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Canadian Homegrown Terrorism Inquiry Sparks Arrests

June 5, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Canadian authorities today were sharing few details about the 17 alleged terror suspects they arrested over the weekend.

After a year-long probe, 12 men and five juveniles were taken into custody late Friday and early Saturday by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP.

MIKE MCDONELL, Royal Canadian Mounted Police: The RCMP, in cooperation with our partners, through our integrated National Security Enforcement Team, or NSET, in Toronto, have arrested individuals who were planning to commit a series of terrorist attacks against solely Canadian targets in southern Ontario.

SPENCER MICHELS: Police said the group — all Canadian residents, and most citizens of South Asian descent — had trained together and amassed bomb-making materials, including three tons of the fertilizer ammonium nitrate, that can be used to create a powerful explosive.

MIKE MCDONELL: This group posed a real and serious threat. It had the capacity and intent to carry out these acts.

SPENCER MICHELS: Two tons of the same material were used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

FBI officials said they were investigating whether some of the Canadians in custody may have had limited contact with two terror suspects arrested in Georgia last spring. Several of the suspects attended the same mosque and lived in Mississauga, a well-manicured, middle class suburb of Toronto, Canada’s largest city.

UNIDENTIFIED MISSISSAUGA RESIDENT: I didn’t expect something like this just here, you know, just in my neighborhood across the street.

SPENCER MICHELS: On Saturday, vandals smashed the windows of Toronto’s largest mosque. Muslims make up an estimated two percent of Canada’s population of 33 million.

More arrests still possible?

JIM LEHRER: For more, we go to Doug Struck, the Canadian bureau chief of the "Washington Post" in Toronto.

Doug, welcome.

DOUG STRUCK, Canadian Bureau Chief, "Washington Post": Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: What about this report that more arrests are still expected? Is that still a live idea at this point?

DOUG STRUCK: The authorities are saying that that's entirely possible. They've made very clear that the investigation still has miles to go, that they've got other leads they want to follow and that, indeed, more arrests might be expected.

But so far, all of the indications are that this still remains pretty much a homegrown event and confined to Canada.

JIM LEHRER: Now, these 17 who have been arrested, is there any other connection that has been discerned thus far, beyond the fact that most of them went to the same mosque?

DOUG STRUCK: Not quite yet. Although it appears that the connection may have been over the Internet, or it may have been over any sort of connection that one uses these days to spread the kind of virulent ideology that all of these men and some of the teenagers were said to have subscribed to.

We know that that kind of communication -- that is, basically, going on to chat rooms -- drew the attention of Canadian investigators as long as two years ago.

This whole conspiracy, it's turning out, even though we don't know a lot of the details, was not a very well kept secret. Investigators started looking at some of these people, because of some of the things they were saying, as long as two years ago.

A year ago, one of the principals who was arrested on Friday drew the attention and concern of others in his mosque, to the point that apparently some of them went to authorities.

And then last March, you had two Muslim Americans who came up from Georgia to Toronto to talk to what the FBI calls "like-minded terrorists," in which they apparently, according to the FBI, discussed bombing targets.

So, it appears that the investigators were all over this from a long time ago.

What prompted police to move?

JIM LEHRER: And they had them under physical surveillance as well as electronic surveillance?

DOUG STRUCK: We don't know that yet. But certainly, there were elements of both of those. We don't know how long they were under surveillance, but certainly, they were under some sort of both physical and electronic surveillance.

What we don't know yet is exactly at what point the rhetoric and the talk among these men was turned into action.

The authorities say that they ordered, as your report indicated, some three tons of this fertilizer that can be quite explosive.

There were reports in the Toronto papers today that the police had actually intercepted this material and substituted a harmless powder for it. The police are not confirming that. In fact, they stand by their declaration that the men took delivery of the ammonium nitrate and were capable of setting off a bomb.

We also don't know exactly what their targets were yet. There is talk that one of the targets was the headquarters of the Canadian spy agency, which is in a large office building next to the CN Tower in Toronto. There's talk that the office buildings of the parliament in Canada's capital, Ottawa, were also targets.

But again, police have not confirmed any of that yet.

JIM LEHRER: Is anything known, Doug, about what prompted the police to make their move over this particular weekend? Were they -- were the suspects about to do something? Or what do we know about that, if anything?

DOUG STRUCK: Well, that was -- that's one of the key questions. And it was certainly one of the implications that was allowed by the police, the RCMP, and the Canadian intelligence service when they announced on Saturday that they had made these sweeps.

They indicated that they had concluded their investigation and moved when they thought the public safety was in danger.

So, they left the impression that this bombing, if there was to be one, was imminent.

Now, whether or not that's borne out in the court appearances that will go on for some time, remains to be seen.

What was the motive?

JIM LEHRER: What about motive? Beyond being Islamic terrorists -- whatever that means -- is anything else known about what these guys were up to, and why they were up to it?

DOUG STRUCK: You know, as far as anyone knows, these are individuals who were born or came here to Canada at a fairly early age. Most or all of them have not been out of the country since.

It's not as though they have direct connections with Iraq or Afghanistan or any of the places where that may be happening, that might provide a motive for this.

It appears, from what we know now, that the motive is simply one of ideology.

One of the key figures of this, Qayyum Abdul Jamal, who was a regular and the oldest of those arrested, preached that there was a war going on between the West and Muslims. He stood up in his mosque, according to those who heard him, and said that Canadian troops in Afghanistan are raping Muslim women.

And this is the kind of stuff that, at least we are told, captured the imagination, indignation and, eventually, anger of some of the younger men who attended that mosque, some of the younger men who knew him and others, and led them to believe that, indeed, we're speaking of a war between civilizations.

JIM LEHRER: Our setup piece said there were roughly two million Muslims in Canada. Were they -- is the community known as a radicalized group of Muslims? Or what was its reputation before this?

DOUG STRUCK: I think the report said two percent. It's about 700,000 Muslims.

For the most part, they are not a radical population here. In fact, Canada's immigration laws, while much more liberal than most countries, nevertheless does encourage immigrants who are mostly middle class, professionals.

As one of the Muslim community leaders told me, described to me this weekend, he said, "Most of us are pretty well-heeled." In fact, those arrested were in, I think your report said "well-manicured neighborhoods." That's a pretty good description of them. Many of them college graduates.

So, for the most part, it has not been a politicized group.

On the other hand, I think these arrests have been a wakeup call to Canada, that, indeed, within these communities there are passions that may not be evident to authorities or to other Canadians. And there are certainly people who have come here from war-torn or from difficult places of the world, who bring their own politics and their own ideologies.

In Canada, there is a family -- they're called the Khadr family -- that is sort of a center of this debate. They're -- the patriarch of the family was a close associate of Osama bin Laden. One of his sons is in Guantanamo.

So, there is, certainly, those who want to carry on this debate within the population here.

There was an al Qaeda influence

JIM LEHRER: So when the authorities said over the weekend, Doug, that, while there was no direct al Qaeda link, there was an al Qaeda influence here.

What are they talking about?

DOUG STRUCK: Yes, they said "inspired by"...

JIM LEHRER: Inspired. You're right. That's the word. Not influenced by.

DOUG STRUCK: Inspired by the violent ideology of al Qaeda.

Well, what does that mean? Does that mean people on the Internet talking about how Muslims are mistreated by the West? Or does that mean something with a more direct connection to al Qaeda?

It's beginning to look more like the former than the latter. Although, as we've learned, investigators are certainly looking to see whether there are any connections, any links, any communication with others in other countries.

JIM LEHRER: But they haven't found anything that we know of yet. Is that right? A direct connection...

DOUG STRUCK: That we know of...

JIM LEHRER: ... between these 17 and some terrorists in the United States or elsewhere?

DOUG STRUCK: Well, the only connection that we know of yet is with these two Georgia men, who have now -- are now in prison on charges relating to terrorism, who did come up to Toronto, and, according to the FBI affidavit, did talk about bomb plots.

That's the only connection we know of, of any connection they had outside of Canada.

JIM LEHRER: Quickly, before we go. These 17 are referred to as having South Asian ancestry.

What countries are we talking about?

DOUG STRUCK: Well, that's -- there is certainly a mix there. There were people from Egypt, which, of course, is not South Asia.


DOUG STRUCK: There were people from Pakistan. There were people from Sudan. There were some that we don't know their background yet.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right.

Doug Struck, thank you very much for filling us in.

DOUG STRUCK: My pleasure.