The ringleader of a plot to set off truck bombs in front of a stock exchange and two government buildings was given an unprecedented sentence – becoming the first Canadian to receive a life term for terrorism.
Zakaria Amara, 24, who pleaded guilty in October, admitted being a leader of the so-called Toronto 18 plot to set off bombs outside Toronto’s Stock Exchange, a building housing Canada’s spy agency and a military base.
The goal was to scare Canada into removing its troops from Afghanistan.
Jordanian-born Amara received the country’s first life sentence for a terrorism offence.
The 2006 arrests of Amara and 17 others made world headlines and heightened fears in a country where many people thought they were relatively immune from terrorist strikes.
Judge Bruce Durno told the court in Brampton, Ontario, that the attack would have been the most horrific crime in Canada’s history if the plot been successful.
“What this case revealed was spine-chilling,” he said. “The potential for loss of life existed on a scale never before seen in Canada.”
“Zakaria Amara did not just commit a criminal offence. He committed a terrorist offence that would have had catastrophic and fatal consequences. He did not do it as a foot soldier, he did so as the leader.”
Amara, who stared at the floor during his sentencing, was asked to address the judge and said: “I just want to reassure you that the promises I made (to rehabilitate), I’ll do my best.”
Before he left the court, he blew a kiss to his family.
The prosecution sought life imprisonment, while Amara’s defence asked for a sentence of between 18 and 20 years.
The life sentence is the stiffest penalty yet imposed under Canadian anti-terrorism laws, but Judge Durno said Amara would be eligible to apply for parole after serving six years and three months in prison – around the time of his 30th birthday.
Defence lawyer Michael Lacy said he was disappointed with the sentence in because of Amara’s “genuine expressions of remorse and in light of his denunciation of the terrorist activity”. He said they had not yet decided whether to appeal.
Judge Durno also sentenced one of Amara’s co-conspirators, Saad Gaya, 22, to 12 years in prison, minus seven-and-a-half years credit for time already served in custody. The judge called Gaya a “helper” in the plot.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police superintendent Jamie Jagoe said the case illustrated that Canada was not immune to terrorism.
Prosecutors said Amara planned to rent U-Haul trucks, pack them with explosives and detonate them via remote control toward the end of 2006.
Police found he used a library computer to conduct searches on bomb-making and the chemicals needed for explosives. A search of his home also turned up a bomb-making manual, circuit boards, and a device that could trigger an explosion via a mobile phone.
Through a police agent, Amara tried to buy what he believed was three tons of ammonium nitrate – three times what was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.
His personal computer also had recordings of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other jihad materials.
Amara apologised in an open letter to Canadians at his sentencing hearing last Thursday, saying he deserved nothing but Canadians’ contempt.
Amara, who is married and has a four-year old daughter, was born in Jordan and baptised as an Orthodox Christian before he converted to Islam at 10. His family lived Cyprus, Saudi Arabia and Jordan before moving to Canada in 1997.
At the time of his arrest, when he was 20, he was a first-year electronics student at a local college and had a job at a petrol station.