*** Let the spin begin! MS ***
OTTAWA — After an early Friday arrest potentially raised the number of people in an alleged Ottawa terror cell to seven, the Citizen has learned there is a possible eighth conspirator in the suspected bomb plot against Parliament Hill and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Friday’s arrest occured at about 7:30 a.m. when several police vehicles and a heavily armed tactical team converged on a dark coloured Honda in the Hunt Club area of the city.
Police handcuffed the driver and searched the car. RCMP said the man has not been charged yet and as a result his identity is being withheld. Nor would they indicate whether he would be charged.
Three other Canadian men were arrested in Ottawa and London, Ont. Wednesday and Thursday. Three others, believed to be non-citizens and out of the country, are named as unindicted co-conspirators in what police believe was a local terror ring linked to the global Islamist terrorism movement.
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior CSIS counter-terrorism agent and one-time RCMP security service officer, said a source close to the investigation has told him at least one suspect, the alleged ringleader Hiva Alizadeh, 30, used Ottawa Public Library computers to communicate with other members of the Ottawa-based cell.
“He was trying to avoid detection and surveillance,” Juneau-Katsuya said. “They wanted to hit Parliament Hill and there was discussion of going against public transportation in Montreal because one of the guys had studied there and new the system.” He added, “they were not excluding the possibility to some major (OC Transpo) hubs,” in Ottawa.
Isabelle Tremblay, spokeswoman for the Société de transport de Montréal, denied the Metro was a target. “We checked with police and the authorities and ... it’s not true,” she said.
Juneau-Katsuya said Internet messages between the men tripped computer “sniffers” at Ottawa’s Communication’s Security Establishment (CSE), the government’s electronic spy agency that intercepts the phone calls and e-mails of Canada’s adversaries.
“One of the (CSE) filters picked up their chat,” said Juneau-Katsuya. “The way the system is established, we’ve got red flags everywhere and you can trip one of those flags anytime. If you’re travelling to Pakistan, that’s a red flag. If you’re going on certain web sites, that’s another red flag and if you use certain key words in e-mail. When you’ve got enough red flags, then you become a person of interest. My understanding is they were caught from the Internet.”
CSE alerted the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), he said. At some point, CSIS alerted the RCMP, which launched the major national security investigation.
Juneau-Katsuya said a critical element in the year-long probe involved secretly monitoring the suspects’ e-mail and other communications via the public library computers. Police, he said, obtained the IP addresses from the City of Ottawa.
“This group posed a real and serious threat to the citizens of National Capital Region and Canada’s national security,” RCMP Chief Supt. Serge Therriault, head of criminal operations for the capital region, told an Ottawa news conference Thursday.
Therriault said Project Samossa, which employed about 100 joint-forces officers for the past year, was forced to move on the suspects this week when police learned financial support was about to be transferred from Canada for weapons to attack western coalition forces in Afghanistan.
A veteran Ottawa intelligence expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said faced with that possibility, police had little choice but to make arrests.
“These arrests would be required as it is entirely probable that the money would have been used for the purchase of IED’s (improvised explosive devices) or other weapons which would have been targeted against Canadian soldiers or allies in the NATO led force.
“The commanders of such investigations are under multiple pressures, some of which are outside of their control. Investigators working at the front line of the investigation will want to open up more lines of investigation, putting pressure on scarce resources. Intelligence partners will want to continue the investigation to gather more intelligence, often without reference to the risks. Prosecutors want more direct evidence collected.
“But beyond those pressures, the investigation commander has to deal with the brutal facts that the failure to arrest may result in further deaths and injuries. It is a cruel pressure.”
The alleged plot was in its early planning stages and “months” away from being operationally viable, Therriault said. "There remained, throughout, a varied degree of imminence to the threat, whether they were going to conduct an attack or not and how it was going to be done.”
Two of the accused, Alizadeh, and Misbahuddin Ahmed, 26, both of Ottawa, were arrested Wednesday. The third, 28-year-old Khurram Syed Sher, was arrested in London, Ont. Thursday.
They face a variety of terrorism charges under the Criminal Code, including conspiring with at least three others — James Lara, Rizgar Alizadeh and Zakaria Mamosta — and other "persons unknown," who have been at one time or another located in Canada, Iran, Afghanistan, Dubai and Pakistan, to facilitate “terrorist activity” between February 2008 and Aug. 24.
Lara, Rizgar Alizadeh — police won't say whether he is related to Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh — and Mamosta, all non-Canadians, are not in Canada and have not been charged. Therriault suggested international efforts may be made to arrest them.
Hiva Alizadeh, who lives in a Woodridge Crescent apartment in Bayshore, faces a separate charge of making or having an explosive substance — which can include IED components — in his possession with the intent to endanger life or cause serious damage.
Alizadeh is a member of a group with links to the conflict in Afghanistan, said Therriault, and received overseas training in building and detonating IEDs.
Juneau-Katsuya speculated the money to be sent to Afghanistan may have been payment for Alizadeh’s alleged explosives training.
Raids on Alizadeh’s and Ahmed’s west Ottawa homes Wednesday uncovered more than 50 circuit boards police believe were intended to remotely trigger detonators for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Also seized were what was described as a “vast quantity” of schematics, videos, drawings, instructions and electronic components for IEDs.
Improvised bombs have been used for decades by terrorists and insurgents, but the war in Iraq accelerated their technological development, making roadside bombs a chief weapon against coalition troops in Afghanistan.
At the same time, with core al-Qaeda on the run in Pakistan and seemingly unable to mount another 9/11-scale attack, local Islamist extremists are turning to smaller attacks with IEDs.
Friday’s arrest involved officers from the Project Samossa investigation. It was witnessed by Hani Halabi who says he was leaving for work after 7:30 a.m. when at least 10 police officers, some carrying rifles, surrounded a dark-coloured car on Esson Street just before Hunt Club Road. The car was badly damaged on the driver’s side and the window was smashed.
“I think they pushed him to stop, that he didn’t stop by himself,” Halabi said, noting the damage.
Undercover cars, a tactical unit black SUV, RCMP and Ottawa police cruisers were parked nearby.
The man in the car looked to be in his late 20s. He was wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, Halabi said. An officer approached the door, opened it for the man, and very slowly, the man got out.
He had a beard, “not long but not short,” and looked Indian or Middle Eastern, Halabi said.
The man did not resist arrest and was taken to a nearby cruiser to be handcuffed and searched.
Shortly after police apprehended the suspect they reopened the entrance to Hunt Club Road.
One woman on Esson who lives directly across from the scene said she heard police yelling. She opened her window and saw an officer standing on her lawn with a large automatic weapon.
He looked up at her, she closed her blinds and didn’t look again until everyone had left, she said.
Ottawa police spokeswoman Const. Katherine Larouche confirmed that RCMP conducted a traffic stop on Esson Friday morning and that Ottawa police were at the scene.
RCMP spokesman Sgt. Marc Ménard wouldn’t confirm the stop, and said only that a search warrant associated with Project Samossa had been executed and that someone was taken into custody.
Later in the day, as reports emerged of a related domestic dispute, Ottawa police media relations manager Carole Lavigne said police were investigating a “fallout situation” of domestic dispute.
She would not provide any other details.
In Ottawa’s courtroom No. 6 Friday morning. Khurram Sher, a former Canadian Idol contestant, appeared nervous. He stood in the glass-enclosed prisoner's box with his hands in his pockets before taking them out and crossing them in front of him.
Tall with a scraggly black beard, Sher wore a striped dress shirt and dress pants. He said nothing except to speak to his lawyer in hushed voice.
He was remanded into custody pending an appearance by video next Wednesday with his two Ottawa co-accused who appeared in court Thursday and were remanded into custody.
Sher, who recently moved to London from Montreal, is charged with a single count of conspiracy to facilitate a terrorist offence with Alizadeh and Ahmed.
His lawyer, Anser Farooq, said his client was flown in from London to Ottawa on Thursday after he was arrested. Farooq said his first priority is to work to get Sher released from jail.
“That's my first and foremost focus, to get him out on bail,” he said. "Once we have him out on bail then we will deal with the balance of the Crown's concerns if there are any."
He said Sher seems to be doing OK despite the circumstances.
Farooq said he saw his client's Canadian Idol audition and joked that he needs more practice. He said his client is a funny guy who spoke with a fake accent as a joke during the audition.
“He’s more of a comedian than anything else.”
With files from Meghan Hurley