Was Canada P.M. Terror Target?

How real was an alleged plot by a group of Toronto-area terror suspects to take over the Parliament building in Ottawa and behead Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper?

Revelations of the purported plan first surfaced yesterday when a lawyer for one of 17 suspects charged last weekend with complicity in an unspecified terror plot alleged publicly that Canadian authorities had presented him with a document containing the lurid allegations.

Defense lawyer Gary Batasar said that an evidence summary given to him by the Canadian government claimed that his client, a reported convert to Islam named Steven Chand (who also used the name Abdul Shakur), claimed Chand had been part of, or at least discussed, a plot by a terror cell to storm the Ottawa Parliament, take politicians hostage, and demand the release of Muslim prisoners from Canadian jails and the withdrawal of Canadian military forces from Afghanistan. If the demands weren't met, the lawyer indicated, the plotters apparently would have started killing hostages. "The allegations suggest that [Chand] would personally like to behead Prime Minister Stephen Harper," Batasar told journalists outside the courthouse in Brampton, Ontario, where 15 of the 17 suspects appeared in court for an early hearing in what is likely to be a long and sensational criminal case. (Two other suspects were already being held in prison on earlier charges).

Aly Hindy, a hard-line Toronto-area imam who says he knows nine of the 17 alleged plotters personally, says he believes that if there was talk about a beheading plot, it was the kind of empty, though menacing, bravado that he has often seen in messages posted in radical Islamic Internet chat rooms. "I just think these people were bulls--ting," said Hindy, who told NEWSWEEK that of the nine suspects that he knows, he believed only "two or three" may have seriously considered violence. Those two or three were much more interested, Hindy claimed, in going to a place like Afghanistan to fight jihad than launching attacks in Canada (all 17 suspects are reportedly Canadian citizens).

Canadian law-enforcement and security officials offered no immediate confirmation of the details of the alleged plot against Parliament. Public court documents about the case make only vague references to terrorist activities and training and include no mention of any specific plots to attack the seat of government or any other target.

But U.S. counterterrorism officials, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the continuing investigation, say that they have heard that Canadian authorities took very seriously indeed the possibility of a plot to storm Parliament, though one U.S. official said that he had not heard the allegation about the possible beheading of Prime Minister Harper. (Harper joked about the claim when asked about the threats during a TV photo op).

Other elements of the alleged plot, which U.S. officials say their Canadian counterparts are taking seriously, are the possibility of multiple truck-bomb attacks on targets in southern Ontario, which allegedly could have included the Toronto Stock Exchange; the skyscraper containing the Toronto office of CSIS, Canada's spy agency (which is near the landmark CN Tower and Toronto's baseball stadium), and a power plant or Canadian military base.

The suggestion is that the suspects would have built the truck bombs using some of the three tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that Canadian authorities publicly accused them of ordering shortly before last weekend's arrests. After learning about the fertilizer orders, Canadian authorities intervened and substituted a harmless substance for the fertilizer; the suspects were arrested shortly after quantities of the doctored material was delivered to them. Ammonium nitrate was the fertilizer used to build the bomb that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, but, in that case, bomber Timothy McVeigh only used about one ton of the product.

Sorting out the macho talk from the hard evidence of the suspects' intent is likely to be a focus of the Canadian investigation and related court proceedings for months, if not years, to come. Authorities in Canada are also working with counterterrorism officials in the United States and Europe to examine the role that the Internet—chat rooms, message boards and jihadi Web sites—may have played in recruiting and inspiring the Canadian suspects by connecting them, at least electronically, to like-minded extremists around the world and in teaching them the fine details of how to mount terror attacks.

In a written statement last weekend, the FBI said that there was evidence of "contacts between certain suspects in Canada and two individuals recently charged in the United States." Counterterrorism officials say there are indications those individuals, two students from Georgia, may in turn have been in contact with more important Internet jihadis in Europe, one of them being a notorious online poster of militant jihadi messages who used the login Irhabi007.

In March, this column reported how U.S. and British investigators were claiming to have inflicted a major blow to the online jihadist movement by arresting a U.K.-based terror suspect named Younis Tsouli. Officials found evidence they believed demonstrated that Tsouli, arrested on terror-related charges last October by Scotland Yard, was the person behind the Irhabi007 login. (Irhabi is an Arabic word for terrorist.) At the time, NEWSWEEK did not publish details of the Irhabi007 login because U.S. authorities asked us to refrain from doing so due to continuing investigations. However, some weeks after the NEWSWEEK Web column appeared, The Washington Post published a piece by officials of the SITE Institute, a private antiterrorism group, that was a named source for the NEWSWEEK Web column, in which the Irhabi007 login was featured.

U.S. investigators caution that just because the Canadian suspects may have been in touch with American suspects—who in turn were in touch with (or at least reading material posted by) cybermilitants in Europe—does not mean that the people in the United States or Europe were involved in the Canadian plot, or that the Canadian plotters were taking orders from overseas. U.S. and Canadian officials are both stressing that the evidence so far indicates that while the Canadian plotters may have gathered inspiration—and technical advice—from the Web, the alleged Canadian plotters still appear to be very much "homegrown" and not directed at targets anywhere outside Canada.

What's disturbing to investigators is that the Canadian plan, if the evidence of its existence holds up, could turn out to have been inspired by some of the same cyberspace activists and agitators who motivated other unrelated plots and plotters around the world—thus demonstrating that there is an increasingly blurry line between militants who use the Internet to talk and let off steam and those who find the jihadi material available in cyberspace so motivating, compelling and useful that they act to turn online fantasies into reality.