A confessed terrorist who plotted mass murder in the name of Islam says he is a reformed man, was “lucky” to be arrested before his bombs ravaged downtown Toronto, and will accept any sentence he receives for conspiring to kill fellow Canadians.
Speaking in open court for the first time since his 2006 arrest, Zakaria Amara—the admitted ringleader of the “Toronto 18”—told a judge that he now rejects the radical religious ideology that fueled his deadly plot, and is thankful that the RCMP was watching him so closely. “I spent days upon days trying to summon words appropriate, meaningful and deep enough to express my regret and seek forgiveness for my actions,” he told Justice Bruce Durno, who will hand down a sentence on Monday. “At the end, I realized that only promises and actions could suffice. I would like to promise you and my fellow Canadians that I will use my sentence to change myself from a man of destruction to a man of construction. I promise, no matter how long it takes and how much it costs, to produce actions that will hopefully outweigh the actions that I once took towards hurting others.”
His apology—and the tears that followed later in the hearing—was a stark contrast from the old Zakaria Amara: the terrorist front man determined to bomb three targets in southern Ontario, including the Toronto Stock Exchange. Before his arrest, the tough-talking gas station attendant had built and perfected a remote-controlled detonator, ordered three tonnes of explosive fertilizer (from an undercover informant) and boasted that his attack is “gonna be kicking ass like never before.” With police wiretaps running, he told one fellow suspect that he “won’t feel sorry” if the cops throw him in jail before the plan materializes, “as long as I’ve tried my best.”
On Thursday, the 24-year-old said he will try his best to one day “demonstrate my regret in actions rather than words.” His lawyers are requesting a sentence of 18 to 20 years; the Crown wants life, ensuring that if Amara is ever granted parole, he will remain under some sort of supervision until the day he dies. (Under either scenario, Amara will be eligible for a parole hearing in approximately six years, when he turns 30.)
“Your honour, I will embrace whatever sentence you give since in reality I deserve much more than a mere sentence,” said Amara, wearing a white dress shirt, a dark blue sweater vest, and a trimmed beard. “But at the same time I hope that you do not deprive me of a chance to pay for the moral debt that I still owe.”
Standing in a bulletproof prisoner’s box, Amara began his dramatic statement by apologizing for his nervous tone and quoting the Koran: “Stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to God, even against your own selves.” Addressing his “fellow Canadians,” he went on to acknowledge that “many, if not all of you, will never forgive me for my actions. I have no excuses or explanations. I deserve nothing than your complete and absolute contempt. I only wrote these words to simply let you know of how regretful and sorry I feel.”
“As for the Muslims amongst you,” he continued, “I have an additional comment to make. I cannot imagine the type of embarrassment or anxiety you must have gone through in the days following my arrest. I am sure many of you received unwelcome attention and felt hopeless in trying to explain that the actions of a few were not endorsed by the community. I am sure many of you probably cursed me in your heads…I can only hope that when all of you, Muslim and non-Muslim, witness the type of man I will one day make out of myself and the type of activities I’ll be involved in, than you will perhaps contemplate accepting me once more into the fold.”
Why the change of heart? Prison, he says.
In June, after three years in solitary confinement, Amara was transferred into the general population of Toronto’s Don Jail. Fellow inmates—including an unnamed Canadian soldier who fought against insurgents Afghanistan—began to press Amara on his extremist beliefs. “Everyone found it difficult to reconcile between my charges and my humble and kind personality, thus leading the way to many discussions about the justification of terrorist acts,” he said. “At first I vigorously defended my positions, but every time I walked away I walked away with a doubt in my heart. Despite their lack of education and ‘expertise,’ their moral and logical arguments were like pick axes that chiseled away at my ideological walls.” One of those inmates, a Jewish man, went out of his way to befriend Amara. “He once told me that had we been living in Palestine we would have probably killed each other and died failing to realize what good friends we would have made if only we had talked.”
Another fellow prisoner told Amara that he once worked as a banker on Bay Street in Toronto, and that his two brothers worked at the Exchange Tower, the plot’s primary target. “It was ironic,” Amara said. “He was more of a potential victim than anybody else, and seeing him and interacting with him made me reconsider. If somebody shows me that I’m wrong I am willing to accept it.”
Crown attorneys are not quite convinced that Amara is a changed man. In pushing for the toughest sentence possible, prosecutor Iona Jaffe reminded Justice Durno that the person sitting behind her had a “single-minded determination to commit jihadist acts” on Canadian soil. “If everything had gone occurring to plan—the plans Mr. Amara had terribly crafted—many people would have been killed.”
Although 18 suspects were rounded up in the raids, only four were actually connected to the bomb plot—and none played a larger role than Amara. “His leadership in this conspiracy weighs heavily on the scale in favour of a life sentence,” Jaffe said. “He not only knew all the details of the plot; he planned them all. He didn’t just know the quantities of the ammonium nitrate; he ordered it. He didn’t just know the targets; he selected them. He didn’t just join a terrorist group; he formed one.”
As for his sudden conversion, Jaffe offered this observation: “His reformation only took hold firmly after he was released into the general population seven months ago. His ‘de-radicalization’—if, in fact, that has occurred—occurred very recently, relative to the amount of time he diligently pursued his terrorist goal.”
Amara’s lawyer, Michael Lacey, did not try to downplay his client’s crimes. Amara absolutely deserves the “terrorist label,” he said. But in handing down his sentence, Lacey asked the judge to consider the fact that Amara pleaded guilty, accepted full responsibility for his actions, and never once “made a mockery” of the judicial process. “For some accused terrorists who are arrested, the ensuing trial becomes a spectacle, a chance to advance their extremist views on the world stage,” Lacey said. “That is not what Mr. Amara has done. The media is here listening and reporting, and Mr. Amara did not use this forum to try to get some kind of religious, extremist position out across the world. On the contrary, he has apologized, not only to all Canadians, but to all Muslims.”
Lacey also produced for the judge a recent psychiatric assessment, which portrays Amara as a confused, committed Muslim starving for direction, and whose “unmet emotional needs created a susceptibility that allowed him to be infected with an extremist ideology.”
The second of three children, Amara was born in Jordan in 1985, and—despite his eventual devotion to a radical interpretation of Islam—was baptized an Orthodox Christian, his mother’s religion. At the age of four his family moved to Saudi Arabia, where his dad worked for an oil company, although his mom regularly took the children to visit her parents in Cyprus. (Amara still speaks fluent Greek.) By Grade 4, he was living in Cyprus full-time while his father worked out the country. He attended an Arabic school, and according to the report prepared by Dr. Arif Syed, that’s when Amara “first felt converted to Islam.”
In 1997, the whole family moved the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ont., where Amara’s father ran a dry-cleaning business and his mother worked at a beauty salon. Before long, his parents’ marriage fell apart; Amara “turned to his practicing Muslim peer group for his source of intimacy, consistency and loyalty.” On Fridays, he gave Islamic lectures at Meadowvale High School, but as one friend told Dr. Syed, “he never mentioned jihad or politics.” As others testified, Amara was “the class clown,” not a fundamentalist.
After graduation, Amara traveled back to Saudi Arabia to apply, in person, to the Islamic studies program at the University of Medina. His application was denied—a turning point in a life that would soon be dominated by violent fantasies.
At the age of 18, he proposed to Nada Farooq, a niqab-wearing classmate whose face he had never seen. His father, a non-religious man, was so furious that he boycotted the wedding. Within a month, Amara’s new wife was pregnant with a baby girl, and he was struggling to support a new family while juggling night classes at Ryerson University. When he dropped out of school to work full-time, he felt the wrath of his dad yet again. “His father left home, gave Zakaria the keys to the car, and went to live in Dubai,” says the psychiatric report. “He has not come back to Canada ever since.”
Now working at a Canadian Tire gas station, Amara began to “transform into a different person,” Dr. Syed wrote. In one interview, Amara told the psychiatrist that he dreamed of joining the insurgency in Afghanistan because “my life was getting difficult.” Along with struggling to take care of his wife and daughter, he felt surrounded by people who did “not live up to Islamic practices, nor live up to promises of loyalty and consistency.”
The report continues: “His self-concept seemed to have hyper-identified with the cause of defending the aimless Muslims against oppression, in exclusion to all the other ways one can be of service to God. He may also have been driven by a need to be important in some way to the perceived Muslim cause.” As Amara later acknowledged to the doctor, “my major problem was lack of guidance.”
“The spiritual ideal of jihad (fighting oneself) stagnated, hardened, and sank into self-aggrandizing bravado,” Dr. Syed wrote. “The daily drudgery of working in dead-end, low-paying jobs helped to create an intellectually stunted environment. Internet jihad videos became more exciting and their causes became more urgent.”
By 2006, that urgency reached a fever pitch. Obsessed with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Amara craved revenge for the “slaughter” of innocent Muslims on the other side of the world. His plan ended on the afternoon of June 2, when heavily armed cops stormed through his front door.
Amara’s sentencing submissions included a letter from his wife, who was at home that day when the officers showed up, guns drawn. “My daughter was just eight months old when her father was taken away,” she wrote. “Now she is four years old. She prays every night that she gets to have her dad home like all other children. After all these years reflecting and contemplating, I believe my husband regrets with all his heart what he has put me and our daughter through.”
As his lawyer read the letter out loud, Amara wiped tears from his eyes. By the last paragraph, he had buried his face in his arms, weeping uncontrollably.
He was no doubt thinking what he told Dr. Syed in October: “I feel like I’ve wasted my life. My whole life I’ve messed up.”