‘I would rather die than re-offend’: Jailed architect of Toronto 18 terror plots makes plea for taste of freedom

For the first time since his arrest in 2006, Shareef Abdelhaleem is hoping to slip from behind bars on an escorted temporary leave; to attend a de-radicalization meeting

Shareef Abdelhaleem watches as a Crown attorney questions a witness during a Toronto 18 trial in 2010.

COWANSVILLE, Que. — Almost 13 years ago, Shareef Abdelhaleem was arrested in one of Canada’s most shocking police operations — a national security sweep nabbing him as one of the architects of spectacular terror plots to detonate truck bombs in downtown Toronto and wage a bloody siege on Parliament Hill.

The accused men became known as the Toronto 18.

Early court appearances for Abdelhaleem and his fellow conspirators in Brampton, Ont., were a frenzy of rooftop snipers, machine-gun toting police officers and surging crowds.

On Thursday morning, Abdelhaleem sat quiet and bashful in a Quebec prison.

Beefy with his head shaved and a dark goatee, wearing a plain blue T-shirt and jeans, Abdelhaleem smiled and nodded amicably to anyone who caught his eye, but his face turned serious, his eyebrows arched and forehead furrowed when he was asked a blunt question.

Are you a terrorist ?

For the first time since that high-profile arrest in June 2006, Abdelhaleem is hoping to slip from behind bars on an escorted temporary leave; just for a few hours, accompanied by a guard, to attend a meeting on de-radicalization.

This was his first appearance before the Parole Board of Canada, despite being eligible for parole on his life sentence since 2016.

Abdelhaleem answered that awkward question as plainly as it was asked by parole board member Veronique Buisson.

“Not any more,” he said.

After a pause, he elaborated.

“I’ve adjusted my way of thinking,” he said. “It was — not to use foul language, but — it was a shitty thing to do… It was the wrong thing to do, I realize that.”

He was dangerous back then, he admitted, but no longer.

“I would rather die than re-offend,” he said empathically, before realizing that — with his distinct past — he must be careful with words. A board member asked if he was referencing martyrdom or suicide attacks

He looked stunned for a moment and hastily extended his hands, palms up.

“No, no, it’s just an expression, that’s not what I meant.”

Abdelhaleem is not an ordinary prisoner.

The parole board recognizes that, so does the prison that holds him, as do other inmates. He has been assaulted a few times and, he said, still gets threats from fellow prisoners.

His parole officer, Patsy Napoléon, told the board Abdelhaleem’s progress has been stymied because Correctional Service Canada’s (CSC) programming, designed to address typical criminal behaviour, doesn’t apply to criminals fuelled by violent extremism.

“CSC is not well equipped for radicalized offenders,” Napoléon said. The CSC programs were “not seen as meaningful” for Abdelhaleem, “given the lack of knowledge of interventions of extremist views.” There was reluctance to have him in regular sessions, for fear he might radicalize others.

Nevertheless, she said, Abdelhaleem’s last psychological review deemed his risk of re-offending, including another terrorist act, to be low.

He is used to not fitting in, inside and outside prison.

He was different from most of his co-conspirators in the terror plots, too, who were generally young, religiously ideological and more bent on destruction.

Shareef Abdelhaleem, one of the Toronto 18 bomb plotters, pleaded for a temporary release from Quebec’s rural Cowansville Institution.

Abdelhaleem was older — he is now 44 — and more established in life. But he was immature and insecure, he said. He craved being a part of something big and important.

“I was a 20-year-old trapped in the body of a 30-year-old,” he said.

He was a successful software developer before his arrest.

“I had a very successful skill that I honed to make money,” he said. He was earning $350,000 and had slipped into a party lifestyle.

His devout family deemed him a disappointment and, in response, he attempted to rekindle his Muslim faith. He started attending mosque again. He went to Syria to reconnect with his homeland and look for a wife. Back in Toronto, he started spending time in cafes with people who fanned extremist views, he said.

Terrorism doesn’t work. It was flawed thinking, what can I say?