Canada's Khawaja key to U.K. terror plot: Crown
Ian MacLeod and Andrew Duffy, Canwest News Service Published: Monday, June 23, 2008
OTTAWA -- Momin Khawaja
secretly used his Department of Foreign Affairs e-mail account to plot the mass murder of hundreds of Britons in the name of radical Islam, court heard on the opening day of the Ottawa man's landmark terror trial.
The plot included possibly unleashing high explosives at London's most popular nightclub, Europe's biggest shopping centre and utilities in and around the British capital in 2004, according to the prosecution.
"Massive destruction and loss of life" would have resulted, Crown attorney David McKercher said in his opening statement.
Further, Khawaja twice travelled to Pakistan, once in 2002 with the intent of crossing into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban, and again in 2003 for paramilitary terrorist training, court heard.
Star prosecution witness Mohammed (Big Dawg) Babar
, the only al-Qaeda informer to have testified in open court, also claims Khawaja associated with an al-Qaeda operative who had planned a military-style assassination of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
Khawaja faces seven terrorism charges related to the foiled spring 2004 plot. Six hundred kilograms of ammonium nitrate fertilizer was to set off violent fireballs to kill and incinerate people inside "soft" public targets, as well as gas and electric utilities.
Five Britons, all Muslims of Pakistani descent, were convicted in a London court last year for their roles and sentenced to life. A major London police-MI5 joint counter-terrorism operation, dubbed Operation Crevice, succeeded in catching the gang in a series of highly incriminating and bugged conversations. Crevice also alerted the RCMP to the presence in London in February, 2004, of a mysterious Canadian, Mohammad Momin Khawaja.
The alleged "Canadian connection" is accused of being the group's explosives detonation expert. He stands charged, among other crimes, of using the basement of his family's suburban Ottawa home to build up to 30 remote-controlled devices to transmit radio signals to the bombs' detonators.
His prototype was dubbed the "Hi-Fi Digimonster."
In his nearby bedroom and another belonging to his younger brother, Qasim, police found several assault rifles, 640 rounds of ammunition, jihad and combat literature and, under Qasim's mattress, more than $10,000 in $100 bills. There was also a working detonating device.
Under the eye of Ontario Superior Court Justice Douglas Rutherford, Khawaja listen to the testimony from a glassed-in prisoner's box, flanked by two RCMP tactical unit officers. He made a point of ignoring Babar.
If convicted on seven terrorism-related charges -- he denies them all -- the court will be the closest the 29-year-old gets to the real world for at least 25 years.
He showed no outward signs of nervousness on the first day of what promises to be a two- to three-month legal slugfest over whether he plotted with a British terror cell.
About 60 spectators, mostly police and justice officials and news reporters, filled the gallery of the courthouse's ceremonial courtroom -- No. 37 -- decorated with rich oak panelling and deep red carpet, under the soft glow of a dozen polished brass chandeliers.
In Row 1 sat Zenab Armend Pisheh
, wrapped in a powder-blue head scarf. The young woman is to testify in July that Khawaja had her set up a Canadian bank account to transfer money and other materials to the London cell.
Federal lawyer Derek Rasmussen, who helped handle the Department of Justice's largely successful efforts to keep secret certain government information related to the case on the grounds its release would harm national security, watched from Row 4.
Directly behind him, in Row 5, were Khawaja's parents, Mahboob and Azra.
McKercher, in his opening address, attempted to paint a portrait of a young man filled with hate against "kuffars" [non-believers] and a blind devotion to al-Qaeda's violent jihad ideology and the creation of a sweeping Islamic order.
Court heard that among 29 e-mails the Crown is expected to tender as evidence, one allegedly authored by Khawaja talks of "two of the best things in life ... victory or martyrdom."
Other evidence, said McKercher, will show how Khawaja used his e-mail account at his Department of Foreign Affairs office, where he worked on contract as a software developer, to discuss his progress on the Hi-Fi Digimonster with his co-conspirators in Britain.
Other e-mails, he said, will show Khawaja considered using his Foreign Affairs position to courier the device itself to Britain. He could disguise it, he said, as computer parts. He allegedly also boasted he could use the same system to send detonating devices to Pakistan for other terror operations.
"They send things everywhere all the time and nobody asks anything," Khawaja told his colleagues, according to evidence that's to be led in the case.
Under heavy security Babar, 33, took the stand. He pleaded guilty in 2004 to providing support to al-Qaeda and to the London bomb plotters and is now awaiting sentencing in a New York federal court. He hopes to lighten his prison sentence in return for testifying here against Khawaja.
But as an al-Qaeda turncoat, his life is serious jeopardy. Perhaps as a result, he's lost considerable weight since his appearance at London's Old Bailey in 2006.
For almost three hours, in a New York accent, he recounted bits and pieces of his life. He wanted to be a pharmacist, but dropped out of university after one year.
In a bizarre twist, his mother was working in one of the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan when the jetliners struck on 9/11.
She survived and he became an Islamist warrior. He was soon back in his native Pakistan as a jihadist for the group al-Muhajiroun, supplying cash and military equipment to al-Qaeda and other Islamist fighters in Afghanistan.
He already knew Sheik Omar Bakri
, the British-based leader of the Islamic extremist group al-Muhajiroun and later made contact with Sheik Abu Hamza
, the extremist cleric at the North London Central Mosque, a one-time suspected hotbed for terrorist recruiting.
After settling in Lahore and continuing to work for al-Muhajiroun
, Babar met a number of young British Muslims who were attempting to join the Taliban's fight in Afghanistan. He also made at least one extended visit to Britain, where he met with several of the Crevice gang.
He said in 2002, at the home of Crevice ringleader Omar Khyam
south of London, Khawaja met an al-Qaeda operative named Abdul Haleem. Haleem, he said, had earlier purchased AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and other weapons from a corrupt Pakistani army officer to assassinate Musharraf. The plan fell apart when Haleem's chief contact to disgruntled Pakistani military officers was arrested.
The following year, in July, 2003, McKercher said Khawaja travelled to an al-Qaeda-style training camp in Pakistan's northwest frontier where he learned how to fire an AK-47 and a rocket launcher, and to work with explosives.
In February 2004, when Khawaja visited Khyam and other Crevice figures in and around London, he and Khyam created an e-mail address that they would later use for clandestine trans-Atlantic conversations. Both had the sign-on and password and only left messages in the website's draft folder without ever actually having to transmit a message electronically, a digital version of the Cold War "dead-letter drop box."
Khawaja returned to Canada on Feb. 23, 2004, and the RCMP began watching him. Their investigation was code-named Project Awaken.
Subsequent e-mails to Khyam were spiced with hip-hop style exchanges, such as: "How's it's goin' niggas, everything OK?"
"Yeah, bro, got home safe."
"How bout you niggas? Everything cool?"
However, it appears that by March 19, 2004, Khyam may have known that the security forces were closing in the group.
"Bro, things are bad. Be prepared, nigga."
On March 29, 2004, Khawaja was arrested at his Foreign Affairs office, while other RCMP officers raided the family's Ottawa home. Within hours, more than 400 British police and security service officers conducted raids there.