BRAMPTON, Ont. — A ringleader of the so-called Toronto 18 who plotted to storm Parliament and “cut off some heads” was sentenced to 16 years in prison Monday after a judge said he could be rehabilitated.
Court heard weeks of evidence that Fahim Ahmad, 26, told recruits the group would target legislative buildings in Ottawa, electrical grids and nuclear stations, and that he held training camps in the wilderness to assess his recruits.
Ahmad pleaded guilty mid-trial to participating in a terrorist group, importing firearms and instructing his co-accused to carry out an activity for a terrorist group.
On Monday he received a credit of 8 1/2 years for the more than four years he spent in custody awaiting trial, and is eligible for parole in 3 1/2 years.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Fletcher Dawson said that in deciding sentence he took into account Ahmad’s age at the time of his arrest, the fact that he has no previous criminal record, and evidence of his remorse.
He also considered letters written by Ahmad, his wife, and father-in-law.
“I am not dealing with someone who remains openly defiant and who blatantly continues to advocate the rightfulness of his past ideas and actions,” Dawson said.
“Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I see prospects of rehabilitation in the letters.”
The Crown had suggested 18 years to life in prison, while the defence was asking for about 12 years.
Ahmad, who wore a striped lime green golf shirt and blue jeans, was emotionless as the judge read his decision, but later turned around to smile at supporters gathered in the courtroom.
At the December 2005 training camp in Washago, about 90 minutes north of Toronto, he gave a fiery speech urging the recruits to do whatever it took to defeat the empire of Rome, meaning Western civilization.
Police informant Mubin Shaikh had testified that Ahmad told camp participants they share the beliefs of al-Qaida, and that video of firearms training includes jihad-themed music that says “kill the infidel.”
At one point in the investigation, a police probe planted in a van captured Ahmad saying the group planned to attack Parliament to behead politicians and “kill everybody.”
The group was rounded up in the summer of 2006 in an anti-terrorist operation that captured headlines around the world.
In a letter submitted to the court, Ahmad wrote he has interacted with people of other religions while in Toronto’s Don Jail and has since grown respectful of the beliefs of others.
He claimed to have re-evaluated his goals and his understanding of Islam, the judge said.
Ahmad’s wife wrote that she and her husband will enrol their children in public school rather than Islamic education. His father-in-law wrote that he was ashamed of what Ahmad did, but is relieved that Ahmad has taken responsibility and learned from the experience, the judge noted.
“These letters describe Mr. Ahmad in his personal life as a caring person with underlying humanity…(who) is now committed to moving forward in his life in a manner that reflects this more moderate and tolerant stance,” Dawson told the court.
“Show me that I wasn’t wrong in my assessment.”
The judge said he also took into account that Ahmad “was not really effective in pursuing his despicable goals.”
Ahmad was motivated by “bias, prejudice” and hate, and was a “pathetic figure who grossly exaggerated to achieve status and attention,” said Dawson, who added that history has shown even amateur terrorists can succeed in their goals.
Although Ahmad’s plot didn’t get far, he managed to persuade others into his scheme, he added.
“Ahmad must bear considerable responsibility for embroiling other young men in his hateful pursuits…(and) virtually ruining the lives of a number of other young men who became involved in terrorist activities.”
He also considered that Ahmad pleaded guilty 13 days into his trial, but only after the Crown presented an “overwhelming” case against him that included the testimony of Shaikh.
Outside court, Crown lawyer Croft Michaelson said he was pleased with the sentence.
“We’ve sent out a strong signal to the community that these type of offences will not be tolerated in Canada, and it reflects the seriousness of the crime.”
Ahmad is among the last of the “Toronto 18” to be sentenced. Two more people will be sentenced next month, the Crown said. Ahmad’s sentence is the second longest among those sent to prison.
The group’s other ringleader, Zakaria Amara, was sentenced earlier this year to life in prison with no chance of parole until 2016.
He and Ahmad had a falling out and Amara formed a separate group in 2006, which managed to get further along in its plans to bomb the Toronto Stock Exchange, CSIS offices in Toronto and an eastern Ontario military base.
Of the 18 people charged, seven had their charges dropped or stayed, four were found guilty and seven pleaded guilty.