It’s been 2½ years since Hani Al Telbani, luggage in tow, was sent home from Montreal’s Trudeau Airport—the first-ever casualty of Canada’s “no-fly list.” Since then, the young Muslim has proclaimed his innocence again and again, insisting that he is “not a danger to the public” and has been “unjustly associated with terrorism.” Telbani is so certain of his version of events that he is even suing the federal government, demanding $550,000 for the “stigma, humiliation, contempt, hatred and ridicule” he has endured because of Ottawa’s “errors.”
Only now, after its own legal fight, can Maclean’s finally reveal the other side of his story.
According to newly released evidence from CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, Hani Al Telbani was one of the devoted administrators of a notorious but now defunct Web forum dedicated to “virtual jihad.” From his fifth-floor apartment in the suburb of Longueuil, Que., the computer engineering grad allegedly posted messages and offered detailed technical support to fellow members of al-Ekhlaas, a militant, password-protected site frequented by thousands of hard-core Islamists—and used by al-Qaeda to broadcast fresh messages from Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Telbani’s online alias was “Mujahid Taqni” (Technical Jihad).
A Palestinian from Saudi Arabia, Telbani immigrated to Quebec in 2004 and, according to CSIS, soon began offering “information security instruction” for the “benefit of the extremist movement.” In fact, the spy service claims he was involved in publishing an infamous online magazine—Technical Mujahid—that distributed how-to articles on everything from data protection to creating “professional” videos to “eliminating the phobia and anxiety that some people feel and which hinders them from participating actively in jihad because they assume that intelligence services are counting their breaths and monitoring their every move.” The magazine made headlines when it first appeared in 2006, but until now, its Canadian connection was unknown.
The second edition, published in February 2007, may have been Telbani’s undoing. It featured a lengthy story, written under the byline Abul-Harith al-Dilimi, that explained how to launch a shoulder-fired Stinger missile. “This type of weapon is highly effective in shooting down aircraft of all kinds,” it said.
Now 28, Telbani has been branded “an immediate threat to aviation security” and banned from the skies. Along with his civil lawsuit, he is battling Ottawa in Federal Court, hoping to convince a judge that his name should be removed from the no-fly database (officially known as the “Specified Persons List”). In the process, his lawyers also asked that the evidence against him remain sealed, claiming that the accusations are so prejudicial that his reputation would never recover from the publicity. “This will irreversibly tag me as an active terrorist in a very detailed and specific manner,” he said in an affidavit. “My life, liberty and security would be at risk.”
A lawyer for Maclean’s objected to the confidentiality motion, arguing that Telbani’s concerns do not trump the fundamental principle that justice must be rendered openly and publicly. On Jan. 19, the chief justice of the Federal Court agreed—lifting the veil on Telbani’s mysterious predicament.
The unsealed documents, including the synopsis of a coffee-shop chat between Telbani and two CSIS operatives, reveal exactly why the service was keeping such a close eye on “Mujahid Taqni” and his al-Ekhlaas postings. “The activities of the forum are devoted to the support of Mujahideens fighting the infidels in conflict zones,” it reads. “Telbani entirely supports and approves the war fought by the insurgents against the army troops in Iraq.” Confronted by the agents, Telbani insisted he “has never criticized Canadian foreign policy and appreciates his life in Canada,” and “has never done harm to Canada and has no intention of doing anything that would go against the interests of Canada.”
When asked about his connection to the forum, Telbani allegedly explained that he has never met his online contacts and hasn’t revealed to anyone “the role he holds within the virtual jihadist movement.” He then “mentioned that his father would be in complete disagreement with his jihadist cyber-activities if he was to find out about them.”
While the revelations fill in many of the blanks surrounding Telbani’s precedent-setting case, they also raise just as many new questions about the scope of our no-fly list—and what it takes for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to label someone an “immediate threat” to fellow passengers. As previously reported in Maclean’s, independent security experts hired by the government to review Telbani’s file concluded that the evidence (still secret at the time, but available to them) was too “vague and incomplete” to keep him off a plane. “We have not been able to identify a discernible threat, immediate or otherwise,” the consultants wrote.
The latest disclosure will no doubt reignite the debate. Clearly, Telbani and his online chatter made him a legitimate target, and CSIS had every reason to knock on his door and ask some questions. (If Telbani is correct, the agents also promised that his problems would disappear if he worked with them.) But to this day, he has never been charged with a crime. While dozens of other accused terrorists have been rounded up in Canadian police raids—including last week’s arrest of Sayfilden Tahir Sharif, an Edmonton man who allegedly helped organize a pipeline for would-be suicide bombers in Iraq—Telbani is stuck in a sort of national security limbo: too dangerous to fly, though not quite dangerous enough to put on trial.
One thing, though, is certain: Transport Canada, the department in charge of the no-fly list, is still convinced that the name Hani Al Telbani should never appear on a boarding pass. In a letter disclosed in court, Yaprak Baltacioglu, the deputy minister, said she examined all the evidence: the CSIS file, excerpts from Technical Mujahid, and the report of the independent consultants. “As deputy minister, I have the obligation to promote aviation security,” she wrote. “In honoring my responsibilities, I cannot ignore pertinent information.” That information, she said, points to one conclusion: “It is reasonable to suspect that Mr. Al Telbani poses a threat to aviation security.”
Unveiled in 2007, the Passenger Protect program is a delicate balance between a person’s right to free movement and another person’s right not to be killed by a hijacker. Unlike the American maze of anti-terror watch lists, which have ballooned to the point of near uselessness, the Canadian system was designed to thwart the worst of the worst. Authorities must conclude that a person is involved in a terrorist group and shows signs of potentially “endangering” an aircraft, or has been convicted of a serious crime that suggests he may “attack or harm an air carrier.” The list reportedly contains up to 2,000 names (Transport Canada will not confirm that figure) and if you’re on it, you won’t find out until you try to check in.
Telbani didn’t know it at the time, but he was nominated for inclusion on May 8, 2008, during a meeting of the “Specified Persons List Advisory Group,” a three-member panel with officials from Transport, CSIS and the RCMP. The spy service, which was already monitoring his online posts, made the recommendation. The others concurred.
Back then, Telbani was an anonymous master’s student at Concordia University’s Institute for Systems Engineering, where he studied “innovative applications to a wide range of information systems,” including, in the school’s words, “security, cryptography and embedded systems engineering as they apply to sectors such as banking, manufacturing and aerospace.” A permanent resident, his application for Canadian citizenship was pending (and still is). Two weeks after that meeting, Telbani paid $1,535 for a round-trip ticket to Riyadh, via Heathrow. His plan, he says, was to visit his family and renew his residency status in Saudi Arabia, which was set to expire. His flight was scheduled to leave Montreal on June 4, a Wednesday.
That Monday, two CSIS agents showed up at his apartment. They identified themselves as Patrick and John, and asked Telbani to get in their car and drive with them to a nearby café. He reluctantly agreed. It was there, the government claims, that “Mujahid Taqni” admitted the truth about his alter ego. “As for the intentions of al-Ekhlaas, Mr. Al Telbani indicated that as far as he’s concerned, the support of the fighters by those on the forum is not operational, but rather moral,” the spies later wrote. (According to CSIS, Telbani was so concerned about snooping eyes that he filtered his emails through a special software program that bounced them across five different IP addresses.)
The next day, one of the agents contacted Telbani again and asked him to meet at a hotel. This time, he refused. That same day, a warning began to circulate on a number of extremist websites: “My brothers, one among us has betrayed the forums and their members and is co-operating with kufar [enemy]. Mujahid Taqni has been compromised; do not expect his return. He let them in the forums and now it’s only a matter of time.”
The following day, Telbani was turned away from Trudeau Airport. Nearly three years later, he remains the only person ever denied boarding as a result of Canada’s no-fly list.
Among his flurry of appeals, Telbani filed a grievance with the Office of Reconsideration, a Transport Canada wing that was specifically created to deal with no-fly complaints. It was that appeal that led to the findings of the independent consultants, who urged the feds to remove him from the list. (They also encouraged Ottawa to double-check all the evidence used to justify each name on the list.) Unfortunately for Telbani, the Reconsideration Office has no actual power. The same officials who blacklisted him in the first place not only ignored the recommendation, but criticized the consultants for failing to grasp “the workings of terrorist activity and just how such attacks could unfold.”
Telbani’s appeal did accomplish one thing: it triggered a “thorough discussion” about the definition of “immediate threat.” The result? In the eyes of anti-terror authorities, the concept of immediacy is no longer “confined to the element of time. For these purposes, immediacy also relates to the likelihood of an individual attempting an action in the future.” Or, to quote one CSIS document: “Immediate is not black and white.”
What’s next is difficult to predict. Even if Telbani wanted to leave the country, he is not allowed. His master’s degree is also on hold; he dropped out in 2009, apparently overwhelmed by the stress of his new-found infamy. And neither he nor his lawyer, Johanne Doyon, is speaking to the media.
In court filings, however, Telbani continues to insist that he is not a danger to anyone, on board or otherwise. He claims he was “arbitrarily arrested, detained and interrogated” by the CSIS spies that day, and peppered with “trick, suggestive, repetitive and incomprehensible questions.” The agents “accused me of having allegedly admitted terrorist activities,” he says, and not once does he concede to ever visiting al-Ekhlaas.net. As he wrote in one affidavit: “I have always conducted myself well and have a good reputation within the community.”
If CSIS is correct, his reputation in the community of online jihad was far more impressive. Before being taken down in late 2008 (the exact circumstances are still a mystery), the al-Ekhlaas site was a virulent, highly trafficked forum for all things al-Qaeda. “You have multiple administrators within these types of forums, and to reach that position it means somebody has gained the trust of the senior guys who host this site,” says Jarret Brachman, managing director of Cronus Global and a senior counterterrorism adviser to the American government. “An administrator has the privilege to grant access to anybody, to remove posts, and to manage the day-to-day functioning of the website and the users who are on it.”
In other words, the man known as “Mujahid Taqni” was a key player on a key al-Qaeda website.
Brachman is not convinced, as CSIS seems to be, that Telbani published Technical Mujahid. That magazine was the work of al-Fajr, al-Qaeda’s media wing, and would have been “blessed from the top,” he says. “Usually al-Fajr has its own liaisons to each forum, so maybe he was that guy—the intermediary between al-Fajr and the forum. But without more details, it’s hard to know.”
Either way, Brachman still believes that Telbani—if he really is Mujahid Taqni—belongs on the no-fly list. “It used to be two separate worlds: the online and the physical,” he says. “There were those who did and those who talked. But that world has blurred over the last few years. It is now a very short step from posting propaganda to strapping on a bomb. The metrics are changing for what it means to be a threat.”