Canada: The Cell Next Door


Neil Docherty

Neil Docherty

“For a Muslim looking out on this world, it's very easy to paint a picture of hypocrisy on the part of the West -- that we claim that we are promoting democracy, but we're very happy to do deals with tin pots and potentates as long as it fits our purpose.”

Producer/director Neil Docherty has made a number of documentaries about terrorism in recent years. But "The Cell Next Door," he says, marks just how far we've traveled, from the attacks of 9/11 to suburban kids from two-car-garage homes wanting to blow up their own communities in the United States and Canada. His story investigates a foiled plot by 18 Muslim men in Toronto in June 2006 to blow up the Canadian Parliament. The men are in custody awaiting trial. "The most telling imagery in the film," say Docherty, "is the pan across suburban rooftops -- a landscape that is supposed to be hermetically sealed from the rest of the world's problems." In this telephone interview with FRONTLINE/World Web editor Jackie Bennion, Docherty discusses how the intelligence community is having to adapt and lays out the underlying forces driving these homegrown jihadis. The interview took place in January 2007.

Q: Jackie Bennion: With more homegrown terror cells popping up, has there been a different approach by the intelligence communities?

A: Neil Docherty: Certainly I think there is. In speaking to the Canadians, Americans and Dutch -- we have also spoken to the British and the French in the past -- I don't think they've handled the religious discussion very well.We are searching a lot more now to analyze how these groups start and what types of people they are. I think intelligence communities now are seeing this as a broad sociological issue as well as a criminal issue, and they are encouraging a multifaceted approach. I am certainly struck by how the knowledge about these groups has grown quite dramatically in the last few years.

Q: Amongst the intelligence services in particular?

A: Yes, among the intelligence services mainly. They have really tried to understand it as opposed to seeing [it as] a bunch of thugs trying to blow stuff up. Certainly one thing they are grappling with in Canada, and also in America, is at what point do you make it a criminal case.How do you handle the evidence, and what sort of evidence are you prepared to handle in order to make a criminal case? In Canada it was an intelligence case, but as soon as the group started going to training camps and making detonators, it became a criminal case.And then by law they had to bring in the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police].And they found a way of sharing information. They shared, for example, the infiltrator Mubin Shaikh to gather evidence for a criminal trial. So I think they are trying to find some middle ground.

Q: What do you mean by middle ground?

A: They are quite different animals, and they look at problems completely differently. The police look at a way to make a case: "How do I get this guy in court and find him guilty?" While intelligence is saying, "What are we learning from this? How long can we let it go before we can round up some more people? And in the broader scheme, how dangerous is this going to get?" I think one of the important things about the Toronto case is that they have tried hard to seek out and marry both interests.And the intelligence people also think it's a good thing to make this a criminal case as a warning to others that, when you get involved in this, it is a very serious business.

Q: What was the ripple affect among Muslims and non-Muslims when this plot was foiled?

A: There's a great deal of cynicism about these cases. In America that's partly because there have been a bunch of weak cases made. That, and I think the whole cynicism about the war in Iraq and everything else that gets through to the general public, and in particular the Muslim community. So there's an automatic tendency to believe that the authorities are at fault and not the young people.Certainly the initial feeling here among the Muslim community was that this is a setup. That these guys have been set up to do this by the infiltrator.At the time, the government had a motion before Parliament about extending our troops in Afghanistan and some other security laws.So the Muslim community saw this as an attempt to get this [motion] passed. But I think this was a case where the police and the intelligence communities worked hard to make it a proper case. And I think they have learned some lessons.

Q: What have they learned?

A: We had a terrible case here. One of the things that led to this cynicism is the Maher Arar case in Canada. If you remember, Arar is a Syrian/Canadian who was detained by the Americans when he had to change planes in New York and was renditionedback to Syria, where he was tortured.When he got out, mainly due to the efforts of his wife's campaigning, and came back from Syria to Canada, there was actually a public inquiry, where he eviscerated the RCMP for passing on suspect information to the Americans.The judge in that case came out very strongly in Ara's favor and against the authorities. So the authorities are bloodied by that.But in this latest case, they presented themselves as completely impeccable.As the story has come out, people have moved away from the cynicism a little. The Muslim community still has a fair way to go in divesting itself of all these conspiracy theories. And they will have to face up to this in their community and deal with it. And if they won't deal with it, we will be in much bigger trouble.

Q: How does this play into the more general debate of liberty versus security and how governments are dealing with these threats?

A: I think the Toronto case is going to be extremely important in this debate.I think what we'll see is that they've managed to make a case and thwart what was a fairly serious terrorist act by using proper police work and proper intelligence work without actually bending any rules.They got all the warrants, gathered evidence appropriately; no one was renditioned and tortured;the information didn't come from suspect sources. That said, I think we are seeing a higher level of surveillance in Canada than we have in the past, but so far I think it's targeted and again with proper jurisdiction.And all of this will be tried in a court with the proper procedures.

Q: As opposed to Guantanamo Bay-type tribunals …

A: Or even in Canada, where there are Draconian laws using security certificates, where people, especially immigrants who are considered a danger, have been kept in prison without trial for three or four years. That is an affront to our democracy and our jurisprudence. This case, however, is a security and police response to those criticisms.At least these boys will be represented and see the charges against them and will be able to answer them. There is a tension here about law and defendants' rights. In Britain, there was a big push back from the Law Lords about how long you can hold people and what sort of evidence you can present, and that has been a good thing.

Q: Do you think the United States and other democracies are being duplicitous?

A: Well, I think that is certainly how it is viewed in the Muslim community. If you are a Muslim and you look out on the world, all you see are Muslims being oppressed and often with the tacit approval or with the outright support of America. That applies throughout the Middle East and even, as we were pointing out in the Canadian version of this story, in places like Uzbekistan, where you have a brutal dictator torturing people, and where our interests seem to be [about] strategics and oil. And the people being tortured are all Muslims. So for a Muslim looking out on this world, it's very easy to paint a picture of hypocrisy on the part of the West -- that we claim that we are promoting democracy, but we're very happy to do deals with tin pots and potentates as long as it fits our purpose. You can't grow up in a Muslim society now or in the diaspora all over the world and not have this infect you, I think.

Q: With all this disaffection in the Muslim Diaspora, how much improvement has there been in moderate voices getting through?

A: Honestly, I don't know how to measure that.My assessment is that it's a struggle.I mean this business of the Saudis promoting extremism is not to be taken lightly.They have spent billions in oil money, and how does that manifest itself? It manifests itself in that if you want to become an Islamic scholar, the great universities are in Saudi Arabia and they are Wahhabi-influenced. And out of those universities come imams who are literally spread throughout the world. Saudi money builds the mosques -- it built the Finsbury Park mosque in London; it has built other radical mosques throughout the world. The Saudis send out millions of translated Korans, and they have on the back of them 28 pages or so of essays on jihad. This is not a translation of the Koran; this is an interpretation of the Koran. Young Muslims read books, and these are the ones that are widely available.That influence is pernicious and very pervasive. So combine that with a sense of Muslim grievance from the Middle East and everywhere else, and you have this miasmawhere anything can happen.

Q: How much of this sentiment have you heard firsthand?

A: One of the touchstones of doing any of these stories and talking to people that seem perfectly reasonable is when you work into the conversation, "So who do you think did 9/11?" And they will come up with all kinds of permutations on why they won't blame Muslims. Even the people in this film I talked to, when that question comes up, use the escape route and say, "I don't know enough about it, so I don't know who did it," which in itself is a fairly remarkable statement.I find that's the case with half, if not the majority, of Muslims I speak to in reporting these stories. I hear, "Isn't it strange that they found Mohammed Atta's passport, when everything else was burned up? And I've seen pictures on the Internet of how it was a missile that hit the Pentagon; and why didn't they find bits of the plane?" I get stories like that endlessly.

Q: Is this just being fueled by Web sites?

A: It's being fueled by Web sites and fueled by the question: Why should they believe us? If you go to war and say this guy has weapons of mass destruction, and he doesn't, and you go in and create chaos, why should they believe us? This is the argument former CIA expert Michael Scheuer used and I think it has resonance and power.

Q: One approach the current administration is pursuing is to go in and reform these autocratic regimes in the Middle East and institute some form of democracy. But this perceived meddling in the region by the United States and its allies seems to be fueling the radicalization.

“I think the Toronto case is going to be extremely important in this debate.I think what we'll see is that they've managed to make a case and thwart what was a fairly serious terrorist act by using proper police work and proper intelligence work without actually bending any rules.”

A: Well I agree. And I think it's for greater minds than mine to sort it out. But the meddling in the Middle East has been a huge problem. I think the truth that we dare not speak sometimes is that we need to solve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. What I am told by reasonable Muslim scholars and others in Pakistan is that, if you can provide an equitable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, you would do a great disservice to these jihadists. It's not like they are fighting for a noble and lofty cause.They are very cynical creatures, these guys. But as long as this crisis is out there, it's a very easy thing to use. What we really don't understand yet is that their life is surrounded by this stuff. They all have satellite news channels and the Internet, and that's where they get their news from.Satellite TV is an endless parade of Muslim grievances, and I don't think we understand the scale of this.

Q: Do you think there is a sort of self-censorship going on in the United States? With the launch of Al Jazeera English recently, none of the cable networks picked it up. So the American people are less exposed to these Muslim grievances than they could be.

A: I think the debate has to be engaged, and we also have to be prepared to listen … that perhaps some of these grievances are legitimate. The Muslims may have to solve these problems themselves, but we shouldn't be seen to be duplicitous, and that's how we are seen. This is not my opinion. A Pew study shows that America's standing in the world has plummeted in these areas because of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. And it's dramatic.

Q: Do you see pockets of hope, despite these plummeting ratings?

A: Some of the Muslim voices, like Hamza Yusuf, the Radical Middle Way, some of those we talk to for the film. Hamza Yusuf has a huge following in the Middle East and America, and he is a decided voice of moderation. I heard him speak at the Islamic Society of North America conference in Chicago, and he was outspoken on how we cannot be denouncing Jews. It has to stop; we can't have that sort of discourse. And he was demanding that people engage in proper discourse about the Middle East.His view is that the voice of moderation is the voice of the vast majority of Muslims.

Q: When you survey all the voices coming out of the Muslim world, few if any seem to rise above the message of extremism.

A: Some of that's our fault. And some of it is just that it's hard to report that a billion people in the world are running about perfectly reasonably. We report on the less than 1 percent that is causing trouble. But we do need media that is presenting Muslims in a better light.

Q: Do you think your film does that?

A: In a strange way I think it does, because the main hero of the film is a fundamentalist Muslim who decides that blowing things up in his city is not acceptable and does something about it. The other great voice in our film is the father of the young man in Atlanta, who again is a very reasonable person and has written at length demanding moderation.There's also another character in the film, Robert Heft, who confronted the young men, saying they had no right handing out jihadi videos proclaiming the 9/11 hijackers as martyrs. For me, the most telling imagery in the film is the pan across suburban rooftops - a landscape that is supposed to be hermetically sealed from the rest of the world's problems. And here you have a bunch of kids plotting to blow up buildings. And that is a measure of the distance we may have traveled here.

Q: How did we get there?

A: Obviously we have taken some comfort in North America in the fact that Muslims have done very well here, earning above-average incomes and I think being pretty well integrated.And we have taken comfort that it is a different picture from the French or the Dutch and others, where the parents came over and became cleaners and were discriminated against, and the kids couldn't get decent jobs and felt alienated. But we may have moved even a stage beyond that, where even if your parents are doing quite well and you're integrated and you have a suburban home, there's something abroad coursing through the Internet that makes you plan a terrorist attack.I don't want to be alarmist about it; I don't think it's going to be an overwhelming force by any means --

Q: You mean homegrown jihad …

A: Yes, but I think it will grow before it will die off. If the conditions were there for it to start, nothing has changed.We haven't solved any of the problems that they complain about. And if it's not about integration and opportunity in America or Canada, then it's about a great cause.

Q: A lot of people are saying it's about lack of acceptance, lack of integration, lack of economic opportunity.

A: I think the truth is we don't fully understand what the profile is. Everyone's had a stab at it -- Marc Sageman in his research, the intelligence services. But as soon as we come up with a profile, there's someone else who doesn't fit it. And we may have to face the fact that it's about a cause, about our foreign policy. I thought the Baker report was more along the lines of taking a step back: "Let's see if we can work with people rather than denounce them all as demons" -- I am talking about Iran and Syria. But America is in a very difficult place. It's still very wounded and bruised from 9/11, and it's looking on a world that looks very unfavorably upon it.

Q: Has it become a reactionary place?

A: It has, and it finds that it can't solve its problems that quickly, and that's bruising as well.These problems are easy for me to chatter on about, but they are not easily solved. Certainly a demonstrably new approach is required because it isn't getting better.We have al Qaeda still going; we have the opposition forces in Iraq, Kashmir and everywhereelse,the Philippines, Indonesia. And now we have homegrown terror,certainly in Europe and now in North America.We need to take a cold, hard look at that and decide what we want to do.

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