TORONTO – A Canadian counter-terrorism investigation that led to the arrests of 17 people accused of plotting bombings in Ontario is linked to probes in a half-dozen countries, the National Post has learned.
Well before police tactical teams began their sweeps around Toronto on Friday, at least 18 related arrests had already taken place in Canada, the United States, Britain, Bosnia, Denmark, Sweden, and Bangladesh.
The six-month RCMP investigation, called Project OSage, is one of several overlapping probes that include an FBI case called Operation Northern Exposure and a British probe known as Operation Mazhar.
At a news conference Saturday, the RCMP announced terrorism-related charges had been laid against a dozen Toronto-area men and five teens under the age of 18.
The group “took steps to acquire components necessary to create explosive devices”? including three tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, commonly used in terrorist bombs, police said.
By comparison, the truck bomb used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, contained a single tonne of ammonium nitrate.
“It was their intent to use it for a terrorist attack,”? RCMP assistant commissioner Mike McDonell said.
“This group posed a real threat. It had the capacity and intent to carry out these attacks.”?
Police declined to identify the intended targets because the investigation is ongoing but said they were all in southern Ontario and did not include the Toronto transit system, as some media outlets had reported.
As senior RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service officials spoke to reporters, some of the evidence seized during police raids was displayed on a table guarded by police officers.
The materials included a bag of ammonium nitrate, a handgun and ammunition clip, computer hard drive, and what appeared to be a cellphone activated electronic detonator hidden inside a small black fishing tackle box.
Police also displayed bags of camouflage clothing and boots apparently seized from a camp north of Toronto that some of the members of the group had allegedly used for combat training.
In a speech to new Canadian Forces recruits and their families Saturday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canadians can’t escape a dangerous world by turning a blind eye to it.
“As we have said on many occasions, Canada is not immune to the threat of terrorism,”? he said.
“Through the work and co-operation of the RCMP, CSIS, local law enforcement and Toronto’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET), acts of violence by extremist groups may have been prevented.”?
The Ontario accused made brief court appearances in Brampton, north of Toronto, on Saturday. They face charges of participating in the acts of a terrorist group, including training and recruitment; firearms and explosives offences for the purposes of terrorism and providing property for terrorist purposes.
With the exception of two men, who are aged 43 and 30, the alleged terrorists are all in their teens and early 20s.
They include men of Somali, Egyptian, Jamaican, and Trinidadian origin. All are residents of Canada and “for the most part”? all are Canadian citizens, police said.
Charged are: Fahim Ahmad, 21, Zakaria Amara, 20, Asad Ansari, 21, Shareef Abdelhaleen, 30, Qayyum Abdul Jamal, 43, Mohammed Dirie, 22, Yasim Abdi Mohamed, 24, Jahmaal James, 23, Amin Mohamed Durrani, 19, Steven Vikash Chand, 25, and Ahmad Mustafa Ghany, 21. A twelfth man was a youth when some of the alleged offences took place and can’t be named, along with the other five youths arrested.
“For various reasons, they appear to have become adherents to a violent ideology inspired by al-Qaida,”? said Luc Portelance, the CSIS assistant director of operations.
“Any movement that has the ability to turn people against their fellow citizens is obviously something that CSIS is very concerned about.”?
He called the investigation the largest since the Anti-terrorism Act was passed by Parliament in December 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
“It is important to know that this operation in no way reflects negatively on any specific community, or ethno-cultural group in Canada,”? he added.
“Terrorism is a dangerous ideology and a global phenomenon, as yesterday’s arrests demonstrate, Canada is not immune from this ideology.”?
CSIS and RCMP officials invited about a dozen members of Toronto’s Muslim community to a meeting Saturday morning to discuss potential fallout.
“The police said they are cognizant of the fact that there could be a backlash and that they’ve taken all precautions to ensure that nothing like this happens,”? Canadian Muslim Congress spokesman Tarek Fatah said Saturday.
“They are very conscious of the fact that this is a small group of criminals and they don’t reflect the vast Muslim community in Toronto.”?
While Fatah couldn’t discount the possibility that “nut bars”? might retaliate against innocent Muslims, he thought it unlikely.
Despite recent warnings that Canadian-bred terrorists were operating in the country, Fatah said he was still surprised authorities had uncovered a plot in Toronto.
“I’m shocked that it’s so close to home,”? he said. “But I’m quite happy that the RCMP was able to stop this terrorist attempt, if the allegations are true. It’s quite scary that someone would live in Toronto and would like to blow up buildings and kill people here.”?
The Toronto busts are linked to arrests that began last August at a Canadian border post near Niagara Falls and continued in October in Sarajevo, London and Scandinavia, and earlier this year in New York and Georgia.
The FBI confirmed Saturday the arrests were related to the recent indictments in the U.S. of Ehsanul Sadequee and Syed Ahmed, who are accused of meeting with extremists in Toronto last March to discuss terrorist training and plots.
“There is preliminary indication that some of the Canadian subjects may have had limited contact with the two people recently arrested from Georgia,”? Special Agent Richard Kolko, the FBI spokesman, said in an e-mail to the National Post.
The intricate web of connections between Toronto, London, Atlanta, Sarajevo, Dhaka, and elsewhere illustrates the challenge confronting counter-terrorism investigators almost five years after 9/11.
Linking the international probes are online communications, phone calls and in particular videotapes that authorities allege show some of the targets the young extremists considered blowing up.