TORONTO -- Seventeen people believed to have been inspired by al-Qaida were arrested and a large amount of explosives seized in raids that Canadian authorities said yesterday prevented terror attacks against targets in southern Ontario.
Authorities said they recovered three tons of the commonly used fertilizer ammonia nitrate, about three times the amount used in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people in 1995.
Police are treating the case as a "homegrown plot by homegrown terrorists," said Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokeswoman Michelle Paradis. Most of the suspects were Canadian citizens, and all are residents.
"This group posed a real and serious threat," RCMP Assistant Commissioner Mike McDonnell said of the explosive material. "It was their intent to use it for a terrorist attack."
Suspicions of a Canadian terrorist threat have increased since the FBI apprehended two Georgia men, Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, on terrorist charges in April. U.S. court documents allege that the pair traveled to Toronto from Atlanta by Greyhound bus to meet with "like-minded Islamic extremists" in March.
Though the Canadian suspects are not linked to any other terrorist group, the men were "adherents of a violent ideology inspired by al-Qaida," said Luc Protelance, assistant director of operations for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Authorities refused to give many specifics, but the Toronto Star newspaper reported that some members of the group attended a training camp north of the city where they allegedly filmed a video imitating warfare.
The investigation started with intelligence officials monitoring Internet chat sites. Officials said they worked for months before deciding to act Friday night.
More than 400 officials raided sites around the province, arresting 12 men and five youths on terrorism-related charges, police said. Among those arrested were a 21-year-old health-sciences student and a 30-year-old computer programmer.
The suspects appeared in a heavily guarded suburban courthouse yesterday afternoon. Snipers were visible on the rooftops of neighboring buildings, and bomb-sniffing dogs inspected the courthouse .
The suspects were charged under terrorism laws passed by Canadian Parliament in December 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. The Friday arrests were the second time the laws have been used.
Mohammad Momin Khawaja, a software operator from the Ottawa region, is scheduled to be tried in January for his connection to a British terrorist cell.
Several U.S. counterterrorism officials said they have investigations that have involved close cooperation among authorities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and at several other countries since September.
One senior U.S. law enforcement official said that there has been e-mail communication between two of the suspects arrested in Canada and the two suspects in the Atlanta case.
Authorities have not found any connection between the suspects in Canada and Atlanta and several men arrested earlier in the week in the United Kingdom on terrorism charges, the law enforcement official said.
He spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigations are continuing.
Authorities have, however, have found connections between the suspects in Canada and Atlanta and other suspected terrorist operatives abroad, including a group of men arrested in London last fall that includes an infamous computer specialist known as Irhabi007, the law enforcement official said. Irhabi means terrorist in Arabic.
Some of those discussions focused specifically on attacking targets in Atlanta and Washington areas, the law enforcement official said. "The discussions were wide-ranging," he said.
None of the plots were imminent, authorities said. But the alleged discussions ranged from attacking Canadian government buildings to blowing up oil refineries in the Unites States and a U.S. tower that they believed controlled aviation GPS systems, according to the federal law enforcement official and court documents filed in the case.
In addition to traveling from Atlanta to Canada, Sadequee and Ahmed also visited Washington and videotaped the U.S. Capitol, the World Bank headquarters and some fuel storage facilities, federal prosecutors in New York said at a recent court hearing.
"There is preliminary indication that some of the Canadian subjects may have had limited contact with the two people recently arrested from Georgia," FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said yesterday. "The FBI has worked closely with the Canadian authorities on this case."
Kolko said there is no threat to the United States arising from the bomb plot in Canada, and Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said there are no plans to increase security on the Canadian border.
Jason Chow and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar write for the Los Angeles Times