‘Toronto 18’ terror suspects posed little danger: analyst

Posted by admin on Mar 6th, 2008

Ian MacLeod. Canwest News Service  Thursday, March 06, 2008

OTTAWA – Canada’s biggest case of alleged homegrown terrorism – the “Toronto 18” – is turning out to be little more than a bunch of “wanna-be jihadists” who posed little real danger, says a member of the Advisory Council on National Security to the cabinet. David Charters says what initially appeared to be a frightening plot to bomb Toronto landmarks and storm Parliament appears to be something far less sinister. “I will be surprised if more than two or three are ever convicted of serious crimes. To anyone the least bit familiar with security, their so-called ‘plans’ were scarcely credible,” Charters said in a keynote address Thursday to the Canadian Aviation Security Conference. “While not calling into question their desire to dosomething dramatic, it is clear their reach exceeded their grasp.”

Even so, the case “ought to be of grave concern” because of the young ages of several suspects and the presence of older “talent spotters” ready and willing to exploit them, he said.

All but three of the 18 Canadian men and youths were arrested in a series of June 2006 police raids around Toronto that made international headlines and garnered high praise for the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service, including top U.S. homeland security and White House officials. Prime Minister Stephen Harper called U.S. President George Bush to thank him for the U.S. co-operation in thwarting the alleged plot, projecting the message that Canada is not a “safe haven” for Islamic extremists.

Yet since then, charges against four youths have been stayed and five adult suspects have been freed on bail. Fifteen men, 21 to 45, and one youth await trial, with the youth’s prosecution expected to start this month.

But based on details leaked from the investigation and pre-trial court hearings, “these boys – and many of them were quite young – were mostly ‘jihad wanna-bes’ talking terrorism, perhaps more to pump each other up than to do something serious,” said Charters, a senior fellow at the University of New Brunswick’s Gregg Centre for Study of War and Society.

“And it was big, loose talk – violating the most fundamental security principles of terrorist groups – that did them in.”

His public comments echo what some observers have been saying privately for months. Prosecution details about the alleged crimes presented at the suspects’ bail hearings remain secret under court-ordered publication bans.

But the serious and disturbing element to the alleged plot, said Charters, is that apparent radicalization is, “happening at a much younger age; there are ‘talent spotters’ who are willing to exploit the idealism, rage of lack of maturity of youngsters and to give them a target, an outlet and a justification for violence; and finally, that they don’t have to travel (overseas) to be trained.

“They can learn how to do terrorism through the medium they know best: the Internet – right in their own homes. From a security agency’s perspective, this is the stuff of nightmares; it really could be ‘the kid next door.'”

In fact, homegrown terrorism has always been the most significant terrorism threat to this country, he said, beginning in the early 1960s with the Sons of Freedom, which emerged from the otherwise pacifist Doukhobor sect in British Columbia. Over about four years, the group – all Canadians -blew up railway tracks, hydro towers and other industrial and government targets in the province.

“Terrorism can emerge from the most unlikely groups.”

Other terrorism history lessons:

. The Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ): “You don’t have to be very good at terrorism to cause a lot of trouble and tie up a lot of police and soldiers.”

. Direct Action, the tiny B.C. gang of self-styled anarchists best known for the 1982 bombing of the Litton System plant in Toronto. The four members were angry over environmental degredations, the inequality of women and the threat of nuclear war: “Even a liberal society can produce angry, alienated young people who may resort to violence, and it doesn’t take very many of them to do so.”

. The Armenian-Canadian terror cell that attacked the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa in March, 1985, killing a security guard and forcing the ambassador to jump from a second-storey window to avoid execution: “Foreign wars can strike here, because Canadians can be radicalized to fight at home on behalf of obscure disputes extraneous to Canada. The terrorists may be homegrown, but their cause is not.”

. The Air India bombing, the world’s largest fatality from a single terrorist attack before 9/11: It “demonstrated a degree of technical skill not seen in previous terrorist actions in Canada.”

Charters ended on an optimistic note.

The proportion of people in Canada who might be inclined to terrorism is “infinitely small. And while I’ve argued that a small number of terrorists, even fairly incompetent terrorists, can inflict a lot of casualties and damage and political turmoil, short of conjuring up nuclear weapons or smallpox, they would be incapable of destroying our country.

“And while there might exist in Canada small pockets of ‘complicit communities’ prepared – willing or otherwise – to tolerate terrorism, the country as a whole does not. In fact, our history suggests just the opposite – that we are more likely to come down hard on it. These factors may explain, at least in part, why, compared to the rest of the world, Canada has experienced so little terrorism.”

Ottawa Citizen

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