MONTREAL - Canadian officials say 19 men arrested in Ontario this month might be members of an al-Qaida "sleeper cell" that scouted Toronto's landmark CN Tower and an Ontario nuclear power plant as possible targets for attacks.
Yesterday in Toronto, detention hearings started for the men - 18 Pakistanis and one Indian national, all of whom entered Canada illegally before Sept. 11, 2001, either on fraudulent student visas or by slipping across from the United States. Government lawyers argued the men should be kept behind bars while investigators probe suspected ties to Islamic extremist organizations and the possibility that the men were contemplating attacks in Canada and America.
The men were arrested in a series of raids in the Toronto area Aug. 14 as part of a yearlong investigation.
They are being held without charge under new Canadian antiterrorist measures enacted since the Sept. 11 attacks. All 19 men have denied links to terrorism in the course of immigration hearings.
Superficially, at least, the alleged patterns of some of the suspects bear eerie similarities to the plotting that led to the Sept. 11 suicide strikes against the World Trade Center and Pentagon. One suspect, for example, took a commercial pilot training course that included flights over the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station outside Toronto, according to investigators. The unidentified suspect was described as an "unmotivated" student who stayed enrolled for three years in a course normally completed in a year.
Most of the men lived in Canada under false names. All contended they were enrolled as students at Ottawa Business College, an unaccredited venture that never held formal classes, according to investigators.
According to documents released by the government, some of the suspects experimented with explosives, setting off fires in communal apartments; others sought access to "nuclear gauges" containing small amounts of radioactive Cesium-137, an isotope that can be used for making crude nuclear "dirty bombs."
Yesterday, Canadian Islamic groups accused the government of "racial profiling," asserting the detainees were rounded up on flimsy evidence because they were Muslims illegally residing in Canada. "We in the Muslim community feel under siege," said Jehad Aliweiwe of the Canadian Muslim Congress. "To be Muslim is to be outside the protection of Canadian laws."