Specious terror cases in New Jersey, Toronto

Jury selection began under unusual security measures Sept. 29 in the federal trial of five men accused of planning an attack on Fort Dix, NJ, where reservists are trained for duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. The men—all foreign-born Muslims in their 20s who have lived for years in New Jersey—are charged with conspiracy to murder soldiers and attempted murder. They’ll face life imprisonment if convicted. No attack was carried out and attorneys for the men say there was no plot. (AP, Sept. 29)

This strikes us as another case of the feds being unable (read: unwilling) to distinguish between a serious intention to carry out an attack and bad-ass braggadocio—as in the Liberty City 7, which ended in acquittal and mistrial.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Crown has for the first time successfully prosecuted a crime designated as an “act of terrorism”—thanks to the wide net cast by new laws. A 20-year-old man was found Sept. 25 to be an “eager acolyte” to more senior suspects who discussed exploding truck bombs in downtown Toronto, storming Parliament, and decapitating Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He was found guilty of “participating in a terrorist group” despite the fact there was no evidence that he planned, or even knew about, any specific plot.

Despite the guilty verdict, the man has not yet been formally convicted. That process is frozen until the court reviews an application from his lawyer arguing that many of the group’s activities were made possible by a paid police informant who himself committed illegal acts.

Most of the evidence focused on the suspect’s participation at two camps north of Toronto staged by the group, known as the Toronto 18. Only 17 when he was arrested, the suspect was portrayed by the defense as an impressionable recent Islamic convert and immigrant from Sri Lanka who didn’t know what he was getting into when he arrived at the camp. His identity is protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, and his adult co-defendants have yet to face trial.

But in his ruling, Judge John Sproat said that even commonplace activities can take on a sinister meaning in the context of a camp where leaders spoke of destroying “Rome” and marching in Washington. “As a matter of common sense, engaging in activities such as paintballing, physical exercise and rafting is by no means inconsistent with the existence of a terrorist group,” Sproat ruled.

University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach harshly criticized the prosecution. “The ruling may indicate that ‘participation in terrorism’ becomes the favored charge, much as ‘material support for terrorism’ has south of the border,” he said.

Roach pointed out that the verdict was “a different result” than that of a British Columbia trial against two men in connection with a much more horrific and concrete crime. In 2005, after a two-decade RCMP investigation, two men were acquitted of planting a suitcase bomb that killed more than 300 people on a 1985 Air India flight. The two men were charged under traditional Criminal Code laws that did not explicitly address acts of terrorism. (NYT, Sept. 25; Globe & Mail, Sept. 25

See our last posts on Canada and specious terror cases.