For a man who insists he is innocent, Shareef Abdelhaleem sure spent a lot of time worrying about police surveillance teams. The accused Canadian terrorist was so afraid of being photographed by CSIS and the RCMP that he grew increasingly paranoid about meeting in certain places or being seen with certain people, especially outdoors. Three weeks before being rounded up as part of the “Toronto 18”, he asked Zakaria Amara—the group’s confessed ringleader—whether he thought the authorities were watching him. “No,” he assured him. “Not anymore.”
The irony, of course, is that Abdelhaleem’s every word—including that chat with Amara—was being secretly recorded by the very investigators he was desperate to dodge. As he now painfully realizes, anti-terror cops used at least two tiny microphones to capture his conversations: one inside the Canadian Tire gas station where Amara worked, and another hidden somewhere on the body of a police informant named Shaher Elsohemy. In other words, whenever Abdelhaleem mused about whether police were watching him, he was speaking directly to them.
Abdelhaleem’s stress level about being caught fluctuated depending on the day, says Elsohemy, who is now testifying at the criminal trial of his old “friend.” On May 15, 2006, for example, Abdelhaleem told the RCMP’s undercover asset that “he does not believe authorities know anything about this plot.” Three days later, though, he said a CSIS spy followed he and Amara as they drove around Mississauga. “He told me they went after [the CSIS agent] and tried to check him out,” Elsohemy testified on Wednesday. “They videotaped him, too. Mr. Abdelhaleem believed his picture was taken, too.”
Now 34, Abdelhaleem is charged with participating in a now-infamous terrorist plot to detonate truck bombs at three locations in southern Ontario, including the Toronto Stock Exchange. Although 18 suspects were rounded up in the sensational raids of June 2, 2006, only four were accused of actually participating in the bomb conspiracy. Three of those men, including the mastermind Amara, have since pleaded guilty, but Abdelhaleem has chosen to fight the charges in court. He denies any involvement, and claims that the RCMP’s prized informant cannot be believed because he was paid $4 million for his covert services.
Despite the other confessions, Abdelhaleem is considered innocent until proven guilty. However, in order to walk away a free man, he must convince a judge that he was oblivious to a murderous plot that clearly unfolded right under his nose—and, as the wiretaps reveal, he spent hours talking about.
“He described it as ‘the perfect crime,’ ” said Elsohemy, answering questions from the prosecution. “He said this plot will screw Stephen Harper, the government and the military, and might lead to Canada puling its troops out of Afghanistan because they are not tough like the British and the Americans.”
A former Air Canada flight attendant with a university degree in agricultural engineering, Elsohemy infiltrated the group by “dangling” his ability to acquire large quantities of explosive fertilizer from his “uncle’s” company. Amara, who had already built and perfected a cell phone-controlled detonator, trusted Elsohemy enough to place a $5,500 order for three tonnes of ammonium nitrate, the missing component of his would-be bombs.
According to Elsohemy, Abdelhaleem was Amara’s loyal deputy—the buffer between the ringleader and his newfound chemical supplier. It was Abdelhaleem, Elsohemy said, who placed Amara’s order, delivered envelopes full of cash, and boasted that their attack would “shut down” the entire country.
Testifying for the third consecutive day, Elsohemy said Abdelhaleem was obsessed with every aspect of the plot, from how to store the fertilizer to how to profit from the explosion. “Shareef went to a library and checked the stock market situation after Sept. 11th,” he testified. “He said our money could be increased seven times.”
In one breath, Abdelhaleem talked about fleeing the country 15 days before the attack (perhaps to his sister’s house in Cleveland) in order to avoid suspicion. In the next, he talked about being sentenced to ten years at Kingston Penitentiary, “where he will be considered a leader” by other Muslim inmates. “He also explained to me that when he thinks about being arrested, it is only after the fact, after the bombings,” said Elsohemy, a stocky, well-spoken man with a bald head and a pair of glasses. “He never imagined that the arrests would happen before the bombs were detonated.”
As for those bombs, Elsohemy said Abdelhaleem relished in the carnage they would cause. One of the three selected targets, the CSIS headquarters in downtown Toronto, “will be affected from the main floor to the top floor,” Abdelhaleem said. “There will be blood, glass and debris everywhere.” In his words, the attack will be dubbed “The Battle of Toronto.”
But of all the tough talking he did in the weeks leading up to the arrests, surveillance was a recurring theme. According to Elsohemy, Abdelhaleem believed that because he was in charge of purchasing the ammonium nitrate—and not driving one of the three truck bombs—he could be not convicted of a serious offence. “He said he will probably be charged with assisting, but not performing,” said Elsohemy, who has yet to be cross-examined. “In his opinion, as he described it to me, he thought there was a difference between assisting and performing. If he didn’t drive the truck, that was not performing.”
In some ways, it’s hard to blame Abdelhaleem for his flawed logic. Determined to keep his plot a secret, Amara didn’t share every aspect with every accomplice. Two of his underlings—Saad Khalid and Saad Gaya—were tasked with renting a storage facility and unloading the delivery of ammonium nitrate. Two others—Abdelhaleem (allegedly) and Elsohemy—were in charge of securing the chemicals. The parallel groups never crossed paths. In fact, Abdelhaleem did not even meet his two Saads until they were arrested and thrown in the same prison wing.
Which is exactly the way Abdelhaleem preferred it, Elsohemy said. In the days before the bust, Elsohemy began to press Amara for more details. He wanted to know how the detonators worked, how many people were involved in the plot, and when the event would occur. When Amara suggested that the three of them meet at a Toronto park to discuss specifics, Abdelhaleem refused. He didn’t want to draw any further attention to himself, Elsohemy said, and he questioned his friend for wanting to know so much. “It’s better not to know,” he said, according to Elsohemy. “If you are arrested and you go under a lie detector test, if you don’t know something, you don’t know it.” Translation: Abdelhaleem was more than happy to be a naïve accomplice, because the consequences were far less severe.
Instead of a meeting, Amara suggested that Elsohemy record his questions on a USB memory stick and hand it to Abdelhaleem. Again, Abdelhaleem was furious. “You shouldn’t ask questions about things that don’t involve you.” But Abdelhaleem did as he was told, Elsohemy said. He delivered the USB stick to Amara.
On March 26, one week before Elsohemy and his entire family vanished into the witness protection program, he met the ringleader at the Café de Khan restaurant in Mississauga, in the same strip mall as the Al-Rahman Islamic Centre, the mosque where they attended Friday prayers. Amara handed him a USB stick. It included an audio message with answers to all of Elsohemy’s questions, and a short video depicting his homemade detonator in action (on the carpet of Amara’s living room, surrounded by his daughter’s toys).
Later that day, Elsohemy drove to an RCMP safe house and handed the memory stick to investigators. Played in court on Wednesday, Amara’s message assures Elsohemy that “nobody even knows you exist”—except two people. Amara. And Shareef Abdelhaleem.
The informant is back on the stand Friday morning.