TORONTO – Experts say the guilty plea from a Canadian teenager who admitted to plotting to bomb major landmarks in New York City underscores the fact that Canada is not immune to the growing global reach of terrorist networks
Officials in the United States released details of Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy’s guilty plea on Friday, months after it was heard by a New York court.
The 19-year-old from Mississauga, Ont. admitted to connecting with operatives with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as well as conspiring with associates in Pakistan and the Philippines to build car bombs targeting such critical areas as Times Square and the city subway system.
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Court documents provided by the U.S. justice department provided few details as to how El Bahnasawy came to espouse extremist beliefs, but imams and scholars alike say the case is a further demonstration that radical messages are reaching a Canadian audience.
Syed Soharwardy of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada said the viewpoints expressed by El Bahnasawy in court documents can be heard at some mosques that permit a narrow interpretation of Islamic scripture. Such messages are frequently reinforced online and on social media, he added.
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But Soharwardy said anti-Islamic sentiment in Canada does as much as radical messaging to make susceptible youth feel alienated and more likely to throw their support behind a terrorist organization such as ISIL.
“(Islamophobia) helps others to be radicalized,” he said in a telephone interview from Calgary. “It helps others to feel isolated. It helps others to be marginalized. So that Islamophobia which is going on in our communities… until it stops, this is going to continue.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York unsealed the terrorism charges against El Bahnasawy and two other men on Friday, months after they were laid. The other two suspects are identified as Talha Haroon, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen residing in Pakistan, and Russell Salic, 37, from the Philippines.
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U.S. authorities allege the three men communicated through Internet messaging applications, allegedly plotting to carry out bombing and shootings in heavily populated areas of New York City during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in 2016.
They also allege that while in Canada, El Bahnasawy purchased bomb-making materials and helped secure a cabin within driving distance of New York City to use for building the explosive devices and staging the attacks.
El Bahnasawy began communicating with an undercover FBI agent posing as an ISIL supporter, and declared allegiance to the terror group, according to the Canadian teen’s guilty plea.
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The documents said El Bahnasawy stated to the agent that “these Americans need an attack” and that he aspired to “create the next 9/11” with plans to come to New York from Canada.
The global nature of the plot and its alleged participants was striking for one researcher working for a group combating various forms of extremist violence.
Amarnath Amarasingam, senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says the case shines a light on the fact that ISIL is thriving well beyond its traditional territory of Iraq and Syria.
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Amarasingam says it would be a mistake to attribute El Bahnasawy’s actions solely to youth and the influence of “shady recruiters.” While little is known about how the teen came to be connected with ISIL, court documents said he initiated contact and was actively seeking advice and support for the plot.
The fact that help was available from his far-flung co-accused, Amarasingam said, is significant.
“We have a young man from Canada receiving bomb making instructions from operatives linked to ISIS’s Khurasan province and financial assistance from ISIS networks in the Philippines,” he said in an email. “This has huge implications for how we approach ISIS’s loss of territory in Iraq and Syria, since it’s clear that their networks elsewhere could pose an equally serious threat in terms of attack planning in Western countries.”
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El Bahnasawy is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 12, 2017.
American justice officials said extradition proceedings are ongoing in Pakistan and the Philippines to bring the other two suspects to the U.S. to face the charges.