Bomb plotter sentenced to 12 years

“Toronto 18” ringleader will learn his fate later today

A McMaster University honours student who participated in a terrorist bomb plot—and was arrested while unpacking a truckload of what he believed was explosive fertilizer—could be released on parole by the end of 2011.

Saad Gaya was slapped with a 12-year prison sentence this morning, but Justice Bruce Durno also ruled that the confessed terrorist deserves seven-and-a-half years credit for the three-and-a-half years he spent in pre-sentence custody—which leaves four-and-a-half years left to serve. The decision means Gaya can apply for parole in approximately 18 months, after completing just one-third of his sentence. The ultimate decision will rest with the National Parole Board.

A member of the so-called “Toronto 18,” Gaya was among the four core suspects who conspired to set off explosives in southern Ontario in retaliation for Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. Of the four, Gaya was clearly the lowest on the totem pole. He took orders from the admitted ringleader, was assured “no one would get hurt,” and was told their target would be some sort of military facility. It wasn’t until after his arrest that he learned his accomplices had decided on two other targets: the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Toronto headquarters of CSIS, Canada’s spy agency.

Now 21, Gaya did not surface on police radar until two months before the bust, when surveillance officers videotaped him chatting with the ringleader, Zakaria Amara, during a visit to the McMaster campus. Introduced by Saad Khalid, another confessed member of the group, Amara convinced Gaya to help him with his plan, assuring his new friend he would “be a hero in God’s eyes.” Gaya agreed.

On June 2, 2006, he and Khalid were arrested during a sting operation at a warehouse in Newmarket, Ont., unloading what they thought was three tonnes of ammonium nitrate, the same explosive fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombing. (Khalid, who also pleaded guilty, has been sentenced to 14 years; Amara will be sentenced later today.)

Now 21, Gaya sat quietly in a bulletproof prisoner’s box as Durno read his decision to a packed courtroom. Dozens of friends and relatives showed up to hear his fate, including his parents and his sister. He did not speak during this morning’s hearing, but after pleading guilty last year, he read a lengthy statement to the judge, accepting full responsibility for his “shameful” actions but insisting that “right from the outset of my involvement in all of this, I was given assurances that no one would get hurt and that this was not going to be like the London bombings of 2005.”

“The purpose conveyed to me,” he continued, “was to urge the authorities to withdraw our armed forces from Afghanistan and it was not to cause permanent damage by the taking of innocent lives. Had I known that my activities would be used by others to intentionally hurt people, I would have ceased my participation immediately. Regardless, I know that I should have realized that I was playing with fire and that I was involved in something extremely dangerous.”

Since his arrest, friends and relatives have contributed $63,000 to an education trust fund that Gaya can access when he is released. “I am not someone who has grown up in a hate-soaked environment, brainwashed to believe that I am part of some eternal war against the Western civilization,” he said. “That is not who I am and these are not the values that are instilled in me. I am asking for this distinction because some people believe that I must have been driven by a dark ideology of hatred, nihilism and destruction. Although that may be the case with many of the people who fall into such activity, I must make it clear that that was not the case with me. I did not take part in this crime out of hatred against this society or its people. I really believed at the time, albeit incorrectly, that by participating in this scheme I would only be assisting the Afghan population in determining their own future without any outside interference. I was young and politically naïve. Today, however, I recognize how irrational and unreasonable this line of thought was. My views have matured and I know with certainty that I will never commit such a mistake again.”