TERROR AT HOME

In Features /

By Eric Lam

June 2, 2006 was a hot and sticky night, and Zakaria and Nada Amara still had a lot of moving in to do when the police smashed open their glass front door.

The high school sweethearts had tried living on their own for a while, but it wasn’t working out. They had only made the decision to move into Nada’s mother’s basement the day before.

Nada, 20 at the time, was unpacking when the shouting started. Men in masks charged in, brandishing guns. There was glass everywhere in the front of the house, the remnants of the shattered door. A SWAT member wrenched her crying eight-month old daughter, Nour, from her arms and another officer forced her to the ground. For several agonizing minutes, she didn’t know where her daughter was. “I just remember being handcuffed and brought upstairs,” Nada said.

There, she saw her 14-year-old sister handcuffed. Her brother was too. But there was no sign of Zakaria, her husband. Since then, she’s only seen him from behind a sheet of glass or across a courtroom. He is now an alleged terrorist, locked away in solitary confinement for more than two years, accused of plotting to blow up Parliament and behead the prime minister.

Amara, a former Ryerson student, and 16 others were arrested in June 2006 by the RCMP and partners of the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team (INSET). They were charged with dozens of terrorism-related offenses under Section 83 of the criminal code.

Another Ryerson student, 18-year-old Ibrahim Aboud, was arrested two months later.

“This group took steps to acquire three tonnes of ammonium nitrate and other components necessary to create explosive devices,” RCMP Assistant Commissioner Mike McDonell said in a release the day after the arrests. “At all times, the focus of our investigation was the safety and protection of the public.”

One minute, Zakaria and Nada Amara were just another young couple from suburban Mississauga, trying to make ends meet. The next, the police stormed into their house and changed their lives forever.

One minute, Aboud was a recently-graduated high school student, preparing to start classes at Ryerson. The next, he was on bail under strict conditions. For two years, he could only leave his house alone to go to school, and at Ryerson, he suspected that people knew that he was facing terrorism charges.

In April, Aboud joined six other accused in having his charges staid. He’s free for now, but for the next year, he can still be re-prosecuted.

Amara, however, sits in solitary confinement in the Don Jail, awaiting his trial. He faces life in prison if convicted. His lawyer, David Kolinsky, will begin pre-trial motions this month. He is hopeful that jury selection will take place in fall 2009.

Now, the Eyeopener takes a closer look at the time leading up to the arrests, the ordeal these two students have faced, and the families anxiously waiting on the outside.

Nada Farooq didn’t know Zakaria Amara very well when he proposed to her, but something made her say yes anyway.

It was the fall of 2003, and Farooq and Amara were starting grade 12 at Meadowvale Secondary in Mississauga, Ont.

The 16-year-olds had first met in grade 10, in an ESL class, and Amara delighted her with his goofy jokes and good nature. Amara was shy around girls and kept his head down as he walked the halls of his high school.

When he saw Farooq in a hijab for the first time, he decided she should be his wife. His mind made up, Amara popped the question over MSN Messenger, a popular online chat program.

“I am inclined to marry you, what do you think?” he wrote.

“Uh, OK,'” Farooq typed back. She was stunned, but agreed. Muslims weren’t allowed to date, so if they wanted to get to know each other, the proper way to do it was to marry.

“There was an innocent aspect to him,” she said. “He barely knew how to do things, how to do anything wrong. That’s what made me fall in love with him.”

Their parents allowed the marriage but “weren’t exactly happy” at how fast the couple got engaged. They legally married in January 2005, and moved into a one-bedroom apartment.

To support his family, Zakaria became a watch salesman and later a gas station attendant while attending engineering classes at Ryerson part-time. Nada, who got pregnant soon after they moved out, went to school at U of T until she gave birth to their daughter, Nour. She took a break from university to care for her newborn.

The pair moved into a larger, two-bedroom apartment in Meadowvale and Zakaria switched to Humber College so he could quickly land a well-paying job. The university degrees would have to come later.

“Just trying to get over all these obstacles coming our way, we could never soar. It was always something,” Nada said.

At the same time, the couple was rediscovering their religion. Not particularly devout as children, the two adopted a passionate attitude towards their Muslim faith in high school.

Nada remembers watching her husband talking to teachers about Islam after class, and it stirred new feelings in her. “Wow, that’s actually my religion, maybe I should learn about it. That’s how I got into practicing my religion,” she said.

In blog posts uncovered by Globe and Mail reporters Omar El Akkad and Greg McArthur in 2006, the full extent of the Amaras’ devotion becomes apparent.

Nada requested a clause in a prenuptial agreement that forced Zakaria to go to war if jihad was declared. “[And] if he ever refuses a clear opportunity to leave for jihad, then I want the choice of divorce,” the Globe reported Nada as writing in one of 6,000 online posts.

According to the Globe, she used a picture of the Koran and a rifle as her online avatar, and wanted to name her child after a Chechnyan militant if it was a boy. The Amaras also talked about moving to a Muslim country prior to the arrest, because it would be easier to practice their faith there.

Despite the Globe’s assertions that the Amaras were radical anti-westerners, Nada says she loves Canada. “When we hear about the Olympics we cheer for Canada, but it’s hard when your own country thinks you’re the enemy,” she said. “I don’t care if half of Canada doesn’t like me. These are my people.”

Since the arrests, Nada has become a pariah within the Muslim community. People have left threats at her front door and cursed at her and her daughter when they walk on the street. It’s gotten so bad, her family is considering moving. But Islam is an important part of her life and she’s not about to let that go. “Even among Muslims, some don’t like people who extremely practice [their faith],” she said.

She’s not alone.

Saima Mohammad, 23, the sister-in-law of Fahim Ahmad, another of the accused, used to wear a veil like Nada. But she has since taken it off, tired of being harassed since she put it on in grade 7.

The other day while taking the subway to school, a man came up to her and said she was “dressed like a slut.”

When Aboud started classes at Ryerson the month after his arrest, he was certain his classmates and professors knew who he was. Luckily, they didn’t give him much hassle.

“I just want to have a normal life,” he told the Eyeopener at the time.

His bail conditions, however, caused him problems. He wasn’t allowed to leave his house alone, except to go to school. When Muhammad Ali Jabbar, president of the Ryerson Students’ Union, organized a party to break fast for Ramadan at his house, Aboud had to decline. Jabbar thought he’d been slighted. “I didn’t know who he was. He said ‘No,’ without any reason,” Jabbar said. “I thought, ‘How rude.'”

Later, he discovered the reason Aboud kept turning him down. “It brought tears to my eyes. A harmless first-year student was treated like this, where he couldn’t even go out to meet his friends,” he said.

The Amaras, Mohammad, and Jabbar all say they have been interviewed extensively by CSIS. They all call it racial profiling, and even argue that Fahim Ahmad lost a security guard job because of the civilian spy agency.

CSIS didn’t return the Eyeopener’s calls, however RCMP spokesman Sgt. Marc LaPorte said that CSIS and the Mounties have extensive national-security related investigations in the GTA, not always related to Muslims.

The RCMP has an an obligation to follow up on every lead when it comes to national security. “This isn’t like organized crime where if you have three targets you can focus your investigation on one target,” he said. “We take every piece of information seriously.”

Every morning, Zakaria Amara wakes up to the same four walls. He’s been living in a six-by-10-foot cell for the better part of two years, trapped with nothing but his thoughts and his religion. “Honestly, after two years this is reality. Outside is a fantasy,” he said. “You just never know if they’ll put something in your food. It’s jail.” As often happens, he’ll get his hopes up.

Amara has lost faith in the system, comparing his experience in court to going 12 rounds against Mike Tyson with his arms tied behind his back.

Still, he refuses to give up.

“My belief in God and my confidence in the case [keep me going],” he said. “The truth will come out, whether today, tomorrow, a year, or 10 years from now.”

Aboud has kept a low profile these last two years. When he started classes at Ryerson, he felt comfortable here.

“I’m feeling safe at Ryerson and I don’t feel anything was wrong [because] people have been talking to me,” he said two years ago. On the advice of his lawyer, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

Each morning, Nada wakes up before dawn to pray. Then, she sleeps in. Nour, turning 3 in September, is an energetic toddler, and the rest of Nada’s day revolves around her daughter.

She’s still living in her mother’s basement, looking for work and starting university classes. She’s found it difficult to get a job because people are uncomfortable with her veil.

Each day at about 4 p.m., Zakaria calls from prison. They chat about what they are doing that day, about the case, sometimes even about what they might do if he gets let out. Then, he gets 20 minutes with his daughter.

“She’ll kiss the phone if she wants to kiss daddy, or when she plays hide and seek she’ll hide the phone,” Nada said. When the little girl gets a new toy, she will wave it in front of the receiver. “She thinks he can see her through the phone. In the background, I’m explaining to him what it is, telling him to go along with it.”

When Nour asks her why her father can’t hug her like the other kids, she doesn’t know how to answer.

“She thinks he lives in a separate house,” she said. “When we go visit him, she doesn’t really get it.”

When Nour plays with the children of Fahim Ahmad, the girls will hold toy phones to their ears and pretend their fathers are on the line.

Nour means “light,” in Arabic. So when Amara says he hasn’t felt the light on his face in a long time, he means more than just fresh air.

Amara has asked his family to stop visiting him because it hurts too much to see them but be separated by thick glass. “When they do come it’s the most painful part of the whole experience,” he said.

But Nour still thinks about her father every day, and before she goes to bed each night, Nada watches as she always prays for the same thing. “She says, ‘Daddy, please come home.’ She never forgets.”

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