Even in Canada: A High-Profile Government Sting That Targeted 24 South Asian Men Has Set off National Controversy and a Vibrant, Immigrant-Led Defense

Article excerpt

Early on the morning of August 14, 2003, 24 South Asian men awoke to the sound of their doors getting smashed in. Through a sting operation known as Project Thread where Canadian intelligence agencies sought out potential terrorist cells, police stormed into their apartments and threw everyone inside on the ground. Vans whisked all 24 to the maximum-security Maplehurst Detention Center. No one was allowed to call a lawyer. Meanwhile, reporters and politicians blared that an "Al-Qaeda sleeper cell" had been found with plans to bomb a nuclear power plant or explode a dirty bomb into the city.


Think this happened somewhere in the States? Guess again. It happened in Toronto, just one incident in an alarming pattern that has characterized the war on terror's migration to the Great White North.

The Canadian Dream

Though its progressive immigration laws have never made Canada an anti-racist paradise, it has meant that hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants chose Canada over the States from the 1970s to the 1990s, creating vibrant communities where Somalis hang with Tamils hang with Trinis hang with Chileans.


But since Sept. 11, Canada has experienced its own brand of immigrant bashing and "terrorist" targeting. From nationally prominent incidents such as the case of Maher Arar, the Syrian Canadian computer engineer detained and sent to over a year of torture in Jordan, to less well-known but widespread harassment and discrimination--Canada has shown that it is far from a safe haven for South Asians and Arabs. Immediately following Sept. 11, just like in the U.S., mosques, Hindu and Jain temples and Sikh gurdwaras suffered arson and daily harassment. Changes to the Immigration Act followed, whereby non-citizens may now be jailed without charge on the say-so of a cabinet minister, held under what is called a "security certificate" and not allowed to know the allegations against them. Six men now languish in jail under these PATRIOT-like rules.

In 2003, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada's equivalent to the FBI, began an investigation they called "Project Thread," whose purpose was to seek out potential terrorist cells throughout Canada. They collected three vans full of evidence based on what Terry McKay, the lawyer representing the minister of immigration, called "a suggestion [there] might in fact be ... a sleeper cell for Al Qaeda." Actually, the suspects were a random collection of 24 South Asian men, many of whom didn't even know each other. Their only connection was that they were Muslim and most of them had come to Canada on student visas to Ottawa Business College--a school that turned out to be an empty storefront. Fearful of running into hassles with Immigration Canada, the men kept quiet and just found other places to work or go to school. Some were doctors; some were small businessmen hoping to improve their skills and English and then return to Pakistan to get married.

The evidence the RCMP turned up was scanty at best. They claimed to have a picture of one detainee, Mohammed Waheed, in front of a nuclear power plant--even though it was later documented by his lawyers that he wasn't in the country on that day. Much was made of the fact that the men lived in "cells"--apartments shared with other immigrant men from the same country--and that one who was in flight school had flown over the Pickering nuclear power plant. In fact, the plant is included in the standard flight path for all trainees because it lies on the shores of Lake Ontario and flight students aren't allowed to fly over the city. By November, RCMP head Giuliano Zaccardelli had publicly admitted there were no terrorist links to the men. The students were found guilty of committing immigration fraud because the school they were attending was not a government-recognized institution, even though their visas to attend the school had been approved by the government in the first place. …