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Jihad. NBA. Jail.

 

The competing voices of a group of Muslim students clustered around a table at a Scarborough coffee shop grow louder as the chatter intensifies.

 

They lean in closer, jockeying for the attention of a female reporter. Between slurps of iced cappuccino and mouthfuls of doughnut, they talk of Islamic radicals, professional basketball playoffs and American foreign policy.

 

Then, the conversation returns to the one thing they haven't stopped talking about for the past week the arrest of their 19-year- old friend, Amin Mohamed Durrani.

 

To them, it just doesn't add up.

 

Durrani was the one they emulated - a model Muslim whose commitment to Islam they revered.

 

In the midst of explaining the daily struggles of trying to be a good Muslim in Canada, the door of the coffee shop swings open and their Islamic studies teacher walks in. As if on cue, the boys avert their eyes from the reporter and push back from her. They remain there, holding their gaze at the floor and speaking in hushed tones until their teacher leaves.

 

Once he is gone, they move in closer and resume their discussion. One of them jokes that if Durrani were there he would be tapping them on the shoulders, reminding them it is prayer time.

 

Instead, Durrani is sitting in solitary confinement. The aspiring mechanic was arrested in a series of raids last week led by the RCMP's anti-terrorism task force. Fifteen male suspects were taken into custody, including five who were under 18 when they allegedly committed offences. Two other men were also charged, but they are already serving time for gun smuggling convictions.

 

The majority of the accused are young Canadian citizens from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The one common trait is they are all devout Muslims, linked by a complicated web involving several Toronto-area Islamic centres, mosques, and high schools.

 

The charges against them - gun smuggling, terrorist training, terrorist recruitment and preparing to launch attacks with explosives - stem from allegations that they belonged to a homegrown terrorist cell with possible connections overseas. One of the accused, Zakaria Amara, a university student and father of an 8- month-old daughter, allegedly purchased three tonnes of ammonium nitrate for a bomb. The alleged plot involved using three times more ammonium nitrate than was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

 

As details surrounding the allegations emerge, including an alleged plot to behead the prime minister, assassinate members of Parliament, storm media outlets such as the CBC, and cripple the country's economy by blowing up the Toronto Stock Exchange and financial institutions, one key question has surfaced repeatedly

 

How could middle class, ordinary young men - most of them born and raised here - find themselves accused of such a terrible crime?

 

Over the past week, Star reporters spoke with friends, family, neighbours and imams who know the accused. They also consulted community leaders, academics and psychologists - all in search of an answer.

 

The responses were varied. One university student who knew several suspects summed up any perceived change in their character as simply "bullshit." But others suggested a transformation may have been taking place, beginning with an identity crisis that evolved into a deep attraction to and interpretation of pure Islam, which was then warped by their political views.

 

Please someone find me

 

I want to find the light

 

But no one is there to guide me

 

Open the door give me its key

 

My eyes were closed but now I can see

 

Please guide me there I want to be free

 

Five years ago, a budding teenaged poet nicknamed Zak needed an outlet where he could express his yearning to connect with his Islamic roots. He found it in verse and in cyberspace, where he pondered his identity as a Muslim living under the pressures of the Western world.

 

Last week, the 20-year-old poet, Zakaria Amara, made a brief court appearance in Brampton the morning after his arrest. He appeared bedraggled and exhausted, shifting uncomfortably in leg irons and handcuffs - a marked departure from the popular teen his friends remember him to be during his early years at Meadowvale High School in Mississauga.

 

But long before his arrest, the young man's fun, carefree and easygoing image had been replaced with a shy, introverted and quiet demeanour.

 

It's unclear when exactly "the visible difference" occurred - as one friend put it - but it happened around the same time that Amara began hanging out with Fahim Ahmad, a co-accused he met in high school. It also took place around the time that Amara began questioning his Islamic roots.

 

Many second-generation Muslim Canadians feel "caught between two worlds," explained Dr. Marty McKay, a clinical psychologist in Toronto who works with victims of terrorism.

 

And that uncertainty about self, coupled with teen angst, can be a volatile mixture, particularly for youth who feel like they're straddling both Muslim and Western worlds, say experts.

 

"The global climate makes it easier for those who are searching for an identity to relate to (radical) people," said Munir El- Kassem, president of the Islamic Institute for Interfaith Dialogue in London, Ont. While these youths live in the West, they often feel more connected to their Muslim brothers and sisters around the world, and are conflicted by Western notions that Muslims are not peaceful people, he said.

 

"There is no single event or tipping point that gradually pushes young Muslim men towards radical thought," said Qamar-ul Huda of the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington-based think-tank that promotes peace and analyzes conflict.

 

"What I find is a gradual movement towards what they see as an opportunity for identity, a movement that provides some answers where other places are not."

 

When a charismatic leader enters the picture, impressionable teens can be easily manipulated and radicalized, transforming whatever schism the youths believe exists between the Western and Muslim worlds into a great chasm.

 

The result, said McKay, can be an "us-versus-them" mentality.

 

"There is a kind of paranoia that is used and fostered by these (radical) imams," said McKay, who has also worked extensively with cult survivors. "(They are) immersed in an ideology they see as right, holy and good and anything not part of that is a threat. And I think that can lead to, 'They're trying to destroy us, so we're going to destroy them.'"

 

This tension has been simmering and strengthening for some years now in Canada, says John Thompson, a security expert who refers to this as the "jihadist generation."

 

"The heart of the whole jihad conflict is that the Islamic identity is having an extremely hard time adapting to the modern world," said Thompson of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto-based think-tank. "A lot of people who identify themselves as Muslims find it extremely hard to be a Muslim in the modern age."

 

His sentiments were echoed in part by Moaz Mohammed, an 18-year- old who was a friend of Amin Durrani and also knew Ahmad. He spoke frankly of the difficulties of being a good Muslim.

 

"It's like an up and down thing," he explained. "Once in a while you just get religious. You start going to mosque more - maybe you hear a speech or something by an elder in the mosque, or your parents advise you, 'Change, start praying more.' But then once in a while you go back down and you shave your beard. And then, again, you get religious."

 

Regardless of what form it takes, say experts, the radicalization of young Muslims often begins with a search for, or crisis of, identity. However, it's important to stress there is no consistent profile to help identify those who may be vulnerable to radicalization.

 

For Amara, the teen in pursuit of Islam, it seems as if a close friendship with other devout Muslims such as Ahmad and Saad Khalid, as well as a complete devotion to Allah, were the guides toward the light and the door he spoke of in his early poetry.

 

By 2003, Amara had helped form the "Brothers of Meadowvale," an Islamic group that used a blog to express their views and exchange messages, according to intelligence gathering sources.

 

Although the blog's home page no longer exists, historical cache sites of previous blogs contain references to Islamic preachings, talk of Jihad and rambling rap lyrics with Islamic themes.

 

In May of that year, Amara posted another poem called "Wake Up" that speaks out against the materialism of the West and urges Muslims to rise up. In the poem, he speaks of finding solace upon hearing the Iqama - the second call to Islamic Prayer - and discovering his deen, or way of life. Gone was the insecure teen who had penned the earlier poem

 

I am filled with peace when at the masjid I hear the Iqama

 

But when I show more interest they call me Osama

 

Just trying to practice my deen so they call me extreme

 

They tell me I am too young, I am only sixteen

 

Sitting in class last year at Stephen Leacock Collegiate in Scarborough, the bearded Durrani was the perfect picture of a devout Muslim - ankle-length white robe, kufi skullcap, Qur'an in hand. An example for others.

 

Two years ago, the picture would have been different. He would have been wearing loose, urban-style jeans. Instead of carrying a Qur'an, he would have had earphones blasting one of his favourite rap artists. And if someone asked, he'd take centre stage and rhyme them a beat about life.

 

But he has since undergone a transformation of sorts, and in recent days he was more of a talker than a rapper. His mission officially began when the lunch bell rang, and he'd deliver impromptu sermons in the school's prayer room, preaching about Islam and how religion helped him. Sometimes, said friends, he would even distribute flyers in school to help educate his buddies about being a good Muslim.

 

At school, he was known for gently espousing his views and volunteering to take children to prayers. Teens looked up to him and friends say he was privately consumed with doing "things a good Muslim does."

 

Durrani's list of what constitutes a "good" Muslim underwent a revision over the past two years, when he decided to become a Salafi, a form of Islam that emulates Prophet Muhammad's way of life.

 

As he became more sure of himself, Durrani began wearing traditional dress, grew out his beard, and stopped smoking, drinking and even shaking hands with women. Slowly, he withdrew. His younger brother says he would disappear from home for days at a time without explaining his whereabouts; when he was arrested last week, he was not at his home and hadn't been there for three weeks.

 

More than a year ago, he and his friends began skipping classes to go to Musalla-E-Namira, an informal prayer room on the top floor of a two-storey plaza close to the school, which some community leaders say has questionable leadership.

 

Rumours abound Durrani may have "married" a woman in a secret, spiritual ceremony performed by a local imam. This union is not legally recognized, but enables the couple to have a sexual relationship under Islamic law and prevents men from the temptation of straying toward young Western women. However, Islamic law also dictates that a man should only marry when he can provide for her.

 

One of Durrani's co-accused,Fahim Ahmad, was legally married in 2004. He moved from Mississauga to Scarborough and eventually went to live with his wife's family. Ahmad began attending the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, a two-minute walk from his in-laws' home, where he would pray five times a day. He and Durrani would participate in regular Friday night youth basketball, often with some of the youths also arrested last week.

 

"It's prayer first, then everything else," said Zaid Toorawa, a 16-year-old who knew Ahmad from the mosque.

 

It was not immediately evident that the young men were undergoing a change and embracing Islam.

 

"A lot of my boys, they started changing, they started wearing the traditional clothes," said Moaz Mohammed, an 18-year-old University of Toronto student and friend of Durrani. "Even sometimes I used to wear it on Fridays. Big deal," he shrugged.

 

For Durrani and Ahmad, their friends seemed to notice a gradual upswing in their level of devotion, although few saw the youths' behaviours as radical or threatening. Instead, they saw the shift as an admirable effort to be more responsible.

 

"To take responsibility for one's life ... is a sign of growing up and not becoming radicalized," one friend said.

 

For Steven Vikash Chand, who converted from Hinduism to Islam in 2003, the transformation was more abrupt. Once he found Islam, the 25-year-old took on an Islamic name - Abdul Shakur - and seemed intent on honing in on the behaviours that would bring him closest to the Prophet.

 

Friends say Chand cast his net wide, and at the time of his arrest, was frequenting two mosques in particular the Salaheddin Mosque in Scarborough, known for its outspoken and often controversial imam, Aly Hindy, as well as Taqwa Masjid, an East York mosque known for its non-violent form of spirituality.

 

Chand was also known to frequent other mosques and learning centres in search of the truth. His friends described him as "solo" and said he would check everything he learned in classes against the Qur'an to ensure the purest understanding.

 

Even outside classes, many of his activities centred around mosques - he even pulled job and apartment postings from the bulletin boards at mosques. But to his closest confidants - also converts to Islam - neither his roaming nor his intense focus on Islam seemed radical or alarming. This is in spite of the fact that he disappeared for two weeks last November, they said.

 

"For converts, you feel like you're searching and searching your whole life," said Abu Yakub, 23, who converted to Islam around the same time Chand did.

 

"When people go on this search, they want to be guided to the truth. Islam is like my medicine."

 

People searching for something strong to believe in is nothing new.

 

Adolescents have long been asserting themselves in ways some may view as radical since the 1960s, be it through left or right-wing politics or body piercing, said psychologist McKay.

 

However, when religion and politics overlap there is a danger that a "toxic mixture" will result, said McKay. "They get muddled up. Things get radicalized," she said, adding, "I sincerely believe there's always a charismatic leader that's mixing these toxins together." It's debatable whether Qayyum Abdul Jamal was that charismatic leader. Certainly he was opinionated.

 

Last year, before a rapt audience at the Ar-Rahman Learning Centre - a storefront prayer room in a Mississauga strip mall where the 43-year-old was a longtime caretaker - he was about to introduce Wajid Khan, MP for Mississauga Streetsville. Instead, he introduced the crowd to his radical views, telling them Canadian soldiers were raping Muslim women in Afghanistan.

 

Khan bolted up, voicing his opposition. He's not the only one to have spoken out against Jamal in recent years, when opposition to his Wahhabist and anti-Western views began to develop

 

A key fixture at the centre since 1999, the caretaker, one of the accused, would often open doors for prayer and sometimes led informal talks with youth, who gravitated toward him after hours. Even though Jamal is known to have associated with six other suspects who also frequented the centre, it's not clear whether he was a catalyst for the group's alleged radicalism.

 

Ahmad and Amara met Jamal at the centre in 2005 after switching mosques because theirs was more lenient. The two were attracted to the strict Wahhabist culture that Jamal preached. His views about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the general plight of Muslims overseas were no secret.

 

Some argue stricter interpretations of Islam are used to justify political anger, which may be attractive to some converts to the faith.

 

"The mentality of being really angry at what's going on in the world is very present in our community," said Muhammad Robert Heft, a 33-year-old Muslim who converted to Islam in 1998 and is a friend of Chand, one of the accused.

 

"Chand was never very political. Basically we had the same grievances, that Muslims overseas are being oppressed," he said, adding that it seemed like a stretch to envision his friend as a terrorist planning to behead the Prime Minister.

 

"A lot of the brothers, they come from sort of a gangster hip- hop mentality, in Scarborough especially. They like violence, they hate authority, and they like rap. When they first convert, they look for someone to justify their hate ... the enemy according to them."

 

Even though Chand was spending a lot of his time at the Salaheddin Islamic Centre in Scarborough, Heft said he seemed peaceful. "We never thought that he had these types of (violent) emotions, that he could have been in with these types of (radical) people."

 

In the final stages of the radicalization process, according to the theory put forward by several terror experts, extremists turn to the Qur'an to religiously justify violent jihad, while stressing the importance of martyrdom in showing their commitment to Islam.

 

By this point there's a rigid us-versus-them mentality that is characteristic of terrorist organizations, explains psychologist Marty McKay. They are so psychologically distanced from the "them" because they perceive them as a threat to their belief system, that it becomes easy to perceive other humans as targets - and the more the better.

 

"It's hard for us to understand that people could do that, but if you see them as an enemy and have convinced yourself, and have been convinced, then you don't have to identify with them as fellow human beings any more," says McKay.

 

Furthermore, martyrdom has long appealed to people. Just as there was a subculture in the 1960s and '70s that glorified revolutionaries, there's also a subculture that glorifies Osama Bin Laden, which some Muslim teenagers identify with.

 

In an effort to explain the psychological processes leading to terrorism, psychologist Fathali Moghaddam of Georgetown University uses the metaphor of a narrowing staircase leading to a building.

 

In a research paper published in American Psychologist, Moghaddam explains that as individuals climb the staircase, "they see fewer and fewer choices, until the only possible outcome is the destruction of others, oneself, or both."

 

It is on the last floor, he says, that specific individuals are selected, trained and eventually sent to carry out terrorist acts. Moghaddam, a former McGill University professor, goes on to say that psychological distancing is achieved in part by believing that by attacking civilian targets, the social order will be disrupted. The act of terrorism can then "spark" people into "recognizing the truth" and revolting against the authorities.

 

In a nutshell, says Moghaddam, Islamic communities around the world are experiencing an identity crisis and are asking themselves "What kind of person is a Muslim?"

 

Elites in Islamic communities have urged Muslims to take the West and Western lifestyles as their models.

 

But Islamic fundamentalists are reaching Muslim youth with a very different slogan "You are better than Westerners, because you have Islam."

 

"There is a now a worldwide struggle in Islamic communities to determine the future identity of Muslims," says Moghaddam, author of From the Terrorists' Point of View.

 

"Islamic communities in Islamic and Western societies are stuck between two extremes Salafists and other extremists want us to return to an imagined glorious past, while most elites in Islamic communities want us to copy the West.

 

"The solution is to find a third path to a new identity for Islamic communities. Terrorism, then, is a reaction to a worldwide identity crisis. As always, it is the young who experience this crisis most dramatically, and react most extremely."

 

Credit: Toronto Star

 

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