RM Issue #030829
Slender threads tie 19 to terror
THOMAS WALKOM Toronto Star Aug. 26, 2003
Future generations will look back at the post-Sept. 11 era as a time in which we all went nuts. Nothing demonstrates this better than the bizarre sequence of unrelated events, heroic assumptions and convoluted logic that led two weeks ago to the arrest of 19 Indian and Pakistani immigrants on the suspicion that they might — might — have something to do with terrorism. Let me add a caveat here. Maybe the 19 are all dangerous terrorists. Maybe you are. Maybe the woman who brings around coffee in the Toronto Star newsroom is. Anything is possible, and if we all want to be perfectly safe, perhaps we should all be clapped in irons. But before the jailers clang the door shut, you and I and the woman who brings coffee might ask for just the tiniest bit of reasonable proof. In the case of so-called Project Thread, none of this appears to exist. To read the rationale for the arrests, carried out after a seven-month investigation by the RCMP-directed Public Security and Anti-Terrorism Unit, is to weep. Consider the so-called evidence: Most arrested are young male students who are from or who "have connections to" to a province in Pakistan "noted for Sunni extremism." Most were studying "in what can only be called a dilatory manner." One of the 19 once shared an apartment with a man (not arrested) who was once offered a job by a relief foundation allegedly linked to terrorism. Most lived with other male students in apartments characterized by "a minimal standard of living" and very little furniture. Some knew two people (not arrested) who once tried to go for a walk on the beach of the Pickering nuclear power plant at 4:15 a.m. "on a cool, damp morning in April." Some knew people "that have access" to perfectly legal nuclear gauges "commonly used in construction;" One once lived in an apartment that once had pictures of guns on the walls. In short, most of the 19 students arrested were young male slobs who didn't study very hard, who had unspecified "connections" to a country in which some people are radicals, who knew some people who worked in construction and who knew others who did stupid things, like try to walk on the beach at 4 a.m. in April. They could have been almost anyone at any Canadian university. The jewel in the crown of this exercise, which might have been better named Project Thinnest of Threads, is a 31-year-old Indian immigrant trying to obtain his commercial pilot's licence. The key evidence against this most suspicious of characters is that his "flight plan for training purposes" took him over the Pickering nuclear plant. As well (and this bit of information comes from his lawyer who passed it on to the Star's Michelle Shephard), he once shared an apartment with a man who once shared an apartment with another man who was once associated with a third man who once lived in an apartment that once had airplane schematics on the wall. What's so intriguing about the "evidence" against this pilot is that how quickly it disintegrates under scrutiny. First, it is not illegal to fly over Pickering, or indeed any other nuclear plant, according to Transport Canada spokesman Francois Nicolet Asselin — as long as the plane stays at least 1,000 feet above any building. The reason, Asselin explains, is that the government — in the form of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission — has concluded that such overflights pose no particular risk. "If you flew a light plane into a nuclear plant, it would be like a bug hitting a concrete wall," says Rick Wynott, general manager of the Brampton Flying Club. Second, almost every small plane travelling between Toronto and points east flies over Pickering. That's because it's on the shore of Lake Ontario and small planes tend to hug the shoreline. What's more, Transport Canada's designated small plane instruction area is just to the north of Pickering, near Claremont. So it would not be unusual for a pilot to make a pass over the nuclear plant on his way to or from one of the Toronto area airports. Nor would it be illegal. Small planes are permitted to fly anywhere within a 40- kilometre radius of their home airport without filing a formal flight plan. The irony of all of this is that the beginnings of Project Thread were probably legitimate. A Canadian immigration officer abroad tipped his superiors that an Ottawa business school catering to visa students was probably bogus — that, in effect, it was enrolling foreigners in non-existent courses just to let them qualify for student visas. Such immigration scams do exist and should be weeded out. But then this thing became a terrorism issue. And everything went off the rails.