Ultimately, we do not know if the Toronto 18 would have turned to domestic terrorism if the state had not becomes involved, says Jeremy Kowalski, author of “Domestic Extremism and the Case of the Toronto 18”
Sharmini Peries: Welcome back to my interview on domestic terrorism and the case of the Toronto 18. I’m speaking to its author, Jeremy Kowalski. Thanks for joining us again. J. Kowalski: It’s a pleasure to be here. Sharmini Peries: Jeremy, in segment one we left off at a very critical point, which is that this group of 18 or so are individuals involved in what you described in segment one as now a split group. There’s two groups involved, but one of them goes off and plans a bombing attack. Tell us about it. J. Kowalski: What happens is again just to recount is that in roughly March of 2006, the group splits. What will be called the leader of the Mississauga group contacts the leader of the Scarborough group and says, “This is it. They’re through.” Then, kind of go off on their own trajectory. Okay? The reason for the fractioning or fractioning of this group was precisely because the leader of the Mississauga group thought that the leader of the Scarborough group was in effect a blowhard. Right? A person of all words and no action, and then hence you have the splitting of the group. Roughly in around that time, you have the introduction of a second undercover agent who has a background in agricultural sciences and whose uncle I believe at the time either owned or was certainly involved with an agriculturals chemical supply company. This individual was introduced as somebody that would be able to help the various figures involved within the Mississauga group to be able to acquire various agricultural chemicals in order to develop bombs. As per the case, the select targets for these bombs were going to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service regional office in downtown Toronto, the Toronto Stock Exchange, and then an undisclosed military facility located somewhere between Toronto and Ottawa. Following that, these individuals, specifically two, the leaders and this one other adult figure, seeked to acquire various chemicals in order to develop these bombs. Following a variety of different maneuvers, imaginations, these individuals purchased what they thought was ammonium nitrate and others forms of chemicals, which were to be delivered to a storage area and upon delivery of these chemicals, they were subsequently arrested at the time. If one looks up on YouTube you can find actually the arrests of these figures, and you see the scene that unfolded while these figures were being apprehended. Sharmini Peries: Let’s talk about the role of the state here. Now, as you said in the earlier segment, there was somebody planted who helped facilitate and really accelerate the workings of these now two groups. What is the state’s role in all of this right now? J. Kowalski: Well, I mean, I guess the question always when we see with many cases of domestic extremism where the security services or law enforcement apparatuses get involved, and they introduce a [jonprovocateur 00:03:36] or introduce these types of agents to help facilitate the activities of these groups, is that one doesn’t know in the absence of the state involvement whether or not anything really would have developed or materialized. Okay? The question remains especially within the case of the Toronto 18. In the absence of these two different state agents operating on behalf of the security and law enforcement apparatuses, would this group have been able to engage in any forms of activity, especially the bomb plot. I mean, one could say if one goes into a forest and goes camping and engages in various activities, I mean, [crosstalk 00:04:20]. Sharmini Peries: The question is would they have carried out a terrorist attack had the- J. Kowalski: Right, right. In the absence of state involved, one could say who knows, because would they even had the means or the access to any of these things without the state making these materials available to them vis-à-vis their own agent? These are the types of questions that ultimately loom, and we see these same types- Sharmini Peries: The kind of thing that they were looking for build a fertilizer a bomb with some chemicals, that could be attained at any home hardware store. J. Kowalski: However though not necessarily in the quantities that they were looking for. Right? Because suspicion would have been raised if one walked into say a hardware store and wanted to purchase several bags of ammonium nitrate in addition to hexamine tablets and other things. In terms of the quantity, it was to be represented that these were student farmers that were seeking to acquire these materials. Sharmini Peries: Was a terror attack prevented? J. Kowalski: Again, it’s very difficult to say whether or not a terrorist attack would have actually occurred in the absence of the … Certainly it’s presented that a catastrophic terrorism attack was averted, not only within downtown Toronto but then at a military installation by interdicting these groups. Sharmini Peries: An attack on Parliament was also being planned. J. Kowalski: Do you know what? I mean, that was kind of the more sensational elements of the case, which was that these individuals had planned to somehow storm Parliament, take parliamentarians hostage, and they were going to start beheading the prime minister and other parliamentarians until essentially various changes were made in Canadian foreign policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan at the time. Sharmini Peries: That was a demand of the group. J. Kowalski: That was going to be a demand of the group. However, beyond this kind of rhetoric which happened to be made while they were traveling in an automobile when it was being surveilled right at the time and an intercept was actually collecting this data. There is no evidence that was presented that anything beyond conversation had materialized in any way. I mean, when one looks closely at the case, these people at the time actually didn’t even know who the Canadian prime minister was. Okay? Beyond- Sharmini Peries: How do we know that? J. Kowalski: Within the intercepts. They actually weren’t able to identify who identify who the prime minister was actually by name. There was a lot of lack of knowledge. Right? Again, one could look at this, was just a lot of conversation rather than the intent being to actually carry out these particular acts. However, the corporate media certainly gravitated to this as a spectacular development within the group, that there were plans to behead the prime minister, because obviously again sensationalism was with respect to the war on terror sells. Sharmini Peries: Which brings us to the question of how media covered this event. Your book very eloquently lays out a number of key newspapers in Canada that actually takes and presents this in a way as a home grown terror sleeper cell taking place in Canada. At the time, as you said, all the television networks were on this covering it 24/7 as it is here in the United States. If such an event happened here, CNN is on it 24/7. Give us a sense of how the media covered this and how it fed the kind of Islamophobia and as I said in the introduction to part one, the kind of counter-terrorism activity that we see today. J. Kowalski: Absolutely. At the beginning again you have these sensationalist headlines. Right? I should say the three newspapers that focused were the main three newspapers within Canada. The Toronto Star, which one would argue is kind of the newspaper of record, receives the largest circulation and the most readership. The Globe and Mail, which is another popular newspaper within Canada. Some would call it centrist. The Toronto Star being considered more liberal. Then, the National Post which is considered more conservative. I focused predominantly on the coverage. That’s where I draw the media coverage from, these three different newspapers. Generally speaking, the coverage is almost all the same. Right? Which is using orientalist tropes to represent these groups. I think a great way to illustrate to your readership what these orientalist tropes would be is actually a political cartoon that I use in the book which is called I believe South Toronto Terrorist. It was as political satirical cartoon that was represented in response to comments made by actually U.S. congressmen that Toronto was a hotbed of Al Qaeda related terrorism. Obviously the political cartoonist developed this satirical image to reflect those types of comments. The satire is not what’s important. What’s important were the visual tropes that were actually represented within this particular political cartoon. Okay? You have the keffiyeh that is represented. You have an AK47 and a bomb belt. The question becomes, how is it that these type of visual tropes without actually having to name that this is “Islamic or Islamist terrorism” that automatically it’s associated this is what it’s referring to? Right? I think what’s important is that the media draws upon a long history in discourse in the way that Islam is represented vis-à-vis western discourse in the western imagination. Okay? Generally speaking, you have similar tropes that constantly emerge. That Islam is somehow inherently violent, that it is anti-modern and that it is anti-western, and that it is this monolithic entity, and that these communities are somehow all the same and they are all unified. Okay? That generally then is inflected within the coverage of the Toronto 18, and thereby reinforcing actually the state narratives, that this was this internal enemy from within that was seeking to attack Canada for its values, human rights, democracy, freedom, and somehow these groups were opposed to that. The media consciously or unconsciously reproduces the narratives of the state itself. Okay? What’s important to recognize is not that there is some conspiracy between the corporate media and the state in reproducing this type of image or ratifying a particular understanding of terrorism. It’s important to understand that many of these groups are not prediscursive. What does that mean? That government actors, security officials, and corporate media themselves synthesized these dominant narratives historical as well as present and reproduce the language within these dominant narratives. Thereby unconsciously or consciously re-enforcing this very particular stereotypical image of how we understand Islamic Islamist terrorism and its domestic kind of expression. Sharmini Peries: Authorizing certain kinds of foreign policy, counter-terrorism or surveillance in our communities, which we will take up in our next segment. J. Kowalski: Absolutely. Sharmini Peries: Jeremy, thank you so much for joining me. J. Kowalski: Thank you. Sharmini Peries: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.