The merciless and meticulous Toronto 18 ringleader goes to prison for life

Judge: “What was planned was the most serious kind of terrorism imaginable” (FULL STORY)

When he wasn’t plotting mass murder (and sometimes when he was) Zakaria Amara worked behind the cash register at a Canadian Tire gas station. In the spring of 2006—completely unaware that the RCMP had a tiny recording device hidden somewhere inside the kiosk—Amara looked across the counter and confided in one of his fellow terrorists. He told the man he “won’t feel sorry” if the cops throw him in jail before completing his deadly plan. “As long as I’ve tried my best.”

His best, of course, was not good enough. And on Monday afternoon, the radical young ringleader who tried and failed to detonate truck bombs in the name of Islam was handed his punishment: a life sentence.

Siding with prosecutors, Justice Bruce Durno said Amara’s master plan—a trio of massive explosions at the Toronto Stock Exchange, the downtown offices of Canada’s spy agency, and an unnamed military base—was “the most serious kind of terrorism imaginable” and deserves the harshest possible sentence. “It is difficult to put into words Zakaria Amara’s degree of responsibility,” the judge ruled. “He was the leader and directing mind of a plot that would have resulted in the most horrific crime Canada has ever seen. He attended to every detail and gave those under him explicit instructions and encouragement to pursue their objectives. He said going to jail would be alright as long as he tried.”

Jail is exactly where he will stay—indefinitely. The life sentence, the most severe penalty ever issued under Canada’s anti-terrorism provisions, means the 24-year-old Mississauga, Ont., man will remain behind bars until the day he dies, or the day he is granted parole. And even if he is eventually released on good behaviour, today’s ruling ensures that the confessed mastermind of the so-called “Toronto 18” will remain under some sort of state supervision (an electronic ankle bracelet, perhaps) for the rest of his life. (On paper, Amara is eligible to apply for parole in six years and three months, but it’s hard to imagine such a dangerous man being allowed to walk the streets anytime soon.)

Wearing a purple sweater vest and a neatly trimmed beard, Amara sat quietly in a bulletproof prisoner’s box as Justice Durno spent more than an hour reading his 48-page decision to a Brampton, Ont., courtroom packed with family, friends and journalists. Three days earlier, Amara issued a stunning public apology to “fellow Canadians,” insisting that he no longer subscribes to the radical Islamic ideology that drove his terrorist fantasies. He vowed to change his ways, said he was “lucky” to have been caught before his bombs exploded, and promised to emerge from prison “a man of construction,” not “a man of destruction.”

“Your honour,” he said. “I will embrace whatever sentence you give since in reality I deserve much more than a mere sentence.”

On Monday, when Justice Durno finished reading that sentence, Amara stood up and asked to speak again. “Everyone of those promises I made, I will still try my best to do,” he said. Minutes later, as police escorted him out of the courtroom through a side door, he blew a kiss to his wife and placed his hand on his heart.

None of his relatives spoke to reporters after the hearing, but Amara’s lawyer said that although his client is “obviously disappointed” by the decision, he accepts it. “As he said, he deserves everyone’s contempt,” Michael Lacy said. “Rather than trying to fuel and further the ideology—holding himself out as a martyr or a hero to like-minded terrorists—he didn’t do that. He did the opposite. He denounced what he did and he denounced the underlying ideology that fuels all terrorists. To me, that’s significant. That’s what the public should take away.”

Lacy had asked for a sentence between 18 and 20 years, ensuring that his client would have a definite end date to look forward to. Instead, Justice Durno left Amara’s future in the hands of the National Parole Board. “He is a young man with some community support,” Durno said. “That he has that support will no doubt be considered by the Parole Board, as will the fact that he pled guilty, accepting full responsibility for the offences. Should he bring the determination he had in pursuing the terrorist activities and objectives to his rehabilitation, he has the capacity to be rehabilitated. Zakaria Amara asked me not to close the door. While I have concluded that the only fit sentence is one of life imprisonment, I do not regard the door as permanently closed.”

Amara, a native of Jordan who lived in Saudi Arabia and Cyprus before moving to Ontario at the age of 13, was not the only “Toronto 18” suspect sentenced on Monday. In the morning, Justice Durno slapped one of Amara’s obedient underlings, Saad Gaya, with a 12-year prison sentence. An honours student at McMaster University when he was arrested, Gaya was caught unloading what he thought was three tonnes of ammonium nitrate, the same explosive fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombings. Minus credit for time already served, Gaya’s sentence is actually four-and-a-half years, which means he could be paroled as early as 2011.

Although 18 suspects were rounded up in the sensational raids of June 2, 2006, only four were accused of specifically plotting to bomb targets in southern Ontario (the other 14, though charged with terrorism crimes, were not part of the bombing conspiracy). Amara was the undisputed front man. He built a remote-controlled detonator, became obsessed with acquiring explosive chemicals, and bragged that his plan of attack is “gonna be kicking ass like never before.” Among the piles of evidence seized by police was a video of Amara testing his homemade detonator, the red and black wires just inches from some of his daughter’s baby toys. “What this case revealed was spine-chilling,” Durno said. “The potential for loss of life existed on a scale never before seen in Canada. It was almost unthinkable.”

Amara’s journey to this point—flanked by uniformed police officers, listening to a judge decide his fate—is a cautionary tale for anyone who still believes that Canada is immune to terrorism, or that the case of the so-called “Toronto 18” was nothing more than a few young Muslims talking tough and firing paintball guns. “This was not a spur of the moment plan,” Durno ruled. “Given this offender’s dedication to his cause and diligence at arranging the details, there can be no legitimate suggestion that this was not the real thing. It was not a group of amateurs whose efforts were inevitably doomed to failure.”

It may have seemed that way back in December 2005, when Amara and another suspect organized the now-infamous winter “training camp” in rural Ontario, where a dozen recruits (including an undercover police agent named Mubin Shaikh) marched in the snow and watched jihad videos in between bathroom breaks at a nearby Tim Hortons. There were boastful discussions about storming Parliament Hill and planting bombs, and before the camp finished, Amara’s fellow organizer told the others that “Rome must fall.”

At the time, police considered Amara to be a “trusted lieutenant” of the other organizer, a Scarborough man who cannot be named because he still faces trial. Twice in 2005, CSIS spies showed up at Amara’s house to ask him about his friend; during the second visit, he refused to answer their questions and threatened to phone 911. Then just 20 years old, Amara was so cocky and so naïve that instead of distancing himself from other extremists, he dared CSIS to keep following him—and then videotaped their cars when they did (he also recorded a few confused motorists he mistook for surveillance officers).

But in the weeks after the camp, things began to change. With police watching his every move, Amara would transform from lieutenant to leader—and embark on a plan that, in the words of Justice Durno, “would have changed the lives of many, if not all, Canadians forever.”

His epiphany arrived on a Monday night in January 2006, when the phone rang inside the Canadian Tire kiosk. On the other end of the line was the man from Scarborough, who called to say that he had just sent some video footage of the training camp to a contact “overseas.” Amara was livid.

“My face is on it,” he said, according to police wiretaps.

“You can’t even see it, guy,” his friend answered.

“Screw you and I’m screwed now.”

Convinced that his associate was careless and unreliable (and probably a liar) Amara was determined to branch out on his own. He began using public libraries to research bomb-making chemicals. He built and perfected his detonator, which could be triggered with a simple cell phone call. And he brainstormed ways to break off ties with the Scarborough man—while at the same time making it seem as though he was no longer a threat to national security. His plan? Leave a phone message with the man, and hope the authorities were listening. “Tell him,” he told the man’s wife on March 28, “that Zakaria Amara and everybody in Mississauga, we just quit everything.”

The ruse backfired. Instead of taking Amara at his word, the RCMP ramped up its surveillance. What they saw was an ideological young man who had learned from his mistakes, a man who now realized that the best terrorist is not the one who talks jihad on the telephone and videotapes the car driving behind him. The best terrorist is the one who doesn’t act like a terrorist.

Paranoid about surveillance, Amara quietly recruited his own cell of accomplices, split them into two groups, and made sure one didn’t know what the other was doing. Saad Gaya and Saad Khalid were in charge of securing a warehouse to store the chemicals, and being there to unload the bags when the shipment arrived. They communicated with pagers and USB memory sticks—never by phone. On the other side of the circle were two other conspirators: Shareef Abdelhaleem, the man who allegedly ordered three tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertilizer on Amara’s behalf, and Shaher Elsohemy, the man who took the order (and who turned out to be another undercover informant, now in the witness protection program).

Amara was merciless and meticulous. He told Gaya and Khalid to “make sure you check if you are being followed or not—all the time,” to shave their beards before the fertilizer delivery, and to seal the warehouse door with candle wax so they will know if someone sneaks inside after they leave. He mused about placing metal chips in each of his three bombs for maximum damage. After the bust, when the RCMP conducted a test run with Amara’s chemical concoction, the ensuing explosion was “equivalent to 768 kilograms of TNT,” and “would have caused catastrophic damage to a multi-story glass and steel frame building 35 metres from the bomb site, as well as killing and causing serious injury to people in the path of the blast waves and force.”

Khalid was the first of the four bomb plotters to plead guilty; he received a 14-year sentence, minus credit for time served. Gaya followed suit, and as Durno made clear in his judgment Monday morning, the Oakville, Ont., man was the lowest on the totem pole. Amara assured him “that no one would get hurt,” and that his efforts would make him a “hero in God’s eyes” while forcing the government to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan. Now 21, Gaya had no idea Amara was planning to bomb targets in downtown Toronto until after he was arrested. “Saad Gaya was not the prime mover in the plot,” Durno said. “He did not know all the details of the plan. He took detailed orders. He did not give them.”

It was Khalid, during a court appearance last fall, who first told Amara that “what we did was wrong.” At the same time, after three years in solitary confinement, Amara had recently been released into the general population at Toronto’s Don Jail, where he says fellow inmates—including a Canadian soldier who served in Afghanistan and sympathized with the suffering of Muslims in the war-torn country—challenged his extremist beliefs. “Everyone found it difficult to reconcile between my charges and my humble and kind personality, thus leading the way to many discussions about the justification of terrorist acts,” he told the judge on Friday. “At first I vigorously defended my positions, but every time I walked away I walked away with a doubt in my heart. Despite their lack of education and ‘expertise,’ their moral and logical arguments were like pick axes that chiseled away at my ideological walls.”

In October, during two meetings with a psychiatrist, Amara opened up about his mistakes. “I feel like I’ve wasted my life,” he said. “My whole life I’ve messed up.”

For Canada’s law enforcement agencies, this case was anything but messed up. Members of CSIS and the RCMP were in the courtroom to witness, first-hand, the climactic moment of what was an unprecedented investigation. So was Mubin Shaikh, one of the two paid informants who gained Amara’s trust, and was later branded a traitor by many in the Muslim community. In yet another twist, Shaher Elsohemy—the man Amara thought was his trusted fertilizer supplier—was also somewhere in the Brampton courthouse, testifying at the trial of Shareef Abdelhaleem, the fourth and only bombing suspect who is fighting the charges. Amara has not laid eyes on Elsohemy since the day he was arrested, and his guilty plea and life sentence ensures that he never will.

“In Canada, we believe we’re not immune to terrorism, and I think this case points to that,” said Superintendent Jamie Jagoe, who is in charge of the Mounties’ national security unit in Ontario. “The evidence speaks for itself. The judge’s decision will become part of the public record, and his comments are taken with the seriousness that they deserve. These were serious offences.” When asked if there are other Zakaria Amaras lurking in the shadows, Jagoe answered this way: “[We] investigate all of these threats that are out there. It is a very busy job and we take all these threats seriously and we are fortunate in Canada that not everyone of these threats are as serious as this one.”