The fall of a would-be bomber

He saw himself as a terror mastermind; RCMP saw it differently

Zakaria Amara and his co-conspirators Saad Khalid and Saad Gaya

Zakaria Amara and his co-conspirators Saad Khalid and Saad Gaya

A few weeks before police busted the so-called “Toronto 18,” Zakaria Amara was working one of his typical afternoon shifts at a Canadian Tire gas station in suburban Mississauga. By then, the RCMP had the entire place bugged. The phone line was tapped, the kiosk was equipped with a hidden microphone, and an undercover surveillance team, parked nearby, was eavesdropping on every word.

On May 1, 2006, at precisely 10:07 p.m., the officers were listening when Amara confided in one of his fellow suspects, telling his friend he “won’t feel sorry” if the cops throw him in jail “as long as I’ve tried my best.” His best, of course, was a bloody plot to set off simultaneous truck bombs at the Toronto Stock Exchange, the downtown headquarters of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and an unnamed military base. As Amara would later boast, “it’s gonna be kicking ass like never before.”

Those wiretap chats were on full display last week when the 24-year-old ringleader entered a surprise guilty plea—a stunning confession that will mean many more years, if not decades, behind bars. Why the abrupt change of heart? It’s not clear just yet. But one thing is absolutely certain: despite what he said at the gas bar that night, Amara can take no comfort in knowing that he “tried his best.” He is painfully aware, three years after his master plan fell apart, that his best could have been so much better. In fact, if the newly disclosed evidence reveals anything, it’s that Zakaria Amara was as sloppy as the police were meticulous.

Though completely dedicated to the cause—mass murder in the name of Allah—Amara was blinded by his arrogance. Time after time, the young Muslim underestimated the authorities, overestimated his chances, and put his faith in all the wrong people (including two RCMP informants). By the time Amara recognized his shortcomings and started acting like a competent criminal—communicating with computer memory sticks, and using a public library instead of his laptop to research explosive materials—it was way too late. The Mounties were already closing in.

Locked in solitary confinement since June 2, 2006, Amara has had nothing but time to reflect on the events that brought him there. In only a few short years, a skinny 16-year-old went from class clown to extremist underling to the mastermind of the country’s most ambitious terrorist plot. In the blunt assessment of one RCMP explosives expert, his plan “would have caused catastrophic damage.” Had he not been caught first.

Like all the suspects rounded up in the raids of 2006, Amara is a Canadian citizen. Born in Jordan on Aug. 18, 1985, he is the only son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother who immigrated to Ontario when he was still a young boy. As a basketball-playing teenager, Amara famously dabbled in poetry and published a personal blog, but it was his ramblings on an extremist website that first caught the attention of CSIS spies. Agents knocked on his door in August 2005, just a few days after his 20th birthday.

At the time, Amara was not yet considered an imminent threat to national security. CSIS was actually much more concerned about one of his friends, another Toronto 18 suspect who is still facing trial and cannot be identified. That November, when agents went back to Amara’s house, he refused to answer their follow-up questions and threatened to phone 911. Two days later, CSIS sent an “advisory letter” to the RCMP, warning them about Amara’s pal. The result was Project Osage, an exhaustive investigation that ended seven months later with the shocking arrests.

At first, the Mounties came to the same conclusion as CSIS. Investigators described Amara as a “trusted lieutenant,” not the leader. When surveillance teams first started tailing his blue Toyota Corolla, it was often parked outside the other suspect’s apartment. And like the man he was visiting, Amara was careless and cocky. More than once, when he realized he was being followed, Amara stopped his car, turned on his video camera, and filmed the undercover officers driving behind him. (Amara also recorded a few innocent motorists, wrongly assuming they were cops.)

His initial lack of judgment was almost laughable. On Nov. 27, 2005, just minutes after meeting an undercover informant named Mubin Shaikh, Amara pulled out a map of Ontario and pointed out potential locations for the group’s upcoming winter “training camp.” He also suggested that Shaikh—a complete stranger up until that night—“take some role in the training.” Before they said their goodbyes, Amara also made sure to highlight the handgun in his pocket and the bullets that matched. They were “hollow points,” he told Shaikh. “Cop killers.”

It wasn’t until January 2006—after the infamous training camp—that Amara began to realize just how foolish he had been. He had pledged his loyalty to an inept leader, and even worse, unnecessarily exposed himself to police scrutiny. His epiphany arrived on a cold Monday night, when the telepphone rang inside the gas station. On the other end of the line was the man from Scarborough, and as police perked up their ears, he told Amara he had sent a video clip of the camping trip to a contact overseas.

“But my face is on it,” Amara said, according to a wiretap viewed by Maclean’s.

“Huh?” the man answered.

“My face is on it,” Amara repeated.

“You can’t even see it, guy.”

“Screw you and I’m screwed now.”

Amara was still furious when he hung up the phone. As Mubin Shaikh later explained: “He was being disciplined as an Islamic fighter, and he stood by his leader. But really he felt that the leader was no longer competent, so he began to exhibit his own leadership.”

Amara—already on the brink of building a remote-controlled detonator—was about to branch out on his own. He was only now beginning to understand, albeit too late, that the best terrorist is the unknown terrorist.

By March 2006, Amara was a fixture at his local library. Assuming that his home computer was compromised, he used the public terminals for his Google searches, which included “ammonium nitrate,” “fertilizer” and “explosive.” During his most memorable visit, officers watched him “work with a soldering iron, spools of wire and batteries.”

Completely oblivious to just how closely he was being watched, Amara also went to work recruiting new accomplices. One of his choices, 19-year-old Saad Khalid, was a boyhood friend, and on March 22 surveillance officers followed the pair as they drove to Hamilton. Once there, they picked up another passenger: 18-year-old Saad Gaya. For the next hour, officers videotaped the threesome strolling through the campus of McMaster University. Gaya—a first-year science student on a full scholarship—eventually agreed to join Amara’s jihad. (A fourth suspect, who also can’t be named because charges are pending, rounded out his new inner circle.)

Amara was feeling confident. He had severed ties with his Scarborough associate and hatched a sinister plot of his own. The only thing left to do was convince the spies following him around that he was no longer a threat. His plan? Assuming that the phones were tapped, Amara called his former friend and left a message with his wife. “Tell him,” he said, “that Zakaria Amara and everybody in Mississauga, we just quit everything.”

The ruse backfired. Badly. Instead of taking Amara at his word, investigators did the opposite: they ramped up their surveillance. After all, if Amara truly had a change of heart, why was he inspecting bags of fertilizer at a hardware store? Why was he asking an electronic salesman about photocell devices, which transform mobile phones into remote-control switches? And why was he using pagers and memory sticks to communicate with Gaya and Khalid? What was he hiding?

In the weeks before the bust, Amara believed he was doing everything in his power to keep his intentions a secret. Only he knew the precise details of the plan; some of his co-conspirators never even met until they were handcuffed and sitting in the back of a paddy wagon. But his covert tactics—the library visits, the pagers, the centralized control—proved no match for police. Without his ever knowing it, investigators repeatedly snuck into his home, copied his laptop, and even X-rayed his safe (one of the items inside was an envelope full of cash).

Amara’s final blunder—the one that will keep him in jail until middle age—occurred on April 7, 2006. Near the end of another eight-hour shift, a chubby man with a thick beard strolled into the Canadian Tire kiosk. His name was Shaher Elsohemy.

Introduced by another suspect a few weeks earlier, Amara and Elsohemy headed to a nearby restaurant, where—for the very first time—the ringleader revealed his plan. Three U-Haul vans. Three remote-controlled detonators. Bags and bags of explosive fertilizer. From across the table, Amara handed Elsohemy a piece of white paper. It read:

Nitric Acid (98% – 95- 90)

Ammonium Nitrate + (1.5 tons)

Amara went home that night thinking he had just placed an order for the chemical concoction needed to wage his holy war. What he didn’t know was that Elsohemy was actually working for the RCMP. The 28-year-old travel agent would spend the next two months helping police orchestrate an elaborate sting operation, then disappear with his family into the witness protection program.

Amara’s guilty plea ensures that the two men will never meet again—in a courtroom or otherwise. For someone who has made so many miscalculations, admitting the truth and avoiding a trial was the only real option. If nothing else, it spares Amara the embarrassment of reliving his failure.