Canadian authorities were holding 17 men on suspicion of plotting to carry out terror attacks with bomb-making materials that police said were three times the quantity used to destroy a US federal office building in Oklahoma 11 years ago.
The arrests of the 17 men, mostly in their teens and twenties and all apparently of South Asian or Middle Eastern origin, represented the biggest single anti-terrorism sweep in North America since the terror attacks in the United States of 11 September 2001.
Officials said the operation, in Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario on Saturday and late Friday - involving more than 400 police officers and intelligence agents - had foiled a home-grown conspiracy to attack targets inside Canada. Citing unidentified sources, The Toronto Star said they included the parliament complex in Ottawa and the headquarters of the Canadian intelligence agency, the CSIS, in Toronto. All the men in custody are either residents of Canada or Canadian citizens.
While the group may have been inspired by al-Qa'ida, investigators said they had found no evidence of any direct links to the terror network led by Osama bin Laden. However, FBI officials in the US said they were looking into a possible connection between the group and two men arrested on terror charges in Georgia in March. There was no suggestion, however, that the individuals in Atlanta had ever been part of the Canadian conspiracy.
"These individuals were allegedly intent on committing acts of terrorism against their own country and their own people," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. "Canada is not immune to the threat of terrorism." It is one of five nations singled out by bin Laden as targets with the US, Britain, Spain and Australia.
Police displayed seized items that appeared to be bomb-related paraphernalia, including a mobile phone wired to what looked like a detonating device as well as camouflage clothes, torches and walkie-talkies. Media reports said the group had undergone training at a camp somewhere north of Toronto.
The decision to round the men up after months of surveillance by Canadian intelligence was made as they allegedly prepared to take delivery of three tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser that can be converted into a bomb when combined with fuel oil. It wasn't clear if the men were in possession of the fertiliser at the time of their arrests.
"To put it in context, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people was completed with only one ton of ammonium nitrate," said Royal Canadian Mounted Police assistant commissioner Mike McDonell.
The arrests have rattled nerves not only in Canada but in the US also. While President George Bush has recently focused US efforts on bolstering the border with Mexico, there has been concern about terrorists slipping in from Canada ever since the arrest in December 1999 of a man trying to smuggle explosives into Washington State from British Columbia in a plot to strike Los Angeles airport and other targets.Reuse content