Caught recruiting for an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist cell in Ottawa, Hiva Alizadeh was sentenced to 24 years in 2014.
But he is already being released after telling the Parole Board of Canada on Wednesday that he had abandoned terrorism and was ready to move on.
At a hearing to approve his request to move to a Toronto halfway house, the 43-year-old insisted that if anyone were to approach him with extremist ideas, he would tell them they were wrong.
After pausing to sob into a tissue, he apologized to Canadians. “I promise you, I will be a law-abiding citizen,” he said.
Alizadeh is the latest of a growing number of terrorism offenders coming out of Canada’s prisons, raising concerns about public safety.
The record has been mixed.
Shortly after completing a sentence for terrorism, Kevin Omar Mohamed was re-arrested near Toronto with Al Qaeda literature and bomb-making manuals stored on his phone.
When Ali Dirie, a member of Toronto 18 terrorist group, was let out of prison, he almost immediately boarded a plane to join an extremist faction in Syria, where he was killed.
Convicted over a 2017 attack at a Canadian Tire in Toronto, ISIS supporter Rehab Dughmosh has vowed to “do another terrorist attack” once freed. She has been eligible for parole since 2020.
Not everyone convicted of terrorism is so unrepentant. Some walk away from extremism, or at least extremist violence, and are never heard from again.
But for others, incarceration is only a temporary setback. In 2019, Usman Khan, a British terrorist let out of prison 11 months earlier, stabbed two people to death at a conference on prison rehabilitation.
“The Correctional Service of Canada is well-positioned to manage the unique challenges posed by radicalized offenders,” said spokesperson Marie Pier Lucia.
But Canada’s penitentiaries do not offer de-radicalization programs for terrorism offenders or the larger prison population involved in violent extremism.
Instead, inmates are referred to general rehabilitation programs that critics say may not be well-suited to offenders locked up because of their devotion to fanatical violence.
As more and more Canadians are being imprisoned for terrorist crimes, authorities are increasingly having to make thorny decisions about their release when their sentences wind down.
The last line of defence is the Parole Board, the federal body that decides whether offenders are ready to leave prison once they are eligible, and under what conditions.
“Parole contributes to public safety through the gradual, managed and supervised release of offenders into the community,” spokesperson Marielle Gervais said.
Board members get annual training that covers “radicalized offenders,” but their task is not easy, and the consequences of a mistake are potentially devastating.
Which offenders are on the road to reform, and which will walk out of prison and resume being terrorists? And even if they say they’ve changed, how much credibility do you give the word of offenders whose crimes were inherently deceptive?
That was what the Parole Board had to mull as Alizadeh, balding and wearing glasses, sat in a hearing room, explaining that he had seen the error of his ways.
Did he mean it?
An ethnic Kurd born in western Iran, Alizadeh was in his early 20s when he moved to Winnipeg in 2002, joining an uncle in the city. He swore the oath of Canadian citizenship in 2007, but his heart was elsewhere.
In March 2009, he left for Iran, crossed the border into Afghanistan and, at a training camp for “Islamic militants,” pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
For two months, while Canadian soldiers sent to stabilize Afghanistan were dying in bomb attacks, Alizadeh lived with their enemy.
He learned how to shoot AK-47s and handguns and apprenticed with a bomb-maker who manufactured explosives used against international coalition forces.
He arrived in Canada in July 2009 and moved to Ottawa, where he began preparing for attacks in his adopted home.
“We will break their back in their own country,” he vowed.
To evade police, he used pay phones and public library computers to communicate with his overseas contacts. When he sent them money for weapons, his uncle signed the money transfers.
His first recruit was Misbahuddin Ahmed, an Ottawa x-ray technician eager to go abroad for terrorist training.
“Alizadeh and Ahmed believed that a global conflict was being fought between the fighters for Islam and the perceived enemies of Islam,” a judge would later write. “They considered the fighters for Islam to be engaged in jihad.
They began to raise money for their cause, and agreed to get weapons and explosives training, scout targets in Canada, and bring others into their mission.
The next recruit they went after was Ahmed’s friend Khurram Sher, an Ontario doctor who once auditioned for the Canadian Idol talent contest.
Sher and Ahmed had been part of an aggrieved clique that monitored news coverage they considered anti-Muslim. They wrote letters, including to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, condemning Canada’s supposed “blind support for Israel.”
Ahmed shared “violent jihadist propaganda” with Sher, and on July 20, they held hands while Alizadeh made a pledge of allegiance to “jihad in the name of Allah.”
“I pledge the same,” Sher said. “Exactly what he said.”
At the meeting, Ahmed was named the group’s “emir.”
But the RCMP was listening.
Despite Alizadeh’s attempts at stealth, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had heard about him from a source and tipped off the RCMP.
During an investigation called Project Samossa, the RCMP bugged Alizadeh’s phones and planted a video camera at his apartment. Police also conducted covert searches of his residence.
In a closet, they found 56 circuit boards designed to trigger improvised bombs. The searches also turned up electronic components for remote detonators and diagrams and notes Alizadeh had made in Afghanistan showing how to make them.
Videos with step-by-step instructions on how to manufacture the explosives RDX, PETN and ANFO were found, as well as a cache of violent jihadist propaganda such as beheading videos.
The book “40 Quotations Concerning the Merits of Jihad and the Mujahidin,” and the speeches of Osama bin Laden were stowed in the same closet, along with a memory stick that held digital copies of a terrorist training manual and instructions on ambushes, kidnappings and poisons.
Instead of seizing the materials, the RCMP replaced the electronics with duds that would not function, so investigators could continue monitoring the emerging terrorist group.
At 8 a.m. on August 25, the RCMP moved in.
Alizadeh and Ahmed were arrested in Ottawa. Sher was picked up in London, Ont. Ahmed’s friend, the Ottawa extremist Awso Peshdary, was arrested and released.
“This group posed a real and serious threat to citizens of the National Capital Region and our national security,” RCMP Chief Superintendent Serge Therriault said at a news conference.
In 2014, Ahmed was sentenced to 14 years but has been out on parole since 2019. At a separate trial, a judge found Sher not guilty, ruling he wasn’t a “genuine fanatic wishing to see violent jihad occur in Canada” like Alizadeh.
The last of the trio still before the courts, Alizadeh pleaded guilty to avoid a possible life sentence. Instead, was handed 24 years years minus time served. He was permitted to apply for parole after serving half his time.
Responding to the case, the Canadian government said Alizadeh had effectively been convicted of treason. His lawyer said he was “truly committed to reforming, to de-radicalizing.”
At the Stony Mountain Institution north of Winnipeg, Alizadeh worked with the prison chaplain to get food delivered to the facility during Muslim holidays.
The chaplain at the time, Brian Brglez, said in an interview that Alizadeh was persistent about the food issue, but he was calm and showed no resentment or anger.
“I think from what I could tell he was remorseful, he regretted what he had done,” said Brglez, who has since left the prison service.
Wanting to talk about his radicalization as he was moved between prisons in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario, Alizadeh began having conversations with experts.
One of them was Prof. Abbee Corb, a Toronto-based authority on hate and extremism.
Alizadeh told her he had broken when his wife and kids had come to visit him in jail and he’d realized how badly he had let them down.
He explained that he’d been traumatized by the Iran-Iraq war, and felt isolated after moving to Winnipeg.
Struggling with English and feeling targeted as a minority Kurd and a Muslim in North America following the 9/11 attacks, he had become radicalized by the rhetoric and camaraderie he found online, he said.
Before long, he was calling her whenever he had phone privileges.
They discussed the Koran and how Al Qaeda spun it for its own corrupt ends. He professed his shame that his actions had estranged him from his wife and kids and left them to fend for themselves.
She had books sent to him through the prison chaplain: The Holy Bible, The Torah and Siddhartha, the 1922 Hermann Hesse novel about the spiritual journey to self-discovery.
An Al Qaeda terrorist and a Jewish extremism researcher might seem unlikely confidants, but Corb sensed they were bonding. “I feel we had a real connection and he was getting something out of our sessions.”
When Corb’s father passed away, Alizadeh called the next day with condolences. “He was truly empathetic,” she said. “He said the right things, and I believe he was sincere.”
“And then he called and checked on me every few days. He showed kindness — kindness to someone who a few years before would have been his mortal enemy, based on the trajectory he was on.”
“I believe he was sincere at the time. I totally do,” said Corb, who lost contact with him after he changed prison around 2019. “He knew what he was planning was wrong, he knew that, and he admitted that. I don’t think it was bullshit.”
“I believed him.”
Having counselled extremists of all stripes, Corb felt Alizadeh was on the right path, even though he was frustrated at the lack of de-radicalization programming for prisoners.
Like other offenders, terrorism convicts undergo assessments upon arriving in prison and are referred to programs, as well as psychological, education, social and chaplaincy services.
“CSC works to address the challenges linked to radicalization through case management practices, which are individualized for each offender,” the Correctional Service of Canada spokesperson said.
“Throughout their incarceration, the progress of all offenders, including radicalized offenders, is reviewed on an ongoing basis. This permits us to assess an offender’s eligibility for legislated or conditional release.”
But while corrections officials have studied the needs of terrorism offenders, and officers receive training on the topic, the department has opted against offering de-radicalization programs.
Inmates can reach out to religious leaders and extremism specialists, but experts question whether that is the best approach for offenders whose crimes are motivated by obsessive ideological zeal.
Support is particularly lacking during the transition from prison to release, said Ghayda Hassan, a clinical psychologist and director of the Canada Practitioners Network for the Prevention of Radicalization and Extremist Violence.
Although specialized teams are available in major cities to help reintegrate prisoners involved in extremist violence as they are released, Corrections Canada does not make proper use of them, Hassan said.
“That’s just not logical for me that there are no partnerships built around that,” said Hassan, whose network of counter-radicalization practitioners is funded by Public Safety Canada.
“So there is definitely work to be done.”
The problem is not going away.
On May 3, the Parole Board reviewed the case of Corey Hurren, who rammed a pickup truck loaded with firearms through the gates of Rideau Hall on July 2, 2020, because he was angry about government policies on guns and COVID-19.
He was sentenced to five years but is already out on day parole, although the Board said he still has “a deep-seated mistrust of the current government.”
Ashton Larmond, an Ottawa man who tried to join ISIS, has a parole hearing coming in June. Said Namouh, sentenced in Quebec to life for planning Al Qaeda bombings, is scheduled for a parole hearing in September.
And with the rise of right-wing terrorism and the government bringing captured ISIS suspects back from Syria, more cases will likely follow.
“Parole decisions for all offenders involve a thorough risk assessment conducted by PBC Board members who assess whether or not the offender will present an undue risk to society if released into the community and if the release contributes to public safety and to the reintegration of the offender,” the Board spokesperson said.
At Alizadeh’s hearing, the Correctional Service of Canada said his time in prison had been “uneventful and trouble free,” and recommended he receive day-parole as part of a “slow and structured release.”
He told the Board that Al Qaeda was corrupt and misguided, and he was now better able to handle his emotions.
Working with an imam who specializes in de-radicalization, and the John Howard Society, he said ge had developed a network of positive influences. “I have people I can reach out to,” he said.
He said there was no excuse for his involvement with Al Qaeda and he took full responsibility for what he’d done.
“I betrayed the Canadian people who opened the door for me,” he said.
“I am ashamed.”
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