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Case of alleged Canadian terrorist highlights world of targeted killings

An undated police handout photograph of Ferid Imam, who is accused of training al-Qaeda members in Pakistan.


This Monday morning it will be all eyes on New York City when an American al-Qaeda suspect goes on trial to face charges of plotting to bomb that city's subway system. Publicity will surround the case, the United States of America v. Adis Medunjanin, given that it promises to yield insights into how the fading terror group still manages to recruit "homegrown" terrorists in the West.

Scant attention, however, will be paid to a co-accused whose name is also on the docket in the case. This suspect has yet to face any trial, and he'll probably never get one.

Ferid Imam, a Canadian citizen who once studied biochemistry at the University of Manitoba, is indicted as a co-conspirator in the subway plot. But he won't likely be coming to the Brooklyn courtroom any time soon. In fact, it's a safer bet that Mr. Imam -- never arrested -- lies dead under mounds of rubble somewhere in mountainous regions of northwest Pakistan.

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There would have been no judges and no juries involved in this, even if a U.S. Predator drone plane might have served as an executioner. The American Constitution guarantees due process for suspected criminals -- but today Washington also upholds that its terrorist kill lists, which are devised and executed with Star-chamber-like secrecy, can amount to rough justice for terrorists.

In 2010, a Globe and Mail investigative team first reported on a secret global manhunt for Mr. Imam and other young men in their 20s. They were suspected of being radical Islamists who left Winnipeg to try to join al-Qaeda in 2007. All we could report at the time was that the search by authorities went cold in Pakistan.

Not long after the Globe story was published, I paid my way onto a Caribbean cruise ship where a recently retired CIA director was giving a speech to tourists. General Michael Hayden was the featured speaker in what had been dubbed a "Spy Cruise."

In that ridiculous setting I struck up a very serious conversation with the spymaster. When he was running the CIA, had he ever hear of Ferid Imam? The other missing Canadians?

I was surprised by the answer.

"I broadly know the case. I know the issue," the retired four-star general replied. He said the CIA had been swapping information about the suspects with Canadian intelligence agencies. "It was part of our general appreciation of 'We got people who know the West, who are now being trained to come back at the West.' "

I asked what had happened next. General Hayden didn't answer the question -- not directly.

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"One of the big issues that I was briefing to George Bush as 07 turned to 08 was the number of Westerners – broadly defined – who were showing up in the tribal regions of Pakistan," he said. He added that he had told the president that "this is a safe haven that's being used to prepare people to come attack us. And therefore we recommended – and this is the best I can give you on this – stronger courses of action."

Those words, which have profound legal and ethical implications for the Canadian and U.S. governments, have been rattling around in my head ever since.

You don't need to be a genius to figure out what the ex-CIA boss was alluding to. The CIA-led "targeted killing" program remains an official state secret, however poorly kept. No American official can speak to it directly, or publicly acknowledge that "We use drone-fired missiles to blow up suspected terrorists in countries where we are not at war."

Yet it is safe to say that CIA-targeted killings in Pakistan have taken off like a rocket ship in 2008, as president Bush lowered the bar on the thresholds needed for the CIA to initiate lethal action. In that period, hundreds of bombs began dropping annually in Pakistan, where only dozens had been dropped before.

There were justifications for this activity.

In 2009 an Afghan-American hot dog vendor named Najibullah Zazi was arrested in Manhattan. It was a huge bust, especially given how alarming the charges were -- Mr. Zazi, then 20, stood accused of being part of a plot to bomb the New York after first training with al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan.

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He had allegedly ventured abroad for training with two of his high school classmates. One of them was allegedly Adis Medunjanin, the New Yorker whose trial begins Monday.

Mr. Zazi, the better-known suspect in the subway plot, has pleaded guilty and is now co-operating with American authorities in a bid to reduce his sentence. His testimony should amount to an illuminating tale of how a group of young Muslims from New York embarked to Waziristan, Pakistan in hopes of getting terrorist tutelage from al-Qaeda figures.

It's an increasingly small world -- one of those terrorist training camp instructors is, allegedly, Ferid Imam. The Canadian biochemistry student is thought to have first journeyed to Waziristan the previous year. Mr. Imam stands accused of rapidly graduating from an al-Qaeda recruit to an al-Qaeda small-arms instructor. According to a U.S. indictment, he was known by the nom de guerre "Yousef" and was instrumental in turning terrorist wannabes from New York into the genuine thing.

"Ferid Imam helped them get that training," a U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation official said as charges were unsealed.

Canadian authorities, who have their own outstanding warrant for Mr. Imam, are on the record saying that they haven't heard of any signs of life from the suspect in more than two years. This may be telling, given the surveillance dragnet that surrounds Pakistan these days.

The Medunjanin trial that starts Monday will presided over by a no-nonsense judge who will want to move things along quickly. It's anticipated that key witnesses will be called -- including, possibly, some admitted terrorists-turned-FBI-informants -- as early as Monday afternoon.

Mr. Medunjanin, of course, remains presumed innocent pending the outcome of his trial. Whether he's guilty or innocent, the testimony that's to come in the weeks ahead will be very much worth listening to. It should tell observers much about Najibullah Zazi, Ferid Imam and suspects like them, people who stand accused of being seduced by a jihadist call to arms and turning against the societies they were raised in.

In other words, the trial testimony should tell us how "homegrown" terrorism suspects live these days. But what it won't tell us is how such suspects die these days. Because that's a story that no U.S. government official will speak to and that no U.S. courtroom is allowed to hear.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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