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A Muslim youth's journey from Calgary to Kabul: What was Sohail Qureshi doing in Afghanistan?

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  • Tarek Fatah
    June 11, 2007 ADNAN R. KHAN & NICHOLAS KÖHLER -- A Canadian spy Afghan authorities claim a Calgary man in a Kabul jail is part of a larger network backing
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 12, 2007
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       June 11, 2007
       
      A 'Canadian spy'
       
      Afghan authorities claim a Calgary man in a Kabul jail is part of a larger network backing the insurgency
       
      By Adnan Khan & Nicholas Kohler
      Maclean's Magazine
       
      Sohail Qureshi looks nothing like a suicide bomber. There is no madness in his eyes, no outward signs of a martyr within. As he emerges into the sunlight from the shadows of his prison cell in Kabul, his long strides are uncertain and awkward, his unruly beard masking a face bathed in juvenile innocence -- like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Are you from the Canadian police?" he asks the stranger who has come to see him. Qureshi, 24, speaks in a reserved tone, but it quickly changes when he discovers that the man standing in front of him is no police officer. "I don't want to talk to people from the media," he says, calling for the guard to take him back to his cell. "The media twists everything."
       
      For three weeks now, Sohail Qureshi has been front-page news in Canada -- the mysterious Calgary man who somehow ended up behind bars in Afghanistan. The details surrounding his arrest are still sketchy, but the bits and pieces of evidence that have surfaced so far seem to suggest another case of "homegrown" extremism, another story of a young Canadian Muslim who answered the call to jihad. Maclean's hoped to hear Qureshi's side of the story -- to offer him a chance to clarify all the rumours and accusations -- but he refused to talk.
       
      Although he is incarcerated, Qureshi has yet to be charged with any crime, and as far as Afghan authorities are concerned, the investigation is still "ongoing." The Canadian government has refused to confirm anything more than this: a Canadian citizen is in Afghan custody, and Canadian consular officials have been given full access to the prisoner. When Stephen Harper made a surprise visit to Kandahar last week, he did not even mention Qureshi's case during his meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
       
      But despite all the secrecy, Maclean's has uncovered substantial new details about what happened to the University of Calgary graduate, and why Afghan authorities seem so anxious to keep him in custody. "We believe he is part of a larger network in Canada that is supporting the Afghan insurgency," says one senior official in the country's Attorney General's office. "This is a serious case. We have advised Canadian authorities and requested that they investigate this network. We want them to arrest those involved."
      When Qureshi was first apprehended in mid-May, he reportedly confessed to planning a suicide attack in Afghanistan in memory of a "brother" said to have committed a similar bombing in Kabul on Sept. 30, 2006. The Ministry of the Interior quickly retracted that claim. Other details, previously reported as fact, are also erroneous.
       
      Reports that Qureshi was picked up while exiting a bus from Pakistan, for example, have proven false. Instead, according to Abdul Hasib Arian, the commanding officer at Kabul's 9th Police District headquarters where Qureshi was first brought in for questioning, the arrest was made between 9 and 10 p.m. while Qureshi was sitting in a taxi on a stretch of the Bagram Road on the southeastern outskirts of Kabul. Buses don't travel on that section of road, and no bus would be dropping off passengers in that area after dark. Lined with heavily guarded industrial complexes, Bagram Road, a primary route to the Bagram military airfield north of Kabul, is a daytime transport artery, clogged with trucks and dust. At night, it transforms into a desolate place used mainly by NATO and Afghan security forces.
       
      "It's common knowledge that foreign troops travel this road," said a police officer stationed at a checkpoint on the road, close to the spot where Qureshi was picked up. "It was nighttime when he was arrested. That's all I can tell you. This is a sensitive political issue. No one is allowed to talk about it."
       
      Gen. Manan Faraie, head of the anti-terrorism division of the Afghan Ministry of the Interior, says Qureshi entered Afghanistan from Pakistan at least two times prior to being arrested, travelling around the country on each occasion. During one trip, he went as far as the western city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where he stayed for 11 days before returning to Pakistan. The purpose of those earlier visits, authorities now allege, was part of a larger effort to support the Afghan insurgency. "This man is not simply a suicide bomber," Faraie says. "But he is somehow connected to al-Qaeda or the Taliban." In fact, the source inside the Attorney General's office alleges Qureshi's insurgent contacts extend all the way back to Canada.
       
      Qureshi was carrying a notebook the day he was arrested. In it, according to the source in the Attorney General's office, are detailed notes about a German military base in Mazar. "The notes show that this man was watching the base closely," says the official, who agreed to speak to Maclean's on condition of anonymity. "It has troop numbers, movements and details about the security activities of the base." Also included in the notebook is contact information for known militants inside Pakistan. Authorities claim further investigation has revealed that Qureshi was also transporting money, which he allegedly passed to members of Hezb-e-Islami, a well-known fundamentalist Islamic group fighting Western troops -- including Canadians -- in Afghanistan. Led by wanted warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Hezb-e-Islami has been linked to various attacks against NATO and Afghan security forces. Historically, it has also had close ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). "We think Qureshi is either working for the ISI or with Iranian spy elements," says the Attorney General's source, pointing out that Qureshi is fluent in Farsi, Iran's national language. Some in the ministry believe he could have been recruited by Iranian agents, the source adds.
       
      A Canadian investigator has arrived in Kabul, although his activities, including which law enforcement agency he represents, remain unclear. Neither the RCMP nor the Department of Foreign Affairs would comment further or even confirm what's being investigated. Alberta's Muslim community has also closed ranks. Many are disappointed with the media's coverage of the case, which has been loaded with speculation. Nagah Hage, chair of the Muslim Council of Calgary, says he specifically asked community members not to speak to the media until more facts have been released.
       
      Still, some details about Qureshi's life, pre-arrest, are starting to emerge. He spent his childhood in England, reportedly in Manchester, before he and his family (his parents and at least one sister) immigrated to Canada. News reports said the family lived in several cities across the country before arriving in Calgary from Prince Albert, Sask., about six years ago. His father, Dr. Zia Qureshi, originally from Pakistan, is a popular family doctor who runs a medical clinic out of a strip mall in Calgary's northeast quadrant, an area of the city that is home to a large Muslim population. According to his listing with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, Qureshi is proficient in a number of languages beyond English, including Arabic, Hindi, Farsi and Urdu. Sohail's mother, originally from Iran, is the receptionist at the clinic. Several attempts to contact Qureshi's parents were rebuffed.
       
      Syed Soharwardy, president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada and a Calgary resident, told Maclean's that last November, during a chat, a member of the city's Pakistani community asked him in a matter-of-fact way whether he knew a Dr. Qureshi, whose son, the man said, had adopted extremist views. Soharwardy told him he did not. When the allegations emerged with Sohail's arrest three weeks ago, Soharwardy recalled that conversation. He now feels sure that the younger Qureshi had been a target of Canadian intelligence since at least as far back as November. "What I know, he was chased by our intelligence agencies for many months -- that's what I know for sure."
       
      At about the same time last year, Sheik Alaa Elsayed, a Calgary imam, received a call from a local father begging him to talk with his son, who was determined to fight with insurgents in Afghanistan. Elsayed, who refused to speak with Maclean's for this story, earlier told other news outlets that he counselled a young man matching Sohail's description for several weeks before the meetings "fizzled."
       
      Ahmed Harb, a former president of the University of Calgary's Muslim Students' Association, recalls Qureshi, who graduated last year with a degree in computer science, as tall and skinny. He favoured dress pants over jeans, wore glasses, kept his hair short and cultivated a thin beard. Harb last saw Qureshi in November, when he said he was working at a large courier company, boxing outgoing deliveries in the shipping department. "He wasn't working in his field," says Harb. "After that I didn't see him." Shiraz Khan, current president of the students' association, remembered Qureshi as "very quiet, mostly kept to himself."
       
      If Qureshi was working with insurgents in Afghanistan, it will certainly not shock Canadian authorities. Since 9/11, the country's spy service, CSIS, has repeatedly issued public warnings about the growth of homegrown terrorism -- the rise of radical, anti-Western Islamists living in the very country they despise. Many are second-generation Canadians, young men and women who are recruited and radicalized online.
       
      That appeared to have been the case last June, when police arrested 18 suspected terrorists in Toronto -- many of them in their teens and twenties -- who were allegedly plotting a bomb attack on Canadian soil. "We're not really coming to grips with the fatal truth about the infiltration of Canada and the development of a base of anti-Canadian hatred and anti-Western hatred within our own neighbourhoods," says David Harris, a former chief of strategic planning for CSIS. "On top of all the documented instances of Canadians who have devoted themselves to radical Islamism, including combatant status with the enemy, it would hardly be surprising if there were yet another combatant dedicated to our demise."
       
      Or dedicated to funding our demise. In the fiscal year ending March 2006, terrorist groups funnelled an estimated $256 million through Canada, according to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), the federal anti-money-laundering agency. "It is not a new pattern," says Wesley K. Wark, an intelligence expert and professor at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies. "It is hard for [Muslim] communities, just like it is for Canadians at large, to believe that this is really happening here. It will take time and it will take hard evidence and facts."
       
      Some of those facts, he says, will start to surface in the coming months, when Canada's two major anti-terrorism cases -- Momin Khawaja and the "Toronto 18" -- finally reach trial. "We will have some understanding of how these things happen, who was involved, why people decided on this course of action, what sort of misguided thoughts they had in their minds, how they were inspired, who inspired them, and who paid for them," Wark says. "That will be the ultimate eye-opener, one that Canada needs."
       
      In the meantime, the country's Muslim leaders find themselves forced, yet again, to answer for the alleged violent aspirations of one of their own. "It is important not to single out an instance and generalize it to a rule," says Sameer Zuberi, a spokesman for the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN). "And I think it's important to remember that sometimes these things are more perceived than real." When asked if the problem of terrorism is real or perceived, Zuberi offers this answer: "I think it's a little bit of both.
       
      The broad Canadian community feels that this is an issue that is at the forefront and should be foremost on the agenda. I think that is blowing things a bit out of proportion. At the same time, though, I think we cannot be in denial. There might be a few people who might need to have more education on what the Islamic perspective is, vis-à-vis terrorism. Terrorism is wrong. It is not something that is congruent with the Islamic faith."
       
      Tarek Fatah, one-time director of communications for the Muslim Canadian Congress, says the growing prominence of smaller places of worship at universities and in private homes contributes to radicalization. "These are literally like secret societies that you go in," he says. "None of these networks can be identified. Nobody knows." Qureshi might know.
       
      But he isn't talking. He chose to walk back to his jail cell rather than set the record straight.
      His rap sheet, however, speaks volumes about what he faces, especially the last two words printed on the bottom of the page: "Canadian spy."
       
      With Michael Friscolanti


      ------------------------------------------------
      "Morality is doing what is right, regardless what we are told. 
      Religious dogma is doing what we are told, no matter what is right."
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