The arrest of 17 terrorism suspects in Canada is part of a continuing, multinational inquiry into suspected terrorist cells in at least seven countries, a U.S. counter-terrorism official confirmed Sunday.
The senior U.S. law enforcement official said authorities were combing through evidence seized during raids in Canada this weekend to look for possible connections between the 17 suspects arrested Friday and Saturday and at least 18 other Islamist militants who had been arrested in locations including the United States, Bangladesh, BosniaHerzegovina, Britain, Denmark and Sweden.
The investigation began as separate probes into what authorities believed were localized cells of militant Muslim young men who shared an interest in radical ideology on the Internet and, to a lesser extent, in local mosques and training camps.
But over the last year, the counter-terrorism authorities of those countries began to see connections among the cells, in part through electronic surveillance of phone calls and Internet correspondence, as well as surveillance of individual suspects, several U.S. officials said in interviews Sunday.
“The case is a very good example of how things work in the post-9/11 world. In this case, law enforcement and intelligence services from half a dozen places coordinated daily during a very complex investigation,” the senior U.S. law enforcement official said. “It involved surveillances [of] every mode of travel and crossed multiple borders. Each set of arrests were coordinated between all agencies and considered carefully for how they might affect the ongoing probe.
“It ran long,” he said of the broader multinational investigation, “because the investigators wanted to make sure they took enough time to try and identify as many potential players as possible.”
Authorities would not describe the precise nature of the suspected connections among those arrested in Canada and elsewhere. Police raids in Toronto on Friday night and early Saturday resulted in the arrest of 12 adults, ranging in age from 19 to 43, and five juveniles. The suspects had no evident connections to Al Qaeda, authorities said. But, they added, they were actively conspiring to blow up undisclosed Canadian targets.
Canadian authorities have charged the suspects with various terrorism-related offenses and allege that they had accepted delivery of three tons of the fertilizer ammonium nitrate, which can be combined with fuel to make an extremely powerful bomb.
The Toronto Star, citing unnamed sources, reported that the fertilizer was delivered to the suspects as part of an undercover police sting. When the deal was completed, the anti-terrorism task force moved in to arrest the suspects, the newspaper said. Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokeswoman Michele Paradis would not comment on the report.
On Sunday, U.S. and Canadian authorities said forensic experts were combing through the information contained in various computers and other electronic gear seized in the investigation.
The 17 suspects have a bail hearing scheduled for Tuesday; lawyers and family members have described them as innocents caught up in a politically motivated police dragnet aimed at proving that Canada is tough on terrorism.
Canada’s new ambassador to the U.S., Michael Wilson, said the Canadian end of the investigation had been going on for nearly two years and that authorities believed the Internet-savvy suspects did much of their communicating online, where they also developed their radical ideology.
“My understanding of it is that the Internet played a very important part of it,” Wilson said on CNN’s “Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer.”
A Canadian official confirmed that intelligence and law enforcement authorities “had been watching and reading [e-mail] and keeping tabs on these people for a very long time. [The suspects] had purchased [the fertilizer], and it was delivered to them.”
The Canadian official also said more arrests could come, and that intelligence gleaned from the raids was being shared with law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the United States and other countries.
The senior U.S. law enforcement official said the Internet had been the connecting link among the suspected militants in the various countries, and that the murky nature of their communications -- many of which were encrypted or in code -- made it extremely hard to separate those intent on committing terrorist attacks from those who were espousing support for such acts and other anti-government views.
The Canadian and U.S. officials requested anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
Of the 12 adults arrested, six lived in Mississauga, a suburb west of Toronto, and four lived within a few minutes of one another in the northeastern Toronto neighborhood of Scarborough, both of which have substantial Muslim populations, according to authorities.
All are residents of Canada “for the most part,” police said Saturday. Their ethnic or national origins include Somalian, Egyptian, Jamaican and Trinidadian.
The suspects came from many walks of life, including a sandwich shop worker and a computer programmer, according to local media reports.
Ahmad Mustafa Ghany, 21, was a health sciences graduate from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and was born in Canada after his father, a urologist, emigrated from Trinidad in 1955, according to attorney Rocco Galati, who is representing Ghany and another suspect, Shareef Abdelhaleen. Galati said Abdelhaleen is a 30-year-old software programmer whose family emigrated from Egypt when he was 10.
Both Mississauga, with a population of nearly 611,000, and Scarborough have several mosques and hundreds of businesses that cater to Muslims. The 2001 census counted 41,840 Muslims living in Mississauga and 165,130 in Toronto, or about 7% of each city’s population.
Many Muslims worry about a violent backlash as a result of the terrorism arrests. A Toronto mosque was apparently vandalized overnight Saturday.
Omar Farouk, president of the International Muslims Organization, said the attack on his mosque “clearly showed hatred.”
Sayed Reza, an administrator with the Understanding Islamic Academy in Mississauga, said he remained confident that Canadians would remain tolerant.
“Generally, the Canadian public do support us in times like this,” he said, though he added that he did sense suspicious looks over the weekend since the arrests were announced.
“I do feel the hysteria,” he said. “People were looking at us in shock when they drove by the school.”
Times staff writer Meyer reported from Washington and special correspondent Chow from Toronto.