A Muslim businessman who was paid millions of dollars to help police bust a group of Toronto terrorists defended his hefty compensation for the first time today, insisting he was motivated by his “moral and civic duties as a Canadian citizen,” not dollar bills. “I was not in dire need of money,” said Shaher Elsohemy, testifying in a Brampton, Ont., courtroom Friday morning. “I had two side businesses and worked as an Air Canada flight attendant. The only time money was actually discussed was when the RCMP asked me to relocate and explained what that entails—leaving your house and your businesses behind. The only motive I had was based on my moral and civic duties as a Canadian citizen, and nothing but that.”
As first reported in Maclean’s, the RCMP paid Elsohemy $4 million to infiltrate a core group of “Toronto 18” suspects who were plotting a triple bomb attack in southern Ontario. The lucrative deal between the Mounties and their prized informant included cash, cars and homes for him, his wife, his daughter, his parents and his two brothers, all of whom abandoned their former lives in the name of national security and are now living under false identities.
It was Elsohemy who gained the trust of the group’s ringleader, shared his deadly plan with police, and helped the men purchase what they thought was three tonnes of explosive fertilizer. When the delivery truck arrived on June 2, 2006, the cops swooped in—and Elsohemy vanished into the witness protection program.
Three of the four bombing suspects have since confessed and pleaded guilty, including the linchpin, Zakaria Amara, who yesterday issued a public apology to “fellow Canadians” during his sentencing hearing. The 24-year-old—who at one point in the proceedings sobbed uncontrollably—said he has abandoned the radical Islamic ideology that fueled his murderous fantasies, and now feels “lucky” that the RCMP arrested him when they did. The fourth bombing suspect, Shareef Abdelhaleem, is fighting the charges in court. Which means that for the first time in almost four years, the undercover mole once known Shaher Elsohemy has emerged from the shadows to tell his side of the story.
Credible and well-spoken, Elsohemy has already spent four days on the witness stand, providing a damning blow-by-blow account of his dealings with Abdelhaleem. Bolstered by hours of police wiretaps, he has portrayed his one-time friend as Amara’s loyal underling, the man with envelopes full of cash and dreams of seeing downtown Toronto covered in “blood, glass and debris.” (By the time Elsohemy entered the picture, Amara had built a remote-controlled detonator and selected three targets: The Toronto Stock Exchange, the Toronto headquarters of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and an unnamed military base.)
Many fellow Muslims have attacked Elsohemy’s credibility, accusing him of cashing in on a concocted story. A traitor, they call him. The $4-million rat. But today, as prosecutor Iona Jaffe finished questioning her star witness, she offered him a chance to finally set the record straight. “To what extent did the money you receive motivate you to assist the police?” she asked, without mentioning the actual dollar figure. “The money did not play any role in my motivation,” said Elsohemy, a stocky, bald man wearing a dark suit and a blue tie. “The first time money was ever discussed was on the 15th of the April, and by then I had already worked with CSIS for nothing, uncovering the plot and providing valuable information.”
The timeline of events certainly suggests that Elsohemy was assisting the authorities, free of charge, long before compensation was ever discussed. Canada’s spy service first contacted him in December 2005, and during a subsequent meeting an agent showed him a series of photographs, including one of Shareef Abdelhaleem, a friend he had once vacationed with in Morocco. By then, the RCMP was already investigating a number of Abdelhaleem’s associates, including Amara, but CSIS was also conducing its own separate surveillance. (It is an important but often misunderstood distinction: CSIS collects intelligence to protect national security, while the Mounties collect evidence to be used at a criminal trial.)
According to Elsohemy, CSIS asked him in January 2006 to keep an eye on his friend—and an unnamed associate “working at a Canadian Tire gas bar” who turned out to be Zakaria Amara. Elsohemy obliged, and asked for nothing in return. Abdelhaleem introduced Elsohemy to Amara, and as the weeks wore on, Elsohemy voluntarily passed along snippets of information to his CSIS handlers, including the fact that Abdelhaleem—a computer programmer who earned a six-figure income and drove a convertible BMW—had grown obsessed with violent jihad videos and fighting alongside insurgents in Afghanistan.
Already aware that Amara had built a detonator that could be triggered with a cell phone, CSIS asked Elsohemy to “dangle” the fact that he has a university degree in agricultural sciences, and may be able to get his hands on ammonium nitrate fertilizer, the same explosive substance used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. His ruse included telling Amara that his “uncle” owns a chemical plant.
On April 8, 2006, at a restaurant near the gas bar, Amara laid out his sinister plot for the first time. Three U-Haul trucks. Three targets. “Kicking ass like never before.” He then handed Elshoemy a piece of paper with two ingredients listed on it: Nitric Acid and Ammonium Nitrate. As far as Amara knew, he had just placed an order for the chemical brew he needed to build his bombs. What he didn’t know, of course, was that Elsohemy handed that piece of paper directly to CSIS.
A week later, CSIS handed Elsohemy to the RCMP.
The Mounties were anxious to use him as an “agent,” a paid source who is obligated to testify at trial. For Elsohemy, the stakes were suddenly much, much higher. As officers wrote in one briefing note dated April 21, “by being exposed as a person assisting the police” he “will be subject to possible serious retaliation from some of the other members of the Islamic community, some of whom will view [his] actions as being that of a traitor to Islam.”
Elsohemy was not just worried about his own safety. He knew that the rest of his immediate family was also in danger, and, like him, would have to leave everything behind and disappear into the witness protection program. So before he signed on the dotted line, Elsohemy wanted to make sure the family was properly compensated—not necessarily for his undercover work, but for having to upend their entire lives.
At the start of negotiations, Elsohemy originally demanded a package worth $15.4 million that would ensure a “comfortable lifestyle” for everyone. His offer included $900,000 for a new house, $500,000 for the loss of his business, $250,000 for his parents, $125,000 for each of his two brothers, and $40,000 to cover his wife’s “dental work.” According to that RCMP briefing note, his “position was that the value of the investigation, i.e., stopping the terrorist attack, would be worthy of that amount if there was no damage to life or property.” The Mounties disagreed, saying his co-operation was worth “more in the line” of $2.5 million. “[He] was less than thrilled about our offer,” the memo reads. At one point, the Mounties asked Elsohemy to sign a 30-day contract worth $20,000—and nothing in the way of protection. He refused.
But by the first week of May, both sides had settled on an acceptable arrangement that included a $500,000 “pure award” for Elsohemy, plus approximately $3.5 million worth of additional compensation for he and his family. A portion of the deal included $215,000 worth of debt repayment ($50,000 for Elsohemy, $40,000 for his parents, $100,000 for his older brother, and $25,000 for his younger brother).
On the witness stand Friday, Elsohemy compared his deal to what an employee might receive from his company if he were asked to move to another part of the country. He also made clear that during the three weeks he was exchanging figures with the Mounties (from mid-April until early May) his covert work never wavered. “That did not affect my work on the investigation,” he insisted. “I did not threaten to leave the investigation. I did not stop. I did not hold any information back.”
Four years later, Elsohemy does not have to hold back, either. After so much time in hiding—forced to lie low and keep his mouth shut while strangers shredded his character—the man who thwarted a very real bomb plot on Canadian soil had his chance to tell the truth: he went undercover to save lives, not to line his pockets.
Life as he once knew it is no more. His name has changed, his travel agency is gone, and not even his closest friends know the city he now calls home. The same is true for his whole family, six others in all. Put it that way, and $4 million doesn’t sound quite so appealing. “They asked for his help, and as a regular citizen he helped,” says one of Eslohemy’s old friends, who did not want his name published (and who still receives the odd phone call from a blocked number). “The only thing that bothers him is that he did his part, he helped, and in the end he gets crap for it. Everybody is giving him crap for it.”
Perhaps those people should listen to Iona Jaffe, a Crown attorney on the case. During Thursday’s sentencing hearing for Zakaria Amara, she asked the judge to visualize, at that very moment, what was happening at the Toronto Exchange Tower, one of the group’s targets. “People are going about their days, riding in the elevators, shopping in the concourses, or grabbing a coffee at one of the many coffee shops in the area,” she said. “If everything had gone according to plan—the plans Mr. Amara had terribly crafted—the lives of all those many people would have been forever changed. They would have been forever changed because many of those people would have been killed by the explosions Mr. Amara planned.”
“Why are those people feeling safe today?” Jaffe continued. “It’s not because of Zakaria Amara. It’s not because his plans were amateurish. It’s not because he backed away from his plans, realizing the massive error of his ways. It was because of one thing: police intervention.” And a police agent named Shaher Elsohemy.
“He has no regrets,” says another of his former associates. “But he will be glad to get his testimony over and done with. He wants to get on with his life.”
Wherever that is.