Terror plot by homegrown radical Islamists causes Canadians to realize they are a target despite 'neutrality' on political issues
June 11, 2006
Canadians try to grasp reality of terror plot http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/14756489.htm
They are trying to absorb news of a plot "inspired by al-Qaeda." Some wondered if the culture was too tolerant.
By Jennifer Moroz
Inquirer Staff Writer
TORONTO - Canadians were warned. Federal officials told them they were a target. So did Osama bin Laden. But Alicia Allison didn't really believe it. The 26-year-old hairstylist from Toronto still has trouble with the concept. "I can't understand why anyone would want to hurt us," she said. Let alone fellow countrymen. Like many other Canadians, Allison is trying to absorb the news that federal authorities this weekend arrested 17 people - mostly young men, all Canadian residents, and several born in Toronto - on charges of terrorism. They were allegedly plotting to storm Parliament, take hostages, behead the prime minister, and bomb undisclosed targets in Ontario, home to Toronto, the nation's largest city, and Ottawa, its capital. Officials said they thwarted the alleged plot, in which extremists they called "inspired by al-Qaeda" allegedly planned to use three times as much explosive as in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. Although Canadians were relieved that no bombs were detonated, the news left many grappling with an unsavory realization: Canada isn't just a target for terrorists.
It apparently breeds them as well. It's not an easy thing to swallow for a country that has a reputation as a peaceful nation. This week, many of those citizens were taking a hard look at how their own way of life might have contributed to the threat. "There are a lot of Canadians who are a little disassociated from the crueler realities of the world," said John Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto think tank that studies terrorism and political instability. "They still have a view of us as a Boy Scout nation. "They think our army is an army of peacekeepers, the world loves us, thank God we're not with the Americans - inane thoughts. Those who do hold this opinion have just been hit with a bucket of cold water." Up until this weekend, many people believed that any extremists living in Canada were simply here to stage attacks on the United States, said Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. "A major lesson has been learned here," he said.
The reasons for being targeted are familiar, experts say: Canada is a Western country espousing Western views and values. To Islamic extremists, that is enough, with bin Laden once naming Canada as one of five "Christian" nations that should be terror targets. "We are a democracy that is progressive and modern and multicultural and secular," Rudner said. "For us, that's a good thing; that's how we define ourselves. But it's precisely those values that make us a target." Others, including Canadian officials, think the nation's military role in Afghanistan has inspired hostility. Neil Sochasky is one of them. "I think Canada has been implicit in a lot of things the U.S. has done to cause animosity across the world," said the 26-year-old dancer, massage artist and Starbucks barista. "I'm surprised it's taken this long for something like this to arise in Canada." Polls suggest that quite a few Canadians have been bracing for a threat. One conducted in September 2004 showed that 42 percent thought the country would be a target in the next few years. In an August 2005 survey, 62 percent of respondents said they believed it was "somewhat likely" that an act of terror would take place in the next few years. Still, Charlie Coffey, a banker who works in Toronto's financial district, reportedly a target, called the alleged plot "a major wake-up call."
But he was particularly shocked to learn that the threat was internal. "I am most surprised that Canadians would turn against the country that supplied them so many opportunities," Coffey said. "One has to ask what is going on in their mind and what would influence them to do something like this." According to Thompson of the Mackenzie Institute, children of immigrants can be especially vulnerable to extremist recruitment efforts because they are trying to integrate into society and to find an identity. "Here you've got these kids who are 18 or 19," he said, "and the jihad is presented to them as something dramatic and exciting, a chance to be special, and you can see its attraction." That experience isn't unique to Canada, he added. Nor are other conditions that foster homegrown terrorism. Federal security officials just last month publicly revealed that Canadian extremists were fast becoming a major national security threat. "All of the circumstances that led to the London transit bombings... are resident here and now in Canada," Jack Hooper, operations director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a Senate committee. Making Canada vulnerable, officials have said, are its liberal immigration policies, tradition of multiculturalism, and a democratic government that respects the privacy of individuals.
After the weekend scare, many Canadians are wondering whether they are too nice, and overly tolerant. Canada has historically been a "cultural mosaic," encouraging immigrants to retain their homeland identities as they integrate into society. The mosaic has always been a point of Canadian pride. But Andre Cappuccio wonders whether the policy has backfired. "I think our strength in the past turned out to be a weakness here," said Cappuccio, 39, a corporate training representative. Al Telesford, 60, an immigrant himself, agreed. "Multiculturalism is not good for Canada...," said the building superintendent. "You should... adjust to [mainstream] society." Angela Berryman, a homemaker visiting from western Canada, had a different suggestion: "Stay in your own dog-gam country."
Canadian officials, meanwhile, are preaching a more stereotypically Canadian message: Remain level-headed. Don't jump to conclusions - about the suspects' guilt or any particular religious or ethnic groups. After vandals smashed the windows of a major city mosque shortly after the arrests, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair warned that hate crimes would not be tolerated. Toronto's Muslim leaders, who have publicly denounced terrorism, said the majority of Canadians did not equate Islam with extremism. And for now, at least, cooler heads are prevailing. But had a bomb detonated, things might have been different, said Mohammad Yahya Qureshi, principal of the 500-student Islamic Foundation School of Toronto. "Canadian society is a soft society," he said. "The problem is that it doesn't take very long to become a hostile environment... . If something had happened, the mosaic really would have been tested."
Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 609-989-8990 or [email protected]. The Associated Press contributed to this article.