Ottawa man gets 24 years after surprise guilty plea in terror plot

Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh, the last of three men charged in a 2010 investigation known as Project Samosa, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for his lead role

Toronto Star/September 17, 2014

By Tonda MacCharles

Ottawa -- A judge delivered a scathing condemnation Wednesday of an Iranian-born Canadian citizen who led a terror plot to build explosives for use against Canadian targets and allied forces in Afghanistan.

In denouncing Hiva Mohammad Alizadeh’s crime, Ontario Superior Court Justice Colin McKinnon nailed the most troubling fact: there is no clear explanation of how or why he became radicalized in Canada.

Nor is there any clear plan for how Alizadeh, facing at least 18 more years of a 24-year jail sentence, will unravel his terrorist ideology in a federal penitentiary.

“You have brought untold shame upon your family, your community and peace-loving Muslims throughout this country. You have betrayed the trust of your government and your fellow citizens. You have effectively been convicted of treason,” the judge said.

“It is almost impossible to divine what set of circumstances might have impelled you to embrace radical Islamist jihadist ideology.”

That free choice, McKinnon said, “ruined your life and those closest to you.”

Alizadeh, 34, was one of three men arrested in August 2010 by the RCMP, and charged with conspiring to participate in and facilitate terrorism, and build improvised explosive devices for the benefit of a terrorist group.

Alizadeh made a surprise guilty plea Wednesday to the explosives charge, avoiding a trial scheduled for February. The Crown withdrew the other two charges.

Blinking hard, Alizadeh stood in the prisoners’ box, and spoke in a quiet steady voice “to acknowledge my mistake and anything wrong that I have done . . . toward anyone, especially my family first, my community and the society who have opened the door for me to live in my country.”

“Every day and every night I live with regret of those actions and those thoughts. These four years in custody have opened my eyes to the reality of what I’ve done.” Alizadeh said he hoped to rejoin his family, including a 6-year-old daughter and 10-year-old stepson, one day.

“Mr. Alizadeh’s tale of descent into radicalization is a long and tragic one,” defence lawyer Leo Russomano told the court. He “bears the burden of coming to terms with that.”

But little is really known about that descent, Russomano later admitted.

Alizadeh, an ethnic Kurd, was born in Iran before the start of the Iran-Iraq War. His hometown and Kurdish family suffered the effects of chemical weapons attacks by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s troops, his lawyer told the judge. “He grew up in the midst of war.”

Yet he didn’t come to Canada in 2002 as a religious fundamentalist.

“His own brand of Sunni nationalism took on the overtones of religious extremism while in Canada,” Russomano said.

It began well before CSIS and the RCMP began keeping tabs on him in an investigation dubbed Project Samosa.

Russomano and Crown prosecutor Jason Wakely said it’s easy to find plenty of radical inspiration, violent material and “like-minded people” in the age of the Internet.

“By meeting certain individuals, by becoming exposed to radical ideology, feelings of alienation and rejection can make one very vulnerable to those kinds of enticements of radical ideology, just the simple nature of radical ideology,” said Russomano.

Much harder is figuring out how to deradicalize people, said Wakely. “Curing this sort of ideological misguidance is not an easy task and not necessarily a perfected science.”

“He says he regrets what he did. Time will tell,” Wakely told reporters. “The national parole board will be in a position to evaluate that over time…who knows whether he’ll ever even receive parole.”

Wakely called the sentence a fit one at the “upper end” of the range of sentences for terror offences in Canada.

Alizadeh studied electrical engineering at a Winnipeg college before moving to Ottawa, where he worked as a school custodian and part-time Algonquin College student before becoming an active terror plotter in 2009.

He tried to recruit others to his jihadist cause, transferred money abroad to other terrorists including his brother Rizgar to buy weapons in Afghanistan and Iran, and began stockpiling circuit boards, transmitters and electronic components for use in an improvised explosive device in Canada. He used aliases, pay-as-you-go cellphones and pay phones, fake identities on email, and public library internet connections to avoid detection.

Alizadeh was in the early stages of building a terror cell in Canada and hadn’t identified a specific Canadian target but the goal was to hit targets here, Wakely said.

According to an agreed statement of facts read aloud at court, Alizadeh travelled in March 2009 from Canada to Iran. He snuck across the border into Afghanistan. He attended a terrorist training camp there run by Islamic militants for two months, getting trained in using AK47s and handguns, and assembling remote-controlled IEDs.

His training was first-rate, led by an expert bombmaker known as “Westa Omar” who had personally built IEDs to use against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Alizadeh was a good student. He “successfully detonated” IEDs he had assembled there, said Wakely.

Alizadeh returned to Canada in July, smuggling in how-to instructional manuals, 56 electronic circuit boards for building explosive devices, other components, and violent jihadist propaganda videos he intended to upload to YouTube.

Alizadeh stayed in contact with terrorists in Iran and Afghanistan, including a man known as Mansoor Al Baloosh — a kind of travel agent who “facilitated” the journey for foreigners seeking to join terror camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan. He also kept touch with a group of Kurdish insurgents actively battling coalition forces — including Canadians, Americans and British — fighting the Taliban. Their goal was to destabilize the government of Hamid Karzai and drive “coalition forces out of Afghanistan,” said Wakely.

Alizadeh’s brother Rizgar — a member of a terrorist group in Iran — is beyond the reach of Canadian law, said Wakely, while Canadian authorities have determined other conspirators “died in battlefields in Afghanistan.”

Two of Alizadeh’s co-accused have already been tried, with one acquitted by a judge, and the other convicted by a jury.

Khurram Syed Sher, a 32-year-old pathologist who appeared on Canadian Idol, was acquitted in August.

A judge called Sher's testimony self-serving and disingenuous but deemed him a naive player in the plot. Sher is the first person to be acquitted after a terror trial in Canada. The Crown is still mulling an appeal.

The other suspect in the trio that was charged, former Ottawa hospital technician Misbahuddin Ahmed, was convicted by a jury of conspiring to facilitate terrorist activity and participating in the activities of a terrorist group, but acquitted on the explosives charge in July.

Alizadeh had turned over the electrical bomb-making components to Ahmad and had made plans to leave country with his children and wife, who’d gotten a teaching job in Saudi Arabia, just before he was arrested in August 2010.

His guilty plea was an expression of remorse, an acceptance of punishment in the hopes of avoiding the “catastrophic implications of a life sentence” and rejoin his family and community one day, Russomano said.

Judge McKinnon agreed to the joint sentencing submission. He gave Alizadeh time-and-a-half credit for the four years of pre-sentence time already served in the “notoriously difficult conditions that prevail at the Ottawa Regional Detention Centre.”

It will mean Alizadeh has 18 more years to serve, but could be eligible for parole after nine more years. The judge ordered he not be considered for parole until at least the halfway point of the 24-year sentence. He is required to provide a DNA sample and prohibited for possessing firearms or other dangerous substances for life.

Ahmed faces a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison on a count of conspiring to facilitate terrorist activity and 10 years on a count of participating in the activities of a terrorist group. Arguments on his sentencing are ongoing.

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