Canadians are struggling to understand the threat of "home-grown" terrorism after the arrest of 17 Toronto-area young men in connection with what investigators said were plans to commit massive terrorist attacks in Canada.
The suspects all lived in Canada at the time of arrest; many are longtime residents and citizens. Like the perpetrators of last summer's London bombings, these young Muslims apparently became radicalized not in Al Qaeda training camps abroad but in suburban neighborhoods where they led relatively unremarkable lives.
Such home-grown terrorism is a growing concern, says security analyst John Thompson.
"The cops have a nickname for it - the jihad generation," says Mr. Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto think tank.
"These are kids at a transition, between Islamic society and Western society," he adds. "A lot of people will get militarized if they're unsure of their own identity." Plus, Thompson says, "They're just young and stupid. If you're 17, bored, restless, you want to meet girls - hey, be a radical."
Five juveniles were among the 17 males arrested Friday night and early Sunday morning on terrorism charges related to planned attacks with explosives on Canadian targets. The group allegedly bought three tons of ammonium nitrate - 1-1/2 times the estimated amount used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 - according to Assistant Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Mike McDonell. Investigators says that the group was inspired by Al Qaeda, but that there is no evidence of a direct link to the organization.
"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."
But here in Toronto, a city of 2.5 million people that prides itself on its multiculturalism and tolerance, the arrests came as a shock to many.
"That's really disturbing, to think it was a Canadian citizen. How is that for a low blow? It's 'Hello Toronto, wake up,'" says the neighbor of one of the suspects, 25-year-old Steven Vikash Chand. She asked not to be named, fearing repercussions from friends of the arrested man.
Another neighbor, Jack Lovell, says nothing about Chand set off alarm bells on the quiet, suburban street. "I knew him enough to say hi, [and] wave," Mr. Lovell says. "Seemed like nice enough people."
A 2005 Canadian government report on the homegrown terror threat, declassified and obtained by the National Post newspaper under Canada's Access to Information Act, described the paths to radicalism taken by Canadian youth: "
The reasons for this are varied, and include parental influence, the efforts of charismatic spiritual leaders with extremist views, and a general sense of anger at what is seen as Muslim oppression. There does not appear to be a single process that leads to extremism the transformation is highly individual."
By far the oldest Canadian suspect arrested over the weekend - all but two of whom are aged 25 or under - is 43-year-old Qayyum Abdul Jamal, a school bus driver and an active volunteer leader at the Al-Rahman Islamic Centre in Mississauga, a western Toronto suburb. Mr. Jamal's extreme interpretations of Islam alarmed some of the other leaders at the storefront mosque, according to the Toronto Star newspaper. But because he acted as a volunteer caretaker who would always make time to open the doors of the mosque for daily prayer services, the directors relied on him. Jamal was frequently surrounded by young men and teenagers who seemed to hang on his every word, the paper reported.
Sheikh Husain Patel, an imam across town at the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, didn't know Jamal. But he says someone must have led the young suspects into extremism. "They were young kids, and they were taken down this road by someone," Mr. Patel says.
Police have said the Internet played a big role in the suspects' planning, Canada's ambassador to the US Michael Wilson told CNN. According to a report in the Toronto Star newspaper, the plot began in 2004 in a chat room, where anti-Western rhetoric quickly attracted the attention of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which began monitoring the group.
The official report on the July 7, 2005, London suicide bombings also noted that the Internet is becoming a valuable tool for extremists: "The internet is widely used for propaganda; training (including in weapons and explosives); to claim responsibility for attacks; and for grooming through chatrooms and elsewhere."
And CSIS deputy director of operations Jack Hooper told a Senate committee last week that young Canadians are becoming radicalized through the Internet.
"They are virtually indistinguishable from other youth," Mr. Hooper said. "They blend in very well to our society, they speak our language, and they appear to be, to all intents and purposes, well-assimilated." Many of the Toronto-area suspects - whose parental origins range from Somalia to Egypt to Jamaica - are described by friends and neighbors as normal young adults - some with well-to-do parents, promising careers, and young families.
London authorities are also grappling with a similar lack of outward trouble signs as they try to glean lessons from last summer's bombings. "[The London bombings] case demonstrates the real difficulty for law enforcement agencies and local communities in identifying potential terrorists," the official report on the London attacks said. "All four were open about their strict religious observance but there was little outward sign that this had spilled over into potentially violent extremism."
Patel, the imam, says that violence has no place in Islam, and mainstream Muslims must be more vigilant about protecting young people from getting caught up in violent movements inspired abroad.
"This is a wake-up call, especially for Muslim leaders.... We need to educate people about what Islam stands for" to prevent young people from being vulnerable to radical movements inspired aboard, says Patel.