Canada's political and social landscape continues to be shaken and shaped by the country's highest profile "terror" case since 9/11, reports Hicham Safieddine
For over a week now, Canada has been gripped by the arrest and upcoming trial of 17 young Canadians accused of plotting all sorts of attacks on government and civilian targets across the country.
While little evidence has publicly emerged so far of the alleged terror plots, the country has been rattled by claims of its own citizens masterminding these acts of violence. The acts purportedly include storming the parliament and beheading the prime minister as well as using three tonnes of ammonium nitratethree times the tonnage used in the Oklahoma bombingsto blast sensitive targets such as the headquarters of Canada's spy agency CSIS in Toronto. The case is proving to be a watershed in the country's approach to the so-called war on terror. It coincides with the ongoing revision of Canada's anti-terror laws, a growing debate over the extension of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan, and ahead of the country's supreme court ruling over the constitutionality of security certificates under which five non-Canadian "terror" suspects have been detained without charges or trial for several years.
"It is a very dramatic incident and you cannot presume the conclusion of this trial...but it has shaken up our communities and the reaction has been varied," says Omar Alghabra, a Syrian-born Liberal Member of Parliament who represents part of the city of Mississauga near Toronto, where the majority of the suspects hail from.
All accounts of events so far are primarily based on government security and law enforcement officials. According to these sources, the uncovering of this "terrorist" cell dates back to a Fall 2004 investigation into a group of disaffected youths from the Greater Toronto Area who were expounding their "anti-western" views on an Internet chat room. Police interest peaked as the group under surveillance began frequenting a "training camp" in a rural area north of Toronto.
The police claim that the members of the group tried to procure farm fertiliser ammonium nitrate, which could easily be transformed into highly explosive material. Police launched a sting operation and managed sometime in early May or late April of this year to pose as the sellers of the potentially explosive material, delivering a harmless powder instead. On Friday 2 June, more than a dozen arrest teams swept through parts of the Greater Toronto Area and captured the suspects. A handful of them have emerged as the possible main players. These include the oldest in the group, 43-year-old Qayyum Abdul-Jamal, who police say inspired radical Islamic ideology in other suspects at a prayer centre in Mississauga.
Another high-profile detainee is Steven Vikash Chand, who converted to Islam and became known as Abdul-Shakur. Chand was a Canadian soldier for four years and he is accused of planning to behead Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Following the arrests, Harper, who is currently heading a minority conservative government, praised the security forces for their work and made statements reminiscent of those uttered by US President George W Bush following the September 11 attacks.
"We are a target because of who we are and how we live, our society, our diversity and our values," Harper said in Ottawa the following day. "Their alleged target was Canada: Canadian institutions, the Canadian economy, the Canadian people."
It is not clear whether the group was acting on its own or is part of a larger international network, and reported links with cells abroad have not been confirmed.
Leaders of the Muslim community have come out in support of treating the suspects as criminals should the allegations prove true. Nonetheless, political pundits argue that regardless of the outcome of the trial, the negative effect on the level of trust between the Muslim community and the rest of Canadians at large is hard to ignore.
Alghabra told Al-Ahram Weeklythat this has been a huge setback for the Muslim and Arab communities in Canada who have been trying to stave off constant undermining of their allegiance to Canada and their ability to assimilate into the larger community. The fact that all the accused, five of which are under the age of 18 and could not be identified, come from a Muslim background has unleashed a wave of debate about whether these estranged individuals were planning to act out of radical opposition to Canada's pro-US foreign policy or based on what Harper claims to be a divorce from and hatred for Canada's way of life.
Either way, fear and anxiety over the phenomenon of "homegrown terror" has finally reached the shores of Canada. It is likely to leave its mark on the country's psyche and future notwithstanding the innocence or guilt of the most notorious 17 suspects in Canada today.