A star informant resurfaces - Macleans.ca

A star informant resurfaces

Shaher Elsohemy was paid handsomely for his information on the Toronto 18. Was he worth it?

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A Muslim businessman who was paid more than $4 million to help the RCMP bust a group of Toronto terrorists showed his face for the first time today, testifying against one of the suspects he famously double-crossed.

It was the stuff of courtroom drama: after more than three years in hiding, Shaher Elsohemy resurfaced through the back door of a Brampton, Ont., courtroom, escorted by two plainclothes security officials. The man on trial—34-year-old Shareef Abdelhaleem—stared at his old “friend” as he strolled to the witness stand, but Elsohemy never looked back. He simply spelled his name for the clerk, took off his trench coat, and proceeded to explain his covert role in the country’s largest-ever anti-terror bust.

Although the suspects have been dubbed the “Toronto 18,” Elsohemy is connected to only four of them: the core group accused of planning a triple bomb attack on Canadian soil (the others, though charged with terrorism crimes, were not involved in the bomb conspiracy). Elsohemy infiltrated the inner circle, shared their deadly plans with police, and helped purchase what the group thought was three tonnes of explosive fertilizer. When the delivery truck arrived, the cops moved in—and Elsohemy vanished into the witness protection program.

As first reported in Maclean’s, the Mounties’ prized informant was paid handsomely for his undercover assistance: cash, cars and homes for himself, his wife, his daughter, his parents and his two brothers, all of whom abandoned their former identities in the name of national security and are now living at an undisclosed location. The multi-million-dollar deal included a “pure award” of $500,000 for Elsohemy, $900,000 for a house, $50,000 to pay off his debts, and $40,000 for his wife’s dental bills.

Since the arrests, three of the four bombing suspects have confessed and pleaded guilty, but Abdelhaleem—a talented computer programmer with a six-figure salary and a convertible BMW—has chosen to fight the charges in court. Though considered innocent unless proven guilty, he must overcome piles of incriminating evidence, including allegations that he planned to profit from the attack by short-selling stocks in the days before the bombings. A damning statement from the admitted ringleader, Zakaria Amara, also describes Abdelhaleem as a loyal deputy who ordered the chemicals, delivered envelopes full of cash, and boasted that their plot was “the perfect crime.”

But the man who foiled that crime has some explaining to do, too. If nothing else, Abdelhaleem’s decision to roll the dice in court means that Elsohemy must answer some uncomfortable questions that have lingered since the moment he disappeared. What exactly was his motivation? Is he, as many Canadians believe, a heroic figure who left everything behind in order to prevent a catastrophe? Or, as others insist, is he the quintessential rat, a smooth-talking, debt-prone entrepreneur who jumped at the chance to sell out fellow Muslims? As the defence will certainly point out during cross-examination, the RCMP’s high-priced agent demanded a whopping $15.4 million during his first meeting with investigators, nearly four times what he eventually settled on.

“That’s one of the problems the Crown has: a $4.1 million payoff for this is pretty steep—unprecedented in Canada as far as I understand,” William Naylor, Abdelhaleem’s lawyer, told reporters outside the courthouse. “Some people may want to get the $4.1 million before they get too concerned about the search for the truth.”

On the stand this afternoon, Elsohemy began to outline his version of the truth—and it’s clear that he is bracing for an inevitable attack on his credibility. When asked by the Crown about his business experience, he conceded that his first venture, a catering firm, was a flop, and that he racked up significant debts in the process, including $6,000 to an unnamed investor and thousands more to his parents. He also admitted that he once discussed paying an associate to create a false credit report, but eventually decided against it. In one of the strangest exchanges of the day, a prosecutor asked Elsohemy how much he and his family received on top of his $500,000 “pure award.” He repeatedly claimed he couldn’t remember—even though the $4.1 million payment has been mentioned countless times in the press.

“Ballpark?” the prosecutor asked him.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

What he did provide, though, were many fresh details about how he became the key figure in an RCMP sting operation.

Born in Mississauga, Ont., in 1978, Elsohemy moved to his parents’ home country of Egypt when he was seven years old. He attended high school and university in Alexandria, earning a degree in agriculture engineering before moving back to Ontario is his early 20s. A few months later he was hired as an Air Canada flight attendant, a job that paid the bills while he pursued his real dream: a company of his own.

There were many start-ups. He rented furnished apartment buildings, launched a company that helped new immigrants settle in Canada, and started a travel agency specializing in Egyptian tours. “In my opinion, I think it was successful,” he said when asked about the travel company.

Near the end of 2004, Elsohemy said he was looking to obtain a “proper Islamic education.” One of his brothers later introduced him to Abdelhaleem, whose father, Tariq, operates an Islamic school in Mississauga. “Our relationship started to go from there,” said Elsohemy, a stocky, well-spoken man dressed in a dark suit and a striped tie.

The two soon became such good friends that they vacationed together in Morocco, along with Elsohemy’s younger brother. But the trip, which occurred in early 2005, turned sour when Abdelhaleem accused the brother of stealing his cash. Back in Canada, things only got worse. Someone smashed the front windshield of Abdelhaleem’s convertible, and he pointed the finger, yet again, at Elsohemy’s brother. His father did, too. “I had respect for both Shareef and Tariq Abdelhaleem, but things became a little bit shaky,” Elsohemy testified. “He became aggressive in the things he said he was going to do.”

Elsohemy offered to pay for the damaged windshield, but Abdelhaleem later refused. “He told me to consider it a gift for my newly born daughter,” Elsohemy said. He accepted, but by the fall of 2005 the two men were no longer speaking to each other.

Around the same time, Elsohemy was dealing with another headache: U.S. Customs. The agency had recently refused to let him board a Miami-bound plane, which meant he could no longer perform his job as a flight attendant. Air Canada, he says, told him to stay home until the issue was resolved, and he hired a Montreal lawyer to get to the bottom of the problem. Then, in December 2005, he received a surprise phone call from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada’s spy agency. The agent requested a meeting, and Elsohemy—anxious to settle the misunderstanding with U.S. Customs—happily agreed. “I said: ‘Ask me any questions and I will answer them. I want to clear this matter up.’ ”

During a second meeting, the anonymous CSIS agent began showing Elsohemy a series of photographs. One of the shots was of Shareef Abdelhaleem.

A few weeks later, in February 2006, Elsohemy received another surprise: an MSN message from his old friend. Abdelhaleem wanted to reconnect. “I was concerned with the timing,” he testified. “My second meeting with CSIS was in January, and soon after I’m receiving contact from Shareef. I thought it could have been CSIS checking on me.”

He was wrong. After a few more text messages, the pair agreed to get together for dinner. According to Elsohemy, Abdelhaleem—a man who made good money developing custom-made databases for drug companies—was now obsessed with watching jihad videos and extremist lectures. Elsohemy passed that information to CSIS, but the agents told him that Abdelhaleem was not their primary worry. “The concern was another individual working at a Canadian Tire gas station,” he testified.

That individual was Zakaria Amara, a young father who had built and perfected a remote-controlled detonator, and was obsessed with obtaining the missing ingredients: nitric acid and ammonium nitrate. In Elsohemy’s words, CSIS instructed him to befriend Amara and “dangle” the fact that he was an agriculture major and knows a thing or two about fertilizers. “The trust level started growing,” he said.

In the early morning hours of April 8, 2006, after just a few meetings with his new acquaintance, Amara laid out his master plan: three bombs, three U-Haul trucks, and three locations (the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Toronto headquarters of CSIS, and an unnamed military base). Four days later, CSIS introduced Elsohemy to RCMP investigators, who were already knee-deep in a criminal investigation against Amara and his accomplices. The Mounties were anxious for his help—and willing to pay top dollar for it.

According to an RCMP briefing note written days after the first sit-down, Elsohemy wanted more than $15 million and a “comfortable lifestyle” in exchange for his services, arguing that “the value of the investigation, i.e., stopping the terrorist act, would be worthy of that amount if there was no damage to life or property.” Investigators countered with a figure closer to $2.5 million, and by the beginning of May—less than a month before the bust—both sides settled on the $4 million figure. Now a police agent, Elsohemy was rigged with a wire and ordered to convince Amara and Abdelhaleem that his “uncle” could provide the chemicals they craved. Those details will emerge tomorrow, when Elsohemy retakes the stand.