Iona Jaffe.
Also, the mere mention of Toronto would have forever evoked ghastly images of death and destruction, she told the court.
"What he planned to do can't be understated, he planned mass murder ... You don't set out to detonate three one-tonne bombs without knowing that a lot of people are going to be killed.
"The fact that Zakaria Amara did not make his indelible mark of devastation on this country is due to one thing: police intervention," Jaffe told Justice Bruce Durno.
She pointed out the 24-year-old Mississauga man, who possessed a bomb manual and a homemade detonator, would have realized his goals if he had not turned to an undercover police agent for help securing explosive materials.
"He thought he had a good supplier, but thank goodness that was the one thing he got wrong," said Jaffe. "This was no amateurish plan."
Earlier in the day, Amara told the judge he had "no excuses or explanations" for his actions, adding he had been led "down the path of extremism" and "locked in an ideological position," which he now recognizes to be wrong.
"I deserve nothing less than your complete and absolute contempt," said Amara, addressing his "fellow Canadians" from the prisoner box.
To those in the Muslim community, he said he could not imagine the "embarrassment or anxiety" they must have felt back in the summer of 2006, when he and 17 others were arrested for plotting an Al Qaeda inspired attack.
"I am sure many of you received unwelcome attention and felt hopeless in trying to explain that the actions of a few were not endorsed by the community," said Amara. "To you too, I say that the gravity of the damage I caused you makes any excuse or apology inappropriate."
Amara said that during the three years spent in isolation, following his arrest, he continued to espouse extremist views because there was "no one to help me shed light on the shadows and blind spots that my ideology thrived in."
But after being released and mixing with inmates in general population, who challenged his convictions, he recognized the error of his ways.
"It was an enlightening experience," said Amara, adding he befriended people, such as Jews and Shia Muslims, whom he had never interacted with before.
One of the greatest influences on him, he said, was an inmate who had worked on Bay St. and whose brothers worked in the Exchange Tower, one of Amara's intended targets.
The thought that this inmate, who had given Amara friendship and guidance, could have been a victim of his plot made him reconsider his position, he said.
Amara broke down in tears as a letter from his wife Nada Farooq, asking for leniency, was read by defence lawyer Michael Lacy.
Lacy spoke of the "attitudinal change" in his client saying if Amara still believed in an extremist ideology, he would not have denounced it in court.
"To denounce it sends a message to like-minded extremists ... This is one of their own telling them they are wrong," said Lacy.
According to an agreed statement of facts, Amara recruited people to his group, helped organize and lead a terrorist training camp, created remote-controlled detonators and purchased three tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertilizer for truck bombs.
Amara was the "centre man," the one who knew all the details of an audacious scheme that involved parking three U-Haul vans with fertilizer bombs, complete with metal chips to ensure maximize casualties. The vehicles were to be parked outside the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Front Street offices of Canada's spy agency and a military base off Hwy 401. The intended result was for there to be blood, glass and debris everywhere, with collapsed buildings, shattered glass and burning cars in the street.
"He didn't just join a terrorist group, he formed one and then he led it," said prosecutor Jaffe, pointing out that Amara's leadership role in this conspiracy weighs heavily in requesting a life sentence.
Court has heard that Amara bragged that just one of their three planned bombs would be similar to the 2003 bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which killed 35 people and wounded more than 160. And his plot, he said, would be bigger than the London subway bombing of 2005, which killed 56 people and injured 700.
Court was told that Amara was born in Jordan and baptized as an Orthodox Christian during one of his many visits to Cyprus, under the guidance of his mother and grandparents, who were all Christian.
At age four, the family moved to Saudi Arabia, where his father worked in an oil company. For years, his family bounced between Jordan, his father's home country, and Cyprus, his mother's native country.
At around age 10, Amara moved to Cyprus with his mom, leaving his father in Saudi Arabia. Despite the disapproval of his maternal grandparents, he converted to Islam.
When he was about 13 and his faith deepened, even though his non-religious father opposed his desire to grow a beard, eat only halal meat and pursue Islamic studies.
While attending Meadowvale Secondary School in Mississauga, he found support amongst his Muslim peer group and led prayer sessions.
At school, he met Farooq, who wore a niqab, and proposed marriage, despite never having seen her face. The couple married when he was 18 and within two years they were the parents of a baby girl.
In the letter read aloud in court, Farooq said her husband's extremist views were fuelled by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The oppression of Muslims by western forces became the central reason for his devising the macabre plot.
Court has heard that although Amara suspected he was being watched by the authorities, it didn't dissuade him from planning an audacious attack he hoped to kick off in September 2006.
He attempted to evade the authorities by communicating with his co-accused on pagers and passing along recorded voice messages to one another on digital memory sticks, but was unsuccessful.
After months of being closely watched by authorities, who, among other things, made surreptitious entries into Amara's home, bugged his workplace (a Canadian Tire gas bar) and intercepted his phone calls, he was arrested on June 2, 2006.
The mass arrests of 14 adults and four youth coincided with the delivery of the bomb making chemicals Amara had purchased from an undercover police agent.
Amara's confession in this landmark case was a major coup for the team of prosecutors at the helm of one of Canada's largest terrorism trials.
A key component of the case against Amara was information provided by two paid police agents, who infiltrated the group.
Court heard that in December 2005, Amara helped organize a jihadi training camp in Washago, Ont., attended by police agent Mubin Shaikh. Potential recruits, from Scarborough and Mississauga, played paintball games, ran obstacle courses and underwent firearms training. A campfire speech urging attendees to wage war on the West was videotaped by Amara, who wanted to send it to the Mujahideen.
By February 2006, a car probe captured Amara saying he had built the "first radio frequency remote control detonator," which was a "step forward." Weeks later, he was observed going to the Meadowvale Library and using a computer to research terms such as: ammonium nitrate in agriculture, nitric acid and rocket fuel.
In April 2006, a second police agent, Shaher Elsohemy, managed to gain Amara's trust, saying he could help obtain chemicals. A short time later, Amara was showing off his homemade detonator to the agent and placing orders for the chemicals he needed.
On June 2, undercover police delivered what Amara and his co-conspirators believed to be three tonnes of ammonium nitrate. As the truck was being unloaded, it set off a series of arrests throughout the GTA.