Making a Terrorist
Toronto 18, arrest
Two men are surrounded by officers during the Toronto 18 terrorism arrests, shown in this screengrab from a police surveillance video
Toronto 18, arrest
Two men are surrounded by officers during the Toronto 18 terrorism arrests, shown in this screengrab from a police surveillance video

Lights flash and sirens blare as multiple cruisers pull closer to the Lexus cruising down the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. As they close in on the driver, 21-year-old Ahmad Ghany, the vehicles push him off the highway and onto the median. According to a Hamilton Spectator article, the officers then tell Ghany to step out of his car. One officer frisks him while another handcuffs him. Ghany’s 17-year-old wife of two months sits shocked in the passenger seat. Ghany’s friends tell the newspaper the police drive off with Ghany and the Lexus—leaving the young woman behind on the side of the highway.

In another raid on the same Friday evening in June 2006, tactical police unit vehicles pull into a private driveway in Mississauga, leading into a quiet enclave of townhouses steps from the Meadowvale Town Centre. According to a report in the National Post, Abdul Qayyum Jamal, 43, sits on a bench outside his house scanning the day’s newspaper. Inside, his wife, Cheryfa, is on the living room couch, changing her son’s diaper. The vans come to a halt just outside Jamal’s house and a team of uniformed officers file out, fully armed. They descend on Jamal, handcuffing him. Some of the officers step into the house, pointing their guns at Cheryfa and her boys, who scream with terror. Cheryfa ducks to the floor, her baby crying on the couch while the officers search the home. When they finish the sweep, the officers drive off, taking Jamal with them.

Roughly 400 officers were part of a coordinated series of raids in Toronto and Mississauga that ended with the arrests of 11 men and four youths. Two others were already serving sentences for separate convictions of importing and simple possession of firearms at the time of the bust, and were charged as part of the sweep. Two months later, another suspect was added to the group, which came to be known as the infamous “Toronto 18.” At a news conference the next day, the police would reveal a 9-mm gun, a handmade cellphone detonator, radios, and a sample of ammonium nitrate. Suspects were accused of purchasing three tonnes of the chemical to blow up three buildings, including the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s Toronto offices. The group had arranged for the purchase of the ammonium nitrate and was in the process of storing it when the raids began. They were charged in one of the biggest terrorist investigations in Canada. The story made headlines across Toronto: “Terror Cops Swoop”; “Al Qaida Busts”; “GTA Terror Sweep.”

Reports of the arrests described above, cobbled from newspaper accounts, made headlines across Canada. All across the country there was an overwhelming sense that a major disaster had been averted. This, it turned out, was not the case.

In the 17 years after two planes were deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon, killing close to 3,000 people, journalists worldwide have grappled with how to cover terrorism. The 9/11 attacks launched legal efforts to combat the perceived new threat. The United Nations called on countries to pass special laws against terrorism. But neither the UN nor individual states agree on a single definition of terrorism. Canada introduced the Anti-Terrorism Act to the code in December 2001, broadly distinguishing terrorism from other violence when it’s done in part or in whole, for a “political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” in Canada or abroad. The Toronto 18 case was the second time someone would be charged under these laws and the first time someone was convicted. With the chain of widely covered attacks across the globe in 2017—Quebec City, Manchester, Edmonton, Brussels, Las Vegas, and Manhattan—news outlets, including ones in Canada, have reignited the debate over how the word “terrorism” is applied and whether current policies are adequate.

This discussion comes in the wake of increasing public concern that the press sensationalizes attacks, and jumps quickly to call attackers “terrorists” when they’re carried out by Muslims, but not when they aren’t. And that by simply relying on the Criminal Code or police charges to define terrorism rather than investigating how it is applied, journalists and media outlets amplify state narratives regarding who is a terrorist.

Four years before the Toronto 18 arrests, a Syrian-Canadian software engineer named Maher Arar was on his way back to Canada from Tunisia when he was detained at an airport in New York City, questioned, and then deported to Syria via Jordan. There, he was imprisoned for over a year and tortured. Canadian and American officials held that Arar had been part of a terrorist cell, leaking accusations that he’d trained with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and had tried to recruit Canadians into terrorist activity, claims which eventually appeared in press reports. After Arar was vindicated, he was brought back to Canada. In 2006, a public inquiry revealed that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had provided misleading information linking Arar to terrorism. Arar accepted a $10.5-million settlement from the Canadian government in 2007.

In 2003, The New York Times was swept up in a scandal involving its reporter Judith Miller’s coverage leading up to the United States’ war in Iraq. Relying heavily on information provided to her by confidential sources in the American intelligence community and government administration, Miller reported the United States had discovered weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The information Miller received was false—and played a key role in bolstering public approval for the war in Iraq.

 

The night the Toronto 18 stories broke, Omar El Akkad was in Kingston, Ontario, “The first day after the arrest, The Globe and Mail was largely beat by the other major papers,” says El Akkad, who left the Globe—and journalism—in 2016. The Toronto Star had out-scooped the other papers when its national security reporter, Michelle Shephard, learned about the investigation months in advance. On the night of the arrests, she and the editorial team finalized details for a largely pre-written story for the next morning’s paper. “That night, our editor-in-chief Giles Gherson made a rare decision in our age of instant news,” Shephard wrote in Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism’s Grey Zone, published in 2011. “We would not post our full account of the terror investigation until 5 a.m., in case our competitors tried to catch up before their deadlines.” It worked. The following morning the Globe had a small item on A2. The Times published a story detailing how well the Star had beaten the other papers. In an interview, Gherson says they knew they were ahead of the other outlets, “but you never really know how far ahead.” Despite the early lead, when court hearings began, “the precise nature” of the suspects’ charges was still foggy. “It was not going to be a simple story,” he says.

Meanwhile, Globe reporters gathered on the second floor of 444 Front Street West for a meeting with Edward Greenspon, the editor-in-chief at the time. Greenspon told the staff how unhappy he was at the way the paper had been beaten. “It was a sickening feeling,” Greenspon says, calling it “one of those terrible days in the life of an editor.” For the reporters, the message was clear: get the story back. So, El Akkad and his colleague, Greg McArthur started knocking on doors to find out more about the suspects. Another reporter, Colin Freeze, covered the court hearings. Like the Star, they began following whatever leads they could find to piece together exactly what the 18 were accused of doing.

Four days after the arrests, Freeze got a hold of a Crown document detailing the charges against the men. It had the most specific account of the allegations the press had yet seen. Freeze asked someone to let him read the synopsis, agreeing not to make copies or take written notes. Instead, he read it aloud into a tape recorder. Meanwhile at the Brampton courthouse, Gary Batasar, a defence lawyer for Steven Chand, a 25-year-old Muslim convert and a former member of the Canadian Forces, stepped out and began discussing the charges with reporters. “The allegations suggest that [Mr. Chand] would personally like to behead Prime Minister Stephen Harper,” he told them. The next day, the front pages screamed: “Cell Planned to Behead PM” in the National Post; “Former Soldier Accused of Plan to ‘Behead’ PM,” read the Star’s headline; and under a banner introducing the “shocking revelations,” the Globe’s cover page read, “STORM Parliament Hill, SEIZE the Politicians, BEHEAD the Prime Minister.” The allegations even made their way to The New York Times, which had an A1 story about the news.

For journalists kneecapped by the sweeping publication ban, Batasar’s announcement was a welcome gift, and a sensational one at that. It was the closest the press had come to finding out what the charges against the men were. The problem was, the prosecution document didn’t say the beheading allegations were a significant part of the plot. “There was reference to one suspect saying he wanted to do that, but there were no material steps towards making that plot a reality,” Freeze says. “These guys [in the Toronto 18] were buying explosive chemicals. They weren’t buying guillotines or scimitars,” Freeze says. “So, what the lawyer said outside the court should’ve been tempered.”

Freeze’s story about the Crown brief was printed as a single column below the cover story about the beheading allegations. It explicitly noted that the beheading allegations weren’t included in the synopsis. “It was what everyone had been dying to know—what are the allegations,” says McArthur about the story. “[The Globe was] the only one that had it, whereas everyone had this stupid quote from the defence lawyer.”

A decade later, Greenspon isn’t sure if he’d run the same cover page again. “Knowing afterwards what I know about that, yeah, I probably wouldn’t have played that as strongly,” he says, noting that the Globe was working with fragmented facts, on a tight deadline. “If I had a do-over again in the moment, I don’t know.” For his part, Gherson defends the Star’s beheading headline. “It looks crazy today,” he admits. But, he says, “It’s hard for me to say categorically that I would’ve done it differently.” Newspapers have to make their best judgment calls at the time the story is unfolding, he says. “The whole point of journalism essentially is to write pieces of history as you know it and leave it to historians to write the full story.”

The beheading plot wasn’t the only aspect of the case overblown by the press. The press treated the members of the Toronto 18 “as much more than just suspected criminals” immediately after their arrests, writes John Miller, former journalism chair and professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism, in an analysis he co-authored with Ryerson researcher Cybele Sack about coverage of the case. “It’s pretty doubtful these people could’ve carried out any significant act of violence,” Miller says, pointing out that the suspects were armed with only one gun, and didn’t have authentic bomb-making materials.

The police had timed their raids with the delivery of three tonnes of ammonium nitrate to the suspects. Reporters later heard in court that one of the ringleaders, Zakaria Amara, had relied on one of the undercover moles to arrange the delivery of the chemicals, which would’ve taken much longer for the suspects to acquire because of restrictions on buying the fertilizer in large amounts. Before the delivery though, police replaced the chemical with a fake substitute. “The first report said it was delivered to them and they were caught with it,” says Miller, going over the press coverage. “Well, it wasn’t ammonium nitrate,” he adds. “Even if they’d completed the transaction, they wouldn’t have been able to blow up anything.”

The suspects were armed with a single gun: a 9-mm Luger pistol, shown at the news conference the day after the arrests, brought to the camp by Amara. The group tried to use Mubin Shaikh, an undercover police informant who had infiltrated the group, to buy guns for their training camp because he had a license to buy firearms. (The “training camps” themselves were outdoor retreats, located near Orillia, Ontario, involving paintball games and shooting practice, and trips to a nearby Tim Hortons.) A key witness in the Crown’s case, Shaikh wrote in a blog post about one of the ringleaders, Fahim Ahmad, “There was absolutely no chance his band of brothers could successfully storm parliament, behead all the MP’s including the PM, force the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.”

Perhaps the biggest aspect of the story that was overblown was the name. “‘The Toronto 18,’ has this element of, ‘These are 18 equal partners in a massive terrorist conspiracy,’” El Akkad says. Shaikh publicly said that some of the group, including Chand—who was accused of wanting to behead Harper—should never have been arrested. Making matters difficult was, in part, the complexity of the case. During the trial, two major narratives emerged—one that portrayed the group as a sinister threat to Canadian safety, and the other extreme, which saw them as a bunch of kids in way over their heads. But the reality was somewhere in between, which was seen in the mixture of verdicts in the end, with some members having their charges stayed in 2007, and others being sentenced to life. “This was an element of laziness on the part of the media,” says El Akkad. “We give them these catchy names and then they stick,” he adds. “That’s all our fault, everybody who reported on this case, everybody who used that terminology is in part complicit in creating that kind of sense.”

infographic, terrorism, terrorist, newsroom policyIn his analysis of the case, Miller looked at the dependence on unnamed sources in the news coverage after the arrests. Of the 295 stories studied, 46 percent used anonymous sources. “The number of anonymous sources that were used in the news coverage was just way beyond the pale,” he says, pointing to newsroom guidelines that say anonymity should be the exception, not the rule. The most frequent unnamed sources were CSIS and RCMP investigators.

The social and political context of the arrests reveal more about what was at stake in the Toronto 18 case. For one, when the Anti-terrorism Act passed in 2001, it had some limited-time provisions that needed a review to extend them beyond 2006. That review was ongoing at the time of the arrests. The case would also be “critical for Canada’s international reputation,” read a Star article the morning after the arrests. “There has been cause for skepticism concerning the ability of Canada’s intelligence and police services to prosecute security cases,” it continued, noting the humiliation after earlier cases like Arar’s “exposed an inexperienced federal police force.”

The way the news of the arrests was announced, it seemed the security forces had intervened just in time. That was the subject of a story by El Akkad more than a year later based on internal records, obtained through an access to information request to Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada, showing the behind-the-scenes mayhem in the government after the arrests. The documents revealed “a small army of communications officers crafting talking points, hurriedly updating speeches and correcting their bosses’ miscues,” it reads. “They also reveal meticulous government monitoring of virtually every media account of the arrests, as well as a consistent focus on getting all key players in Ottawa to echo the same talking points about the Conservative government’s dedication to fighting terror.”

The large amount of force shown during the arrests and court proceedings amplified the perceived threat posed by the suspects. “There was great coverage about the court appearances with helicopters in the air and snipers on surrounding buildings as if the whole Muslim-Canadian community was going to come to their rescue,” Miller says. Shaikh says the press sensationalized its coverage of the case. The day when Chand’s lawyer spoke about the beheading allegations, Shaikh was with his wife and kids in a safe house in Niagara Falls watching the coverage from a hotel. When he saw the snipers and police helicopters outside of the courthouse, he was stunned. “I swear to you at the beginning when I saw that, I did not know what case this was.” When he learned about Ghany’s dramatic arrest on the highway, he thought it was excessive. “Why would you do that for a guy who was up there for two days?” Shaikh says, describing Ghany as a “shy kid.” “Why would you need to gunpoint chase him down on the fricken highway?”

In the end, 11 of the accused either pleaded guilty or were convicted of participating in terrorist group activities. Two pleaded guilty to intending to cause explosion for the benefit of a terrorist group. Ahmad also pleaded guilty to importing firearms for the benefit of a terrorist group and instructing others to carry out activity for a terrorist group. Chand, who Shaikh said should’ve never been arrested, was found guilty by a jury. As for the seven remaining, one youth was released after the preliminary hearing, and two youths and four adults had their charges stayed or were acquitted.

One of those whose charges were stayed was Jamal. After the authorities had arrested him from his home, he was locked in Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton, Ontario. He was let out of his cell for only 20 minutes each day, according to his lawyer. At his bail hearing four months later, Jamal had visibly lost weight, the Star reported. From inside the walls of the prison, Jamal could see that the isolation was getting to everyone. The inmates would fight with each other and yell at the prison guards, his wife, Cheryfa, told the press. Jamal and Cheryfa’s only comfort was in reading the Qur’an. By April, his defence lawyer and counsel for the 12 other accused began to worry. They’d been in solitary confinement for 10 months now, and their lawyers predicted it could be months or even years before their trials began.

Solitary confinement has been criticized as a cruel form of punishment, often compared to torture. The UN has called on states to use solitary confinement only as a “last resort, for as short a time as possible.” In Canada, the punishment has been criticized for its lack of oversight—and the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled in December 2017 that the government has one year to amend its laws to address that issue.

In the early days after the arrests, stories circulated about the time Jamal spent with young men from his mosque—six of whom were also arrested in the case. The stories suggested he was recruiting the young men for the planned attacks. As the oldest member of the group, Jamal was a likely ringleader, papers speculated. Though he was denied bail at first, by November, the Crown dropped the “planning to cause a deadly explosion” charge from Jamal’s case. He’d spent 17 months in pre-trial custody, most of which was in solitary confinement before being let out. In April 2007, almost two years after his arrest, charges against Jamal and three others were stayed. His lawyer, Anser Farooq, called for a public inquiry into the way the case was handled. Raymond Motee, representing Ibrahim Aboud, another of the accused, who was 19 at the time of his arrest, said his client had been called a terrorist simply for attending the training camp. “There has been a stigma attached to his name from the day that he was arrested, and that stigma will continue to follow him around like a perpetual shadow,” said Motee. Jamal, too, said “his life—and that of his wife and sons—had been ruined by the publicity.”

 

Part of the challenge in covering the Toronto 18 was the court-imposed publication ban. While pre-trial publication bans are meant to ensure a fair trial for the accused, they can make it difficult to balance the government’s story with other versions of the events. This way, the state can decide who’s labelled a terrorist when the initial charges are reported in the media, even before court proceedings begin.

“The state has a monopoly almost on designating what falls into that box,” Freeze says, noting past governments have disagreed about groups like Hamas and Hezbollah over which is a “terrorist” group and which is not. But journalists should be more critical in the early stages, says Monia Mazigh, former national coordinator of International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group. “Most of the time, nobody asks questions. Something happens and everybody wants to report it,” says Mazigh, who became well known for her vocal campaign to rescue her husband, Maher Arar, when he was detained in Syria. “I would call it like porn sort of—everybody wants to see it, you just have to show it.”

 

Almost 12 years after the arrests, the 18 men originally arrested in connection with the plot remain difficult to categorize. Some were found guilty, while others were found almost entirely innocent. Yasin Abdi Mohamed, who in addition to Ali Mohamed Dirie, was serving a sentence unrelated to the terror charges in a Kingston prison at the time of the arrests, was the only suspect to have his terrorism-related charges stayed without any conditions. After he was released from pre-trial custody in 2008, Mohamed and his family opened an Ethiopian restaurant in Toronto. He is now believed to have moved out of the country with his family. As for Jamal, after his charges were stayed, he went back to driving school buses with his wife. They opened up their own company in Mississauga, which services Islamic schools.

Many of the 11 who received prison terms were released. Chand, who supposedly wanted to behead Stephen Harper, was released in 2011. Dirie was released the same year and allegedly boarded a plane for Syria in 2013. Shaikh, Canadian government officials, and local Muslim leaders reported he had been killed there. Ahmad, who pleaded guilty to instructing others to participate in the terrorist group, was released in January. Amara, and another man, Shareef Abdelhaleem, are serving life sentences.

What began as a tale of a massive terrorist plot that was compared to the Oklahoma City bombing, eventually unraveled into a case where the principal crime was the intentions of the individuals involved, rather than any realistic possibility of a large-scale terror attack. For his part, El Akkad isn’t sure how much has changed in the press in the 12 years since the arrests. “It’s still an uphill battle for journalists to properly convey nuance, because by the time we find out about the story, it’s when something terrible has happened,” he says, adding that there’s not enough attention given to the backstory. “We do generally a fairly good job on the when, where, how. We do a much worse job on the why.” 

The handling editor on this story (Sonya Fatah) is a former Globe and Mail reporter, who also worked on the “Toronto 18” case, and is a current co-instructor at the RRJ.

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