Terror trial begins with notes of divine comedy




June 4, 2008

BRAMPTON, ONT. -- As former deputy director of CSIS Jack Hooper says in a smart new documentary on the Air India bombing, "At the early stages of a conspiracy, the nature of the terrorist beast is that the plan has not crossed the line into criminality."

But comedy? Oh hell yes. It's never too early in a terrorist conspiracy, alleged or otherwise, for comedy.

Thus it was that yesterday, as the trial of the only youth still charged in the so-called Toronto 18 terrorism case began in earnest, Mr. Justice John Sproat of Ontario Superior Court must have felt his command of the language rapidly plummeting as the voices of some of the alleged conspirators filled the courtroom in what can only be described as a unique Canuck-gangbanger-meets-the-Prophet dialect, with most of the conversations beginning roughly like this: "Yo, peace be upon you" and ending with " 'Shallah" (the short form of inshallah, or "God willing") and occasional purely Canadian exclamations over geography ("Yo, look at that view, eh?") with dutiful product placement buys for Tim Hortons, Harvey's and Canadian Tire.

Not even the federal Liberals, trust me, could make this stuff up.

For months now, as this trial has approached a state of readiness and bail hearings and various other court proceedings for some of the other 10 remaining defendants have come and gone, the papers have been filled with tittering stories about the clown princes of Canadian terrorism, the suggestion overt or sly but always there that surely no one could possibly pronounce this lot a real threat to national security. Why, goes the popular refrain, this hapless lot couldn't organize a one-car funeral, let alone anything more sinister.

And as the first 22 of 81 wiretap intercepts were played for Judge Sproat yesterday, sure enough, all seemed as advertised.

The alleged conspirators - most are in their 20s and none can be named, with the youths' identity protected by the usual statutory publication ban - use a moronic code on their various tapped phones (guns are referred to as "girls," with each needing her own "food," or ammo), revel in their various nicknames for one another, boast constantly and engage in chat of such breathtaking inanity that it took a wise old police officer to remind me that compared to typical conversations in drug-conspiracy cases, where the stoned silences can last upward of 10 minutes, these exchanges are positively sparkling.

"That truck," one alleged conspirator says alertly as some of the group was travelling to Northern Ontario ostensibly to recce a house they could use as a base, "I think I've seen it before."

"Ice Cap?" says an unconcerned voice from the back seat. "You got the Ice Cap?"

"Which one is the hot chocolate?" asks a third man.

"Don't be eating the doughnuts and crap," snaps the alleged ringleader.

"I wouldn't mind having a Timbit," says the other man, unrebuked.

"Let's go to Harvey's!" cries another voice.

In that perhaps six-hour trip, four of the alleged conspirators ate constantly, moving seamlessly from doughnuts and coffee to rice to bagels, and stopped short, just barely, of actually whingeing, "Are we there yet?" Not since a friend and I years ago did a walking tour of the Lake District in England, and packed enough food (including cheese you squeezed from a tube) for an army, have I encountered people so unnecessarily afraid of starvation, and not since my friend and I were passed by walkers aged, infirm and disabled have I met a group so utterly inept.

When the alleged conspirators braved the elements (it was -2C, according to one) and dared leave their van, they immediately complained about freezing and frostbite, and returned from their brief foray demanding water with a desperation at least as great as a fellow lost in the desert for a week. At one point, it appeared one guy locked himself in the vehicle; at another, they fretted over a light on the dash; someone turned on the OnStar system by mistake.

But for all that, smack in the middle of these conversations either remarkably banal or comic, despite pages of transcript which appeared to consist entirely of notes such as "child screaming in background," something decidedly unsettling would come.

Sample exchange, this from an alleged conspirator apparently complaining to another that word was out in at least some part of the Muslim community about what they were up to: "Why you go to the mosque, guy?" "Yo, they know, eh?" "How'd they find out, hmmm?" "I don't know, man. I don't want to tell you, you'd probably kill that guy." "How'd the hell they find out?" "You know, right, that they know? I didn't see till I went to the mosque and they were asking me so many questions. I was like, 'What the hell?' "

Sample exchange, this with the alleged ringleader noting, of the northern property they were scouting, "I like the tree line ... At night time, you could hear it being fired for sure, man." Then a triumphant cry, "Yo, cable TV!," followed seconds later by, "Four brothers, two snowmobiles. One guy rides, one guy practises with the AK [AK-47, a Soviet-era assault rifle]," and a bit later still, "Four hundred acres, you get in a little and you're shooting out AKs then."

Sample remark, "We're thinking of taking over this country, not start a little ..."

Sample remark, "I'd like to die a martyr as a martyr. But I want to touch a little bit of everything in Islam before I do that ..."

Why was the group so surveillance-conscious? Why the lengths to disguise, however ludicrously, what they were talking about? Whence all the talk of guns, and shooting, and the search for a base? It seems they couldn't last five minutes outside their vehicle, so why would they be even toying with military-type training?

The answer appears to be that they were bonding, as young men have for centuries, through shared exciting adventures (for this lot, going to the Timmins area would have seemed downright exotic), bad food and the mild discomfort of a crowded back seat. The question is, to what purpose?

The youth was not a principal in any of the conversations that were played yesterday, and is only allegedly referred to on a handful of them as someone who was allegedly thieving for the group, Crown prosecutor Marco Mendicino told the judge at one point. Now 20, the young man is accused of participation and training in relation to a terrorist enterprise.