The ‘Toronto 18’ case is important for what it tells us about radicalisation in Nrth America & how the situation there is a mirror image of the UK a decade ago.
Amidst the maelstrom of media attention over the Christmas Day attempted bombing of Flight NW253 to Detroit, the provocative antics and subsequent banning of al-Muhajiroun and the devastating earthquake in Haiti, it is unsurprising that the conviction in Canada of a few men connected with a terror plot uncovered back in 2006 should have gathered so little attention in the British press.
The case of the ‘Toronto 18’ – so called because the group consisted of 14 adults and four youths who plotted to bomb Toronto – however, is important for what it tells us about radicalisation in North America and how the situation there is a mirror image of the situation in the UK a decade ago.
Four men have so far been found guilty of participating in a terrorist group and intending to cause an explosion that was likely to cause serious bodily harm or death. According to a police informant who infiltrated the group, they were planning to organise a terror training camp in advance of using truck bombs to attack power grids, the Canadian Parliament building, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and various other targets.
The arrests of 18 members of the group coincided with police intercepting an order for three tonnes of ammonium nitrate they say were destined for truck bombs.
Since the arrest of the ‘Toronto 18’, four have pleaded guilty, one has been convicted and charges have been stayed or dropped against seven people. Now the group’s leader, Zakaria Amara, who has since apologised to all Canadians for his previous calls to unleash a “bloody jihad” on the residents of Toronto, has been sentenced to life in prison: the harshest penalty ever imposed under Canada’s anti-terrorism laws.
Amara was born in Jordan to a Cypriot Christian mother and an Arab father who had stopped practising Islam and at school he was known as the class clown. Clearly he was not “brainwashed” from early on. In 2004 he married and throughout 2005 he took evening classes in engineering at Humber College whilst working full-time.
Studying engineering is something he shares with many other terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Yousef and Ziad Jarrah. It was at this very time that friends and family noticed him becoming visibly more devout. So much for sexual frustration, poverty or lack of opportunities as explanations for radicalisation.
What about other grievances? Although Canada has been involved in Afghanistan since 2001, it stayed out of Iraq – although about 100 exchange officers in technical support roles with the British and US armies took part – and its foreign policy can hardly be described as a massive grievance which, in the minds of some, would legitimise terrorist attacks.
Nor is Canada’s culture famous for being particularly racist or violent; remember how, in ‘Bowling For Columbine’, Michael Moore illustrated the violence of US culture by contrasting it with Canada.
None of which should be a surprise because, as terror case after terror case proves, terrorists are not impoverished, ill-educated victims of racism motivated solely by a desire to right the wrongs of their country’s foreign policy and the suffering in their individual lives. Rather, they are individuals have adopted jihadism, an ideology which justifies and legitimises violence as a way to achieve a theo-political goal. It is this ideology which is key, not their background.
Jihadism is a violent strand of Islamism, an entirely politicised approach to the religion Islam, which spread in Britain in the mid-1990s. Activists manipulated situations like Chechnya and Kashmir to encourage others to adopt their polarised worldview whereby Muslims were pitted against non-Muslims and the creation of an Islamic state or caliphate would be a universal panacea. In North America, this ideology initially had little traction but, after 9/11, it has had a second wind.
As the ‘Toronto 18’ show, simplistically blaming terrorism on grievances like deprivation, racism and foreign policy makes little sense. Instead, the explanation lies with a 20th-century ideology which wraps itself up in Islamicised language to disguise its political ambitions and nature – an ideology which anybody, regardless of background, can adopt.
Since 9/11 this ideology has been spreading in North America and terror cases like the ‘Toronto 18’ and recently revealed ones in Minneapolis, New York, Pakistan and from Obama’s inauguration are part of a new trend which shows no sign of abating.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.