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Once a mujahed who took flying lessons, Ahmad El Maati seemed to fit the profile of a terrorist

Road to Damascus began with CSIS

TORONTO -- Looking back, Ahmad El Maati is not surprised that Canadian authorities were interested in him after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

After all, he is a Muslim man who had taken five flying lessons at Buttonville airport near Toronto. He and his older brother had once served with a mujahedeen militia in Afghanistan. And U.S. customs officers in Buffalo, N.Y., had found a curiously marked map of Ottawa in the cab of his truck during a border crossing a month before the Sept. 11 attacks.

But Mr. El Maati, who is telling his story for the first time, says none of these things added up to his being a terrorist. And when two officers from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service came calling just hours after the attacks, he was apprehensive.

His imperfect English made him hard to be understood. He didn't know much about Canadian law.

So he asked to have a lawyer present.

The officers seemed riled by the request, he says.

"They sounded very aggressive," he recalls.

"They said, 'You don't need a lawyer.' "

He says they knew he was trying to bring his Syrian bride to Canada and told him she would be refused entry here if he didn't co-operate.

The conversation, he says, felt threatening and he broke it off. But he took the telephone number of one of the CSIS officers.

Two months later, Mr. El Maati headed to Syria, where he was to be formally wed to Rola.

"I was so anxious to meet my sweetheart," he says.

He was toting bags packed with a pearl necklace and fancy perfumes for his bride when he was pulled aside at the Damascus airport on Nov. 12, 2001.

He says five muscular plainclothes officers handcuffed him, shoved him into the back of an unmarked sedan and pulled a black hood over his head.

The Syrians whisked him off to the first of a series of secret police and military prisons where he says he was tortured and held as a suspected terrorist for two years, including time later in Egypt.

"I felt like a small animal in a cage. I felt that was it for me."

The 40-year-old immigrant from the Middle East -- born in Kuwait to a Syrian mother and an Egyptian father, he holds dual Canadian-Egyptian citizenship -- is home in Toronto now, trying to put together a shattered life. He's recently undergone surgery to repair an anal fissure, an injury suffered while in custody. Rola is no longer in the picture. Her frightened Syrian parents forced an end to the relationship.

He has never been charged in Syria or Egypt, or anywhere else for that matter. He says the Syrians and Egyptians were acting on the suspicions of Canadian and American intelligence services that Mr. El Maati might be a terrorist.

The mukabarat, the secret police and intelligence services in Arab states, were willing to co-operate with U.S. authorities after the 9/11 attacks. Syria in particular saw this as an opportunity to ease tensions with Washington.

Well before 9/11, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency set up an arrangement with Cairo to turn over terrorist suspects who were not American citizens for questioning in Egypt, a country beyond the legal protections of the Bill of Rights. The CIA calls the practice "extraordinary rendition." Human-rights groups call it "outsourcing torture."

It is, Mr. El Maati says, not unlike what happened to Maher Arar, the Ottawa software engineer tortured in Syria whose case is currently being investigated by a federal commission of inquiry. Or that of Abdullah Almalki, an Ottawa electrical engineer also tortured in Syria.

There is no official inquiry into what happened to Mr. El Maati and Mr. Almalki. Most of the material in their cases remains classified because Justice Department lawyers claim disclosure would hurt national security. Lawyers for the men suspect an ongoing cover-up.

The El Maati family came to Canada when Ahmad was 17. After high school, some university and a number of odd jobs, Mr. El Maati says he decided to follow in his brother Amr's footsteps, setting out in 1991 to join the mujahadeen forces in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet puppet regime in Kabul.

"I felt this was an Islamic duty for me," he says.

Mr. El Maati says he received his military training with a group that was not aligned with the Taliban, the faction that eventually provided safe haven for al-Qaeda.

Mr. El Maati's military training, he says, was rudimentary: He learned how to handle an AK-47 assault rifle, but never fired it once in combat during his six years in Afghanistan. A bum knee meant he couldn't serve as a foot soldier. He says he drove ambulances and supply trucks instead.

He also says he lost contact with his brother Amr. The last anyone in the family heard from him was an e-mail in 2000. Some of Amr's documents were later found in a building in Kabul believed to have housed al-Qaeda members. On that basis, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation put Amr El Maati on a list of possible terrorists.

But Ahmad El Maati was back in Canada long before, working for a Markham trucking firm. In August, 2001, he was pulled over for what he thought was a routine inspection at the U.S. border in Buffalo, N.Y.

It was anything but. He says he was kept at the border about eight hours, photographed and fingerprinted. What seems to have piqued the agents' interest was a curious map of Ottawa that they found in a drawer in the driver's sleeping compartment. Several government buildings were marked and numbered, including a defence data centre, a virus lab, an Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. office, a National Film Board building and the main Statistics Canada building.

The map, Mr. El Maati says, was a delivery map he believes was left by a previous driver. The U.S. customs officers photocopied it and eventually let Mr. El Maati continue on his way to Philadelphia.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. El Maati was watching TV at the transport company where he worked when the attacks levelled the World Trade Center in New York. His first thought was this might be the evil work of al-Qaeda.

"I thought, 'Whoever did this is totally against the Muslim nation and against humanity.' "

At home one day watching TV news, he saw the ticker along the bottom saying U.S. agents in Canada had been briefed about a 36-year-old Kuwaiti man found with documents identifying buildings in an Ottawa government complex.

"I thought, 'Oh my God! That's about me! There is some mistake. We have to clear this up.' I was willing to discuss everything."

Mr. El Maati and his father went to a lawyer who had been offering advice to Toronto Muslims. They gave him the phone number of the CSIS officers who had been around just hours after the 9/11 attacks and asked him to set up a meeting.

The lawyer left several messages for the officers, Mr. El Maati says. They never called back. He also says, he was being followed by people in unmarked cars. But Mr. El Maati had other things on his mind. He was preparing for his wedding.

It had been an arranged marriage. Mr. El Maati was introduced to Rola in Damascus only a few months earlier, but she soon won his heart. He proposed and within weeks the couple completed all of the formalities. In fact, they were legally married -- so he could sponsor her to come to Canada -- but the marriage was not to be consummated until after a second ceremony and the big party in Damascus.

On Nov. 11, 2001, Mr. El Maati and his proud mother, Samira Shallash, left Toronto for the wedding. But during pre-boarding security at Pearson airport, he says they were called aside by plainclothes officers. In an interview room, officers from the Ontario Provincial Police asked him if he had that curious Ottawa map with him.

Mr. El Maati says he told them his lawyer had it and he gave them the lawyer's number. He noticed the officers had a file open with his photo in it. But they had few other questions. Mr. El Maati and his mother were escorted on to the aircraft.

In Vienna, Ms. Shallash transferred to a Cairo flight. She was visiting relatives in Egypt before the wedding. Mr. El Maati continued on to Damascus by himself.

But he never even got a chance to see Rola before he was being driven off to the Syrian military intelligence prison, the notorious facility where Mr. Arar and Mr. Almalki, were later held and tortured.

The admission procedures were brief, he says: The guards split the wedding gifts among themselves and then hauled him down to a tiny, dark basement cell. He recalls smelling urine and almost hitting his head on the low ceiling. A large man who fears confined spaces, he says he began to panic.

"I felt these were the last steps of my life. My cell was like a closet. I asked myself, 'Am I still alive?' This is some kind of death place. This is the first part of death."

He had two rotten blankets. When the corridor lights went out, he could hear rats. The prisoner in the next cell started screaming that he had been bitten.

The interrogations began the first night, he says. He was brought up and blindfolded. The interrogators said they already knew a lot about him -- they had addresses where he had lived in Toronto and even the colour and model of his car. Mr. El Maati is convinced this information came from Canadian sources.

The Syrians also asked about the map, his time in Afghanistan and the whereabouts of his brother. When they were unhappy with the answers, he says they slapped, hit or kicked him.

Mr. El Maati says he volunteered the fact that he had taken flying lessons two years earlier in a small Cessna. He had thought he might want to set up an air taxi business, but had lasted only five lessons because flying scared him. The Syrians told him he should do better, and suggested he invent things if need be. He says they threatened to bring Rola to the prison. "They said they would rape her in front of me."

It got even rougher, he says. He was stripped down to his shorts and forced to lie on his stomach on the floor, his hands shackled behind his back. Ice water was poured over him and then his feet, legs, knees and back were beaten with cables.

This went on for two days until Mr. El Maati says he broke. He says he agreed to concoct a story that the Syrians wanted to hear, a fanciful tale naming Canadians of Middle East origin he said had trained in Afghanistan. He also said that his brother Amr had wanted him to become a suicide bomber and drive a truck full of explosives into a target in Ottawa.

Yes, the Syrians said. "The American embassy."

Mr. El Maati says he had to think quickly. If the American embassy was supposed to be the target he might get sent to the United States for trial. Hoping to go home to Canada, Mr. El Maati says he "confessed" that the target was the Parliament Buildings.

Even better, the Syrians said. They asked him to write it down. He says when he balked at that the torture began again.

Mr. El Maati says he couldn't take it any more. He agreed to sign a written statement they prepared for him and seal it with his thumb print. He says he was not allowed to see the final document.

During one of the interrogations, he says he was asked for the names of Canadian Muslim men. The interrogators were curious about Maher Arar and Abdullah Almalki, men he was acquainted with in Canada but didn't know well.

He says he once met Mr. Arar at a garage where Mr. El Maati worked, and he once contacted Mr. Almalki about how to get a Syrian visa when he was planning to go there to meet a prospective bride.

For three more months, the Syrians kept him incommunicado, refusing to let anyone from the Canadian embassy visit him.

Then, in late January, they handed him off to the Egyptians. (Mr. El Maati holds dual Canadian-Egyptian citizenship because his father is from Egypt.)

Mr. El Maati says the torture was slightly more sophisticated in Egypt, although no less painful. In an interrogation room, he says, he was forced to crouch low, causing great pain in his bad knee; then the torturers used a martial-arts type of kick to attack him all over his body.

"They insulted my family members and my religion," he says.

He is a devout Muslim. During exhaustive interviews last week, the only condition Mr. El Maati set was that he needed to break at the appropriate times for prayers.

Mr. El Maati recalls being kept in isolation for more than four months.

In early March, he says, it was clear the Egyptians had new information from Canada. They had a copy of the Ottawa map. But even more strangely, he says, they knew all about a $70 Sony TV remote control he had purchased in Toronto.

"I knew these questions were not theirs," he says.

Mr. El Maati transferred to a compound in suburban Cairo where he suffered what he says was the worst torture of his ordeal. An electric prod was used on his hands, legs and genitals during interrogations. His hands were cuffed so tightly his wrists bled. His food was thrown on the floor of his cell where he had to compete with rats and cockroaches.

"I felt like an animal," he says. "I was sweating. I was rotting away."

In July of 2002, he says, he was transferred to a third Egyptian security facility. He was kept blindfolded and handcuffed in a hallway with other prisoners for what he estimates was about two weeks. It was during this time, Mr. El Maati says, that he developed anal bleeding. Canadian doctors later diagnosed an anal fissure requiring surgery.

He says he was moved again to a large but crowded cell with a number of political prisoners.

On Aug. 12, 2002, he says he was finally allowed to see a Canadian diplomat for the first time -- three consuls, in fact. The Egyptians were present, so Mr. El Maati felt he could not talk freely about his treatment by the Egyptian authorities. But he decided to take a chance, and says he blurted out about how the Syrians had tortured him.

When he talks about it now, Mr. El Maati is emphatic on this point because he knows what he is saying is so significant. He says he told three Canadian diplomats that the Syrians had tortured a Canadian. He says he used the word torture, not a euphemism. He says he saw them write the word down. He says he specified that he had been beaten with a cable.

He says he told the diplomats this almost three months before Mr. Arar was deported to Syria. Mr. El Maati says he found it hard to believe Franco Pillarella, the Canadian ambassador in Damascus at the time, when he told the Arar commission he did not know the Syrians tortured people. When he heard the diplomat's testimony, he says, "I thought I would throw up."

Mr. El Maati was released Jan. 11, 2004, after more than 26 months in Syrian and Egyptian prisons. The Egyptians forced him to remain in the country until March 29.

He has never been charged with a crime.

Rola received a Syrian divorce.

He says he loves Canada and is still proud to be Canadian. But in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he says he and other members of the Muslim community were not treated like Canadians.

"Deal with the community," he says, "as citizens, with rights."

The El Maati file

BY COLIN FREEZE

Ahmad El Maati was "one of the main targets" of a counterterrorism investigation that began in 2001 and continues to this day, RCMP Superintendent Mike Cabana testified earlier this month at the Arar inquiry.

Police were curious about Mr. El Maati's flight lessons, the fact he drove a tractor-trailer, a suspicious map once found in his rig, his time in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen, and his fugitive terror-suspect brother.

This led security agents to materialize at his door within hours of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Yet the 40-year-old truck driver, who has never been charged with any crime in Canada, insists he is no terrorist -- even if he has paid a price for the suspicion that he is one.

Breaking years of silence, Mr. El Maati gives explanations for a number of past events:

Afghan training camps: Mr. El Maati admits to training in Afghanistan, but says he only learned how to fire AK-47 rifles, and that his bad knee kept him from doing much of anything. Witnesses have placed him in either the Khalden or Deronta camps, where some mujahedeen have said they took courses including bomb-making and chemical attacks. He denies training there, saying he was at Khost camp.

His brother, the fugitive: Amr El Maati's image can be found on the Federal Bureau of Investigation website. FBI officials describe him as an "armed and dangerous" fugitive.

Amr El Maati's Canadian citizenship papers were found in an al-Qaeda safe house in 2001. But Ahmad El Maati says he hasn't seen his brother in years.

The Khadr connection: Like many other Canadians who have been accused of involvement in terrorism, Ahmad El Maati knew the notorious Ahmed Said Khadr -- the charity worker known in Taliban-era Afghanistan as "al-Kanadi," or "the Canadian." Mr. El Maati says he met Mr. Kahdr once -- at the bakery owned by Mr. Kadhr's father-in-law where Mr. El Maati once worked.

Before being killed in Pakistan in 2003, Mr. Khadr befriended Osama bin Laden and had his Canadian-born children tutored in Afghan training camps.

The strange site map: After returning to Canada in the mid-1990s to work as a truck driver, Mr. El Maati was stopped at the Canadian-U.S. border in August, 2001. U.S. guards pulled a schematic map of Ottawa out of his rig. It marked various government buildings.

For eight hours, guards questioned him, before letting him go.

The map kept coming back to haunt Mr. El Maati. Canadian agents wanted to know about it when they visited him on Sept. 11, 2001. Syrian agents, who, he says, got the copy from the RCMP, beat him as they asked him about it.

Mr. El Maati says that because of the map, the Syrians made him falsely confess to a plot involving targets in Ottawa. Yet he has always said the map was never his and he has recanted the confession. -- Colin Freeze

© The Globe and Mail

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