A homegrown Islamic terrorist cell that adhered to al-Qaida principles and was bent on wreaking havoc and bloodshed in Canada clearly existed, a judge ruled yesterday in finding a youth guilty of active membership in the group.
In the first verdict under Canada's new anti-terrorism laws, Ontario Superior Court Justice John Sproat rejected defence assertions the Toronto-area plot was nothing more than "musings and fantasies.''
"It might well have been said prior to Sept. 11, 2001, that a plan to kill thousands and destroy landmark buildings in lower Manhattan and Washington had no possibility of implementation,'' Sproat said.
Sproat dismissed defence assertions the group's co-leader -- the youth's friend and mentor -- was a self-aggrandizing liar who simply talked an ugly extremist game.
"I also reject the argument that (the alleged ringleader) was a hapless fanatic who posed no risk.''
The 20-year-old accused, who cannot be named because he was 17 at the time of his offences, showed little emotion as the verdict was read.
His mother, sitting in the jammed courtroom with other relatives and supporters, wept quietly as the 94-page judgment was handed down and her son was led back into custody.
He faces a maximum 10-year sentence.
"Realistically, he was found to be a peripheral member of the group and hopefully the court will recognize that,'' his lawyer, Mitchell Chernovsky, said.
In the summer of 2006, an intense investigation involving Canada's spy agency and the RCMP ended with the arrests of 18 people in the Toronto area and the seizure of apparent bomb-making materials.
Police alleged the suspects planned to buy weapons and set off truck bombs using three tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
The case took a stunning turn when allegations surfaced that the ringleaders had talked about plans to storm Parliament, take MPs hostage and behead the prime minister.
"The purpose was to intimidate the public and politicians in order to secure a change in government policy and release of Muslim prisoners,'' Sproat said.
Seven accused have since had their charges stayed or dropped.
Ten other suspects -- who cannot be named under a court order -- have yet to stand trial and no date has been set. The judge named five of them as members of the terrorist conspiracy but said others may have been involved as well.
Much of the prosecution's case turned on the evidence of RCMP informant Mubin Shaikh, who was paid $300,000 to infiltrate the group.
Sproat was unequivocal in his remarks about Shaikh, who admitted buying ammunition and shooting a gun in front of a participants at what the Crown called a terrorist-training camp north of Toronto.
"The defence did not seriously challenge Mr. Shaikh's credibility,'' Sproat said. "I found him to be a truthful and generally reliable witness.''
Besides, the judge said, other evidence corroborated Shaikh's story and evidence the terrorist group existed was "overwhelming.''
Outside court, Shaikh said he felt vindicated by the judge's findings but insisted, as he did during his testimony, the youth did not know what the group was up to.
"I don't believe he's a terrorist. I don't believe he should have been put through what he was put through, but that's our system,'' Shaikh said.
National security expert Wesley Wark said Canada's fledgling legislation criminalizing terrorism as a distinct offence -- enacted in the aftermath of the 9-11 atrocities in the U.S. -- passed its first big test with yesterday's decision.
"We're starting to wake up to an appreciation that the anti-terrorism laws that we passed in 2001 are actually quite tough,'' said Wark, with the Munk Centre for International Studies.
The law will undoubtedly face further tests but "so far, so good,'' he said.
Although the youth was found guilty, the judge agreed to hold off on entering a formal conviction until a defence "abuse of process motion" is heard in December.
Essentially, Shaikh was more of an active participant and instigator in criminal activities than a fly-on-the-wall informant, Chernovksy said after the verdict.
Shaikh defended his role.
"Stopping something from happening or even protecting the honour of the Muslims, protecting the honour, the integrity of our country . . . I would do it again a thousand times.''
In his ruling, Sproat rejected defence arguments that two camps organized by the alleged ringleaders were simply a religious retreat or recreational in nature.
Sproat noted participants, including the accused, marched, played paintball games, shot a 9-mm handgun, and heard lectures on waging war on the West during a camp north of Toronto in December 2005.
"It is inconceivable to me that by the end of the camp there was any doubt about its purpose,'' the judge said.
KEY EVENTS IN THE CASE OF THE TERRORIST SUSPECTS KNOWN AS THE TORONTO 18:
A dozen people attend a 12-day military-style camp north of Toronto, which the Crown alleges was for terrorist training.
Group attends a second two-day camp near Guelph.
June 2, 2006
Police carry out a series of raids in the Toronto area and arrest 10 men and five youths. Two other suspects are already jailed in Kingston. One more suspect is arrested in August.
June 6, 2006
A lawyer for an adult suspect says outside court that his client is accused of planning to storm Parliament, behead the prime minister and attack a number of sites.
June 27, 2006
The two youngest suspects -- they were 15 and 17 when arrested -- are denied bail by a justice of the peace.
July 13, 2006
Mubin Shaikh, a prominent member of Toronto's Indo-Canadian Muslim community, reveals he worked as a paid RCMP informant during the investigation.
July 14, 2006
A teen suspect is granted bail, making him the first of the group to be released.
Jan. 16, 2007
Preliminary hearing begins for four youth suspects.
Feb. 23, 2007
Charges are stayed against the youngest suspect.
July 31, 2007
Charges are stayed against two other youth suspects.
Sept. 24, 2007
Federal prosecutors move to stop the adult suspects' preliminary hearing and go straight to trial. Charges are stayed against the accused, then charges are reissued, resulting in five suspects facing additional charges and three each having one charge dropped.
March 25, 2008
Trial begins for suspect who was youth at time of his arrest. He pleads not guilty.
April 15, 2008
Crown asks for stay of proceedings against four of the adult suspects.
Sept. 25, 2008
Judge finds youth suspect, now 20, guilty on a charge of participating in a terrorist activity. He becomes first person to be convicted under anti-terror legislation passed in 2001.
Source: The Canadian Press