TORONTO — Police foiled a homegrown terrorist attack in Canada by arresting 17 suspects, apparently inspired by al Qaeda, who obtained three times the amount of explosives used in the Oklahoma City bombing, officials said yesterday.
The FBI said the Canadian suspects may have had “limited contact” with two men recently arrested on terrorism charges in Georgia.
About 400 regional police and federal agents participated in the arrests Friday and early yesterday — the largest counterterrorism operation in Canada since a new law was passed after the September 11 attacks.
“These individuals were allegedly intent on committing acts of terrorism against their own country and their own people,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. “As we have said on many occasions, Canada is not immune to the threat of terrorism.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested 12 adult suspects, ages 19 to 43, and five suspects younger than 18 on terrorism charges, including plotting attacks with explosives on Canadian targets.
The suspects were either citizens or residents of Canada and had trained together, police said.
The group had taken steps to acquire three tons of ammonium nitrate and other bomb-making materials, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner Mike McDonell said. He said this was three times the amount bombers used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City, killing 168 persons and injuring more than 800.
“This group posed a real and serious threat,” Mr. McDonell said. “It had the capacity and intent to carry out these attacks.”
Officials displayed evidence of bomb-making materials, including white sacks of fertilizers, a red cell phone wired to what appeared to be an explosives detonator inside a black toolbox, a computer hard drive, camouflage uniforms, flashlights and walkie-talkies. Officials also showed a flimsy white door riddled with bullet holes, apparently used for target practice.
Luc Portelance, assistant director of operations at the spy agency Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said the 17 suspects “appeared to have become adherents of a violent ideology inspired by al Qaeda,” but that investigators have yet to prove a link to the radical Islamist terror network.
The suspects live in either Toronto, Canada’s financial capital and largest city, or the nearby cities of Mississauga and Kingston.
Rocco Galati, an attorney for two suspects from Mississauga, said Ahmad Ghany, 21, is a health sciences graduate from McMaster University in Hamilton. He was born in Canada, the son of a medical doctor who emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago.
Shareef Abdelhaleen, 30, is a computer programmer who emigrated from Egypt 20 years ago with his father, now an engineer with Atomic Energy of Canada, the lawyer said.
Five of the suspects were led in handcuffs yesterday to the Ontario Court of Justice, which was surrounded by police sharpshooters and bomb-sniffing dogs. A judge told the men not to communicate with one another and set their first bail hearing for Tuesday.
Aly Hindy, an imam of an Islamic center that houses a school and a mosque and has been monitored by security agencies for years, said he knows nine of the suspects and that Muslims repeatedly were being falsely accused.
“We are the ones always accused. Somebody fakes a document and they are an international terrorist forging documents for al Qaeda,” he said outside the court yesterday.
Tight security required visitors to the court to remove their shoes to pass through three checkpoints guarded by police carrying assault rifles and submachine guns.
According to a report in the Toronto Star yesterday citing unidentified police sources, the suspects attended a terrorist training camp north of Toronto and had plotted to attack the Canadian spy agency’s downtown Toronto office, among other targets in Ontario.
Other reports suggested the group had videotaped the CN Tower, one of the world’s tallest structures, and the Toronto subway, but officials refused to specify the intended targets.
FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko in Washington said a connection could exist between the Canadian suspects and a Georgia Tech student and another American who had traveled to Canada last year to meet with Islamic extremists to discuss locations for a terrorist strike.
Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, U.S. citizens who grew up in the Atlanta area, were arrested in March.
There have been no al Qaeda-type attacks in Canada, although security services long have worried about risks and the United States has urged more vigilance on the long border the two countries share.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff spoke with his Canadian counterpart, Stockwell Day, early yesterday, homeland security spokesman Russ Knocke told the Reuters news agency.
The charges came under Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act. It was passed shortly after the September 11 attacks — and after terror mastermind Osama bin Laden named Canada as one of five “Christian” nations that should be targeted for terror attacks. The others are the United States, Britain, Spain and Australia.
Mr. Portelance said it was Canada’s largest counterterrorism operation since the adoption of the act and that more arrests were possible.
The adult suspects from Toronto are Steven Vikash Chand, alias Abdul Shakur, 25; Fahim Ahmad, 21; Jahmaal James, 23; and Asin Mohamed Durrani, 19. Those from Mississauga are Ghany; Abdelhaleen; Zakaria Amara, 20; Asad Ansari, 21; Saad Khalid, 19; and Qayyum Abdul Jamal, 43.
Mohammed Dirie, 22, and Yasim Abdi Mohamed, 24, are from Kingston.