An accused Canadian terrorist on trial for his role in an attempted bomb plot had the full support of his father, a prominent Muslim scholar who assured his son that an attack on Canadian soil was “Islamically correct,” and if innocent civilians are killed, it is “their destiny.”
The damning allegation—which the father vehemently denies—was leveled Tuesday during another round of testimony by Shaher Elsohemy, a civilian informant who was paid more than $4 million to infiltrate the so-called “Toronto 18.” Elsohemy, whose entire family is now in the witness protection program, said Shareef Abdelhaleem sought the advice of his dad, Tariq, before committing himself to mass murder. “Abdelhaleem said he obtained a religious fatwa from his father,” he testified on Tuesday. “He told me his father told him there was nothing wrong with it. In other words, it was acceptable. And if civilians were to be there, that was their destiny.”
With his dad’s approval, Elsohemy said, Abdelhaleem stopped wavering and started acting. He urged the RCMP’s undercover mole to purchase three tonnes of explosive fertilizer, brainstormed ways to profit from an attack, and suggested to the other suspects that, for maximum effect, they trigger the explosions on three consecutive days. “He informed me that by obtaining this fatwa from his father, things are clear for him,” Elsohemy said. “He has no doubts about the Islamic correctness. Had there been before, there is no doubt anymore.”
Tariq Abdelhaleem, Shareef’s father, is a civil engineer by training and a lecturer at the Dar Al-Arqam Islamic Centre in Mississauga, Ont. Until recently, the 67-year-old worked on a contract basis for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the Crown corporation that oversees the country’s nuclear reactors. Because he’s scheduled to testify as a witness for the defence, Tariq is not allowed attend any other part of the hearing. However, when contacted by Maclean’s via e-mail, he called Elsohemy a liar. “I have never said such a thing…what do you expect him to say!” he wrote. “I have been consistent throughout my life, in my writings and speeches, that it is completely un-Islamic to kill any person in Canada or anywhere else.” He added later: “This is [Elsohemy’s] day in court. We will have ours.”
Of the 18 suspects rounded up in the summer of 2006, only four were accused of actually participating in the bomb plot that dominated media coverage of the case. The other suspects, though charged with terrorism crimes, had no idea that a core group was armed with remote-controlled detonators and a list of three targets: the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Toronto headquarters of Canada’s spy agency, and an unnamed military base. All they needed to complete their plan was a deadly batch of explosive fertilizer. Unfortunately for them, the Muslim businessman they trusted to orchestrate that delivery turned out to be on the RCMP’s payroll.
Three of the four bombing suspects, including the ringleader, have since confessed and pleaded guilty, but Abdelhaleem is fighting the charges in court, claiming he had no knowledge of what the others were planning, and that Shaher Elsohemy was motivated by dollar signs, not the truth. When his trial finally began on Monday, he laid eyes on his old “friend” for the first time in almost four years.
Although much has been made of the mole’s hefty compensation (many in the Muslim community have branded Elsohemy a traitor) his payday garnered barely a mention during his first two days on the witness stand. Instead, Elsohemy provided a blow-by-blow account of how he went from an Air Canada flight attendant with a slew of side businesses to the Mounties’ primary asset inside the country’s biggest anti-terror bust. Among the many revelations, one thing is now clear: there is a long history of bad blood between the Elsohemys and the Abdelhaleems.
Their paths first crossed in 2004, when Elsohemy, looking to pursue a “proper Islamic education,” enrolled in weekend classes at Dar Al-Arqam. His teacher was Tariq Abdelhaleem; Shareef was one of his classmates. “Our relationship started to go from there,” he testified. They went to the gym together, ate Chinese food, and later booked a weeklong vacation to Morocco with Elsohemy’s younger brother. That’s when the trouble began.
Near the end of the trip, Abdelhaleem accused the younger brother of stealing his money; Elsohemy sided with his friend, forcing his sibling to hand over the cash. Back in Canada, things only got worse. When someone smashed the front windshield of Abdelhaleem’s convertible BMW, he again pointed the finger at Elsohemy’s little brother. And this time, Tariq—his teacher—joined in on the accusations. “I had respect for both Shareef and Tariq Abdelhaleem, but things became a little bit shaky,” Elsohemy testified. “The threats were just increasing.” By the end of 2005, Shaher and Shareef were no longer speaking to one another.
In yet another twist, Elsohemy was dealing with a separate headache at the same time: U.S. Customs. For reasons that remain unclear, the Americans wouldn’t let him board a Miami-bound jet, jeopardizing his job as a flight attendant. Air Canada, he says, told him to stay home until the matter was resolved. Then, in December 2005, he received a surprise phone call from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The spy agency wanted a meeting, and he happily obliged, anxious to clear up any misunderstanding about his border problems.
He was so anxious, in fact, that he offered the CSIS agent a juicy hypothesis: Maybe the Americans are suspicious of me because Tariq Abdelhaleem is my teacher?
Indeed, the elder Abdelhaleem is no stranger to CSIS. Long before the son was accused of plotting death and destruction, Canada’s spies were keeping a close eye on the father. Abdelhaleem himself admits that his phones are tapped and his e-mails are monitored. Why? “Because I talk,” he told Maclean’s two years ago. “But I don’t condone violence. I never condone violence. I swear to God—to Allah in heaven—if I know somebody is going to do this, the first thing to do is to go and report it. I’m not going to hesitate for one second. It’s totally wrong to kill innocent people. How can you kill innocent people? It’s not in my book.”
After his son was taken into custody, Tariq launched captiveincanada.com, a website that “appeals to the Canadian intellect and conscience” to learn the truth about his son and the rest of the “Toronto 18.” In a post published five months ago, Abdelhaleem revealed that CSIS “denied me a permit to enter my job site as a Nuclear Planner; a job I held for the last 20 years in Canada.” He continued: “It is obvious that the agency has determined that I am a dangerous person, all of a sudden, in spite of the fact that I have no role [in] the so called ‘terror’ plot, or, otherwise, I would be in a cell room wearing an orange jumper!” (Whether CSIS has truly banned him from nuclear plants has not been independently confirmed).
In February 2006, Shareef Abdelhaleem rekindled his relationship with Elsohemy, right around the time he started working with CSIS, and later, the RCMP. Elsohemy testified that his friend was a changed man. A talented computer programmer who earned a six-figure income was suddenly obsessed with jihad videos and joining the fight in Afghanistan. By April 2006, he was obsessed with something else: planting truck bombs in downtown Toronto. A heavy man with a dark black beard and a shaved head, Abdelhaleem is now facing two charges under the Criminal Code: participation in a terrorist organization, and intent to cause an explosion. Despite the other confessions, he is considered innocent unless proven guilty.
Maclean’s requested an interview with him last week, but through his father, he declined. During a series of jailhouse discussions in 2008, however, Abdelhaleem professed his innocence and vowed to sue the federal government after his acquittal. “I was not involved,” he said. “I am just listening to people talking. I didn’t do anything, I didn’t build no damn detonator, I didn’t pay for anything, I didn’t rent anything. It wasn’t my idea.”
When asked about Elsohemy, he answered this way: “I always knew what a low-life he was. I don’t care to see him in my life again, but I need him to go on the stand so I can get the answers I want so I can walk. Let’s put it this way: He has reason to lie. He has very strong motivations, which will come up in court.”
The informant is back on the stand Wednesday morning.