Project Thread was a Canadian police operation that resulted in the arrest of 24 immigrants in the Greater Toronto Area in 2003 amidst incorrect allegations they formed a threat to national security, and maintained "suspected ties to al-Qaeda". It was later determined that police had based their operation on "flimsy evidence and stereotypes".
After investigating an unregistered diploma mill, police had seized a copy of the names of the 400 students who had attended the school and arrested 24 of them, allegedly gathering the Muslim names off the list and finding dubious connections between them to report as a disrupted terrorist plot. Among the accusations, authorities alleged that the "al-Qaeda sleeper cell" had experimented with explosives, that one had taken flight training and others had been seen loitering around the Pickering power plant, and may have been targeting the CN Tower in Toronto. After criticism that the Muslim community in Canada had ignored the plight of the falsely accused men, 18 different men from the Greater Toronto Area were arrested three years later by Canadian authorities and charged with almost identical offences.
Eventually the government backed away from its initial alarms of terrorism, and re-labeled the case a simple charge of "immigration fraud". When they were eventually deported from the country, despite the admission they "faced the possibility of persecution", the men found themselves harassed and threatened by a country that now believed they were terrorists.
Entry to Canada
All of the men had entered the country on student visas between January 1998 and September 5, 2001, and a number of them had cited Ottawa Business College (OBC) as their chosen institution. The former director of the school which had closed in 2001, Luther Samuel, admitted to selling C$700 registration letters to approximately 400 immigration applicants to improve their ability to apply for residence in Canada, and offering small amateurly produced courses across six rented classrooms. When the students expressed fears this was just a diploma mill taking thousands of dollars in tuition money from them, the director assured them they were just in a small branch of a larger downtown school. Those who left the school, realising that it was a scam, said they were afraid they would lose their immigration status if they reported the situation to police.
The investigation began when suspicions were raised about Khalid Jahinger, who left Lahore, Pakistan to travel to Nanaimo, British Columbia, on a student visa in December 1998. He moved to Ontario where he studied at OBC and George Brown College. He travelled to Mexico City to apply for permanent residency, which must be done from outside the country, where his C$40,000 bank account — inheritance from his recently deceased father — raised eyebrows and led to the beginning of the investigation. In May 2003, police stormed his apartment and arrested him and his roommate Aamir Nadeem and held them for five months until they volunteered to be deported to end their detention. Upon his return to Pakistan, Jahinger was questioned for eight full hours and released.
- Zahoor Hussain, represented by Jackie Esmonde and released on October 30, but was deported the following April
- Muhammad Waheed, 23
- Fahim Kayani, released on C$2,000 bail
- Imran Khan, 31
- Sajjad Ahmad,
- Manzoor Qadar Joyia, 30, lived at Dixon and Kipling, the last man still refused bail up until he became the tenth deported.
- Yousaf Rasheed,
- Muhammad Asif Aziz, came to Canada in May 1999, was later caught sneaking back into Canada from the United States in the back of a truck headed to Montreal, and initially gave authorities the false name "Asif Yasin Mohammad", arrested at gunpoint.
- Kishif Siddique, 29,
- Mohammed Asif,
- Mohammad Akhtar, 30,
- Muhammad Waliu Sidiqui,
- Muhammad Naeem, doctor
- Saif Ullah Khan, 41, brother of Aqeel Ahmed
- Aqeel Ahmed, brother of Saif Ullah Khan
- Jahan Zaib Sawhney, roommate of Awan, released on C$5,000 bail
- Muddasar Awan, refugee claimant and roommate of Sawhney, student at the University of Windsor for three years, was not home during the August 14 police raid on his house, when he had lawyer Tariq Shah phone police to inform them he wanted to turn himself in when he discovered he was wanted, but nobody returned his call. Later accompanied his lawyer to travel to immigration detention himself.
The later arrests involved the following;
- Muhammad Nouman, Karachi native who came to Canada to support his siblings after his parents died, worked as a clerk at a grocery store, arrested August 28
- Anwar-Ur-Rehman Mohammed, 31-year-old pharmacist, had obtained a pilot license and was accused of plotting to attack the Pickering nuclear plant, released on C$25,000 bail
- Shehzad Khurram Toor
The men were initially asked to give Canadian interrogators the location of Osama bin Laden, despite the fact they protested that they had never had any contact with militants or been to Afghanistan. One was accused of having given money to Global Relief Foundation, a charity later blacklisted for supporting Islamic militancy. An apartment "linked to the men" was also alleged to have had a poster of airplane schematics on the wall, as well as a picture of guns, while another apartment had an "unexplained" fire in the kitchen leading to claims that it "could" have been from testing explosives.
Immigration official Stephanie Mackay stated that several of the men had travelled to the United States between May 2001 and January 2002, noting that the September 11th attacks occurred in that timeframe, leading the National Post to announce a possible link between the immigrants and the terrorist attack.
Former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director Reid Morden was interviewed by the CBC, and stated that the arrests were legitimate, since the agency needs "only to suspect someone of being a threat before it can act".
Once in Pakistan, Muhammad Asif Aziz, Muhammad Wahid, Kashif Siddiq, Imran Yunus Khan and Mudassar Awan announced their intentions to sue the government of Canada for falsely accusing them of terrorism and ruining their lives. Canadian politician Diane Ablonczy argued that the arrests had made Canada less safe, since the embarrassment would leave law enforcement skittish in the future.
- CBC, Al-Qaeda suspect to stay behind bars, August 28, 2003
- CTV News, Pme pf 19 Toronto terror suspects granted bail, August 28, 2003
- EJP Canada Hearing Summary
- Shephard, Michelle & Sonia Verma. Toronto Star, "They only arrested the Muhammads", November 30, 2003
- CNN.com — Lawyer: Government says terror plans included beheading — Jun 7, 2006
- Terror suspects plotted two separate attacks
- globeandmail.com: National
- Toronto18.com, Frequently Asked Questions
- Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, Open letter on Toronto 11 to Authorities, May 3, 2008
- Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Zahoor Hussain Viciously Deported, April 28, 2004
- Iqbal, Nasir. DAWN, Released Pakistanis threaten to sue Canadian govt, December 10, 2003
- Hasan, Khalid. Daily Times, Canadian terror probe against 19 Pakistanis falling apart, 2003
- DAWN, Released Pakistanis threaten to sue Canada, December 10, 2003
- AFP, Al Qaeda suspects face hearing in Canada, August 28, 2003
- Shephard, Michelle. Toronto Star, "Terror suspect may be freed; But others held as security threats Documents claim links to Al Qaeda", August 28, 2003
- Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Project Threadbare vows to continue fight to protect human rights
- Gardiner, Beth. Associated Press, "Freed terror suspect says indefinite detention eroding prisoners' mental health", April 23, 2004
- Bell, Stewart. National Post, "Possible al-Qaeda cell: Some detainees may have been in US on 9/11", September 3, 2003
- Shephard, Michelle. Toronto Star, "Authorities withholding facts about 19 detainees; Names released as review resumes Arrests front-page news around globe", August 26, 2003
- "Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Pakistan: Whether Pakistani citizens who were arrested in Toronto by Citizenship and Immigration Canada officials in August 2003 under "Project Thread" and who were deported to Pakistan in December 2003, held a press conference in Islamabad where they announced their intention to sue the government of Canada". Refworld. Retrieved 16 February 2014.