Vindication for an undercover informant

Finally, Shaher Elsohemy has a chance to tell the truth

When his testimony wraps up sometime in the coming days, the man once known as Shaher Elsohemy will step off the stand and disappear back into the arms of the witness protection program. For obvious reasons, nothing about his new life can be revealed. Not his fake name. Not his whereabouts. Nothing. But one thing is absolutely certain: when he does leave the witness box and return to location unknown, he can walk away a happy man—vindicated, finally, after all these years.

Until last week, when he showed his face for the first time since 2006, Elsohemy was famous for two things: helping the RCMP topple the worst of the so-called “Toronto 18,” and being paid millions of dollars in the process. For more than three years, the Mounties’ star informant had to stay hidden in the shadows and keep his mouth shut while countless fellow Muslims attacked his credibility. They called him a traitor. A rat. A money-hungry snitch who deserves to “suffer in this life and the next.” More than one defence lawyer accused him of concocting lies in order to line his pockets.

Today, the truth could not be clearer. Elsohemy was not motivated by dollar bills, and the terrorist plot he helped unravel was very, very real.

Although 18 people were rounded up in the raids of June 2, 2006, only four were accused of conspiring to set off a trio of explosions in southern Ontario. It was Elsohemy who infiltrated that core group, shared their deadly plans with police, and helped orchestrate the sting operation that brought them down. Three of the four have since pleaded guilty, including the confessed ringleader, Zakaria Amara (who now insists he no longer subscribes to the radical Islamic ideology that fuelled his murderous fantasies).

On Monday, with the RCMP’s prized asset safely tucked away in a nearby room, Amara was handed the harshest sentence possible: life behind bars. The punishment ensures the aspiring truck-bomber will stay in prison until the day he dies, or the day the National Parole Board decides he is no longer a threat. The judge’s words, read to a packed courtroom, confirmed what Elsohemy has long known. “What this case revealed was spine-chilling,” Justice Bruce Durno said. “The potential for loss of life existed on a scale never before seen in Canada. It was almost unthinkable.”

Back on the witness stand Tuesday morning, Elsohemy clarified some facts about the other lingering issue: his hefty compensation. As first reported in Maclean’s, the self-made businessman negotiated an unprecedented deal with the Mounties that guaranteed his family up to $4 million in cash, cars and houses for abandoning their identities in the name of national security. William Naylor, who represents Shareef Abdelhaleem—the fourth and final bombing suspect—tried to suggest during cross-examination that Elsohemy jumped at the chance to profit from his undercover exploits. His strategy flopped. Badly.

It turns out Elsohemy was co-operating with Canada’s spy agency, free of charge, as far back as January 2006, more than five months before the bust. Discussions about compensation only began in mid-April, when CSIS shared their well-placed mole with the Mounties—and the cops asked him to work as an agent, testify in court, and leave his entire life behind. “I was asked to think about it and come back at another date and talk about numbers,” Elsohemy said. “The cost of relocation and the suffering myself and my family had to go through was mentioned in the negotiations. The value of the work was also mentioned in the negotiations. They were separate issues, but they were both used in the negotiations.”

He kicked off the bargaining with a request for $15.4 million, arguing that his family deserves a “comfortable lifestyle” and that “the value of the investigation, i.e., stopping the terrorist act, would be worthy of that amount if there was no damage to life or property.” When the Mounties balked, Elsohemy did not abandon the investigation. He continued to provide crucial information to anti-terror detectives, and never once threatened to walk away.

According to documents viewed in court, after more than two weeks of talks both sides settled on a figure worth up to $3.99 million, including $1 million in “pure awards” ($500,000 for Elsohemy, $250,000 for his parents, and $125,000 for each of his brothers). The deal also listed a number of conditional amounts, including tens of thousands of dollars to cover debt repayment, dental work, and furniture purchases.

But as Elsohemy pointed out on the stand, his family actually received less than $3.99 million. Some of the items promised by the RCMP included an “up to” clause (ie. up to $900,000 for a new house, up to $750,000 for the loss of his business, a travel agency that specialized in tours to Egypt). That doesn’t necessarily mean his current home cost $900,000, or that his company was worth exactly $750,000. It just means that the Mounties refused to exceed that amount. “That number has not been used in totality even up until today,” he testified. “I’m not sure how much was used and how much was not.”

When asked to reveal the precise amount his family has received, Elsohemy repeated that he simply wasn’t sure. “Honestly, I have never calculated the numbers myself.” In fact, the first time he heard the $4 million figure was when he read it in Maclean’s in 2007.

Whatever the final tally, many Canadians would agree that it was worth every penny. If Amara and his underlings managed to set off his remote-controlled detonators, hundreds, if not thousands, would have perished in the blasts. Instead, only a handful of lives—the seven members of the Elsohemy family—have been altered forever.