July 29, 2010

Tom Walkom on Toronto 18 - Hot air

Four years ago, the Toronto 18 terror case exploded in a blaze of publicity. Last week, with the conviction of the remaining two accused, it ended like a damp squib.

When details of the alleged plots were first revealed by police, it seemed to many that full-scale, Islamic terror had finally arrived in Canada. There was talk of beheading Prime Minister Stephen Harper and blowing up buildings.

To others, particularly in the Muslim community, the charges seemed too absurd to be true. Revelations that two RCMP moles were paid, respectively $4 million and $300,000, only added to those suspicions.

The story that emerged was somewhere in the middle.

Yes, there was a bomb plot. One ringleader, Zakaria Amara, admitted that when he pled guilty last year. He confessed that he had been developing a serious plan to blow up buildings in downtown Toronto as well as at an unspecified army base as part of an effort to force Canada out of the war in Afghanistan. He said, before being sentenced to life in prison, that he was heartily sorry.

Two others pleaded guilty to taking part in the bomb plot and the fourth accused in that scheme was found guilty in a judge-only trial. And yes, there was a broader attempt to set up a terrorist group. That attempt involved holding a so-called winter training camp near Washago as well as looking over a potential safe house in the northeastern Ontario village of Opasatika.

The second ringleader, Fahim Ahmad, effectively admitted that when he interrupted his own trial last month to plead guilty.

Yet, as testimony in various trials showed, this second, broader attempt never really got beyond the realm of big talk. The training camp was a comedy of errors. The ill-conceived Opasatika trip led mainly to a lot of stops at doughnut shops. Even the RCMP bug planted in the Opasatika-bound van didn’t work most of the time.

That didn’t mean the plotters weren’t trying to do something. But it did mean that, with the exception of bomb-aficianado Amara, they weren’t very good it. Police mole Mubin Shaikh, who had infiltrated the group, testified in court that by March 2006, ringleader Ahmad had become more fantasizer than doer.

Finally, the scale of the Toronto 18 plot was never as broad as the Crown initially suggested.

Of the 18 originally arrested, seven effectively had their charges dropped.

Two others pled guilty and received one more day in jail. Given that they had already spent more than three years behind bars, these were rational decisions.

One more was found guilty by a judge and immediately released after being sentenced to time already served.

Three others who pled guilty face between two and seven additional years in prison. A fourth, Amara, got life. Four await sentencing.

Meanwhile, the world has moved on. The public seems to have lost interest in the homegrown terrorism story and so has the media.

By the end, only a handful of reporters were covering the terror trial. Last week’s verdict was almost immediately overshadowed by the latest crisis: the G20 summit and the trashing of downtown Toronto.

As for the reason behind the plots, the terrorists got their wish. Unless the more war-supportive Liberals win the next election, Canadian troops are due to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2011. Not because buildings blew up in downtown Toronto, but for a much simpler reason: Canadians don’t want their soldiers there any more.

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