Two former University of Manitoba students are wanted on terrorism-related charges following a four-year investigation, RCMP said Tuesday.
Canada-wide warrants have been issued for Ferid Ahmed Imam, 30, and Maiwand Yar, 27. The Mounties allege they are part of a conspiracy to participate in the activities of a terrorist group.
Both men, former Winnipeg residents, went to Pakistan in March 2007 to participate as insurgents in the war in Afghanistan, but their whereabouts now are unknown, according to RCMP.
RCMP told a press conference in Winnipeg that Project Darken also involved the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the FBI and other international law enforcement agencies.
The charges against the two men have been laid in absentia.
New York subway bomb plot
Police allege the men travelled to Pakistan for terrorist training in firearms, scouting, guerrilla warfare and explosives.
Imam, who was finishing a degree in biochemistry at the U of M when he disappeared, is charged with instructing to carry out terrorism activities and conspiracy to participate in the activities of a terrorist group.
He is also accused of training others for terrorist activities.
According to an indictment that was unsealed in federal court on Tuesday in Brooklyn, N.Y., Imam has also been charged in the foiled al-Qaeda plot against New York City subways.
The court documents allege Imam, who also went by the name Yousef, was part of a conspiracy to attack the subways with suicide bombers in September 2009.
Colorado airport driver Najibullah Zazi and another man, Zarein Ahmedzay, have pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in that case. A third man, Adis Medunjanin, is awaiting trial.
The indictment against Imam states that he aided and abetted the terrorist training of the three men in Pakistan in 2008.
The three men then returned to the United States to carry out a plot to detonate improvised explosive devices on behalf of al-Qaeda, reads the indictment. The plot was uncovered and the three men were arrested.
Zazi pleaded guilty on Feb. 22, 2010, and Ahmedzay similarly pleaded guilty on April 23, 2010.
Yar is being sought on charges of conspiracy to participate in the activities of a terrorist group and participation in the activities of a terrorist group.
The RCMP obtained warrants for the two men from a Winnipeg judge on Monday.
Yar was reported missing in Winnipeg on March 10, 2007, when he was a mechanical engineering student at the University of Manitoba. Within five days, the missing persons report had evolved into a national security investigation.
"We have gathered evidence ... that Yar and Imam entered Pakistan on tourist visas," RCMP assistant commissioner Bill Robinson said Tuesday.
"Airline records indicate that Yar and Imam did not use the return portion of their tickets when their tourist visas expired. There are no records of Yar or Imam leaving Pakistan through any major departure points."
Secret briefings to U.S. presidents
News that police were looking for terrorism suspects in Manitoba first surfaced last fall.
In October, CBC News reported that three missing U of M students — Imam, Yar and Muhannad al-Farekh — were the subject of a massive investigation that stretched all the way to the White House.
All three grew up in Winnipeg after their families moved to the city from other countries. They met and became friends at university but disappeared before completing their studies.
In 2007, they left the country together, destined for Pakistan via Europe, and dropped all contact with their families.
According to a Globe and Mail story in October, the FBI had dispatched agents to the Middle East as part of its hunt for the men, who have been the subject of secret briefings to U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
'This investigation, like all national security investigations, targets criminal activity and not specific communities or groups.' —Bill Robinson, RCMP assistant commissioner
On Tuesday, Robinson said investigators believe Imam and Yar travelled to Peshawar in the northern frontier of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan.
"Experts confirm that it is a region in which terrorist groups operate," he said, noting the warrants taken out by the RCMP do not include Al-Farekh.
"It's not known now where the two are. The investigation ... is still ongoing. We continue to work with Canadian Border Services and domestic and international security partners on this matter."
Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act, passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, allows police to charge people suspected of committing terrorist offences outside Canada’s borders. The case against Imam is the first time RCMP have charged someone with acts taking place entirely overseas, according to the newspaper.
Imam faces a life sentence if he is caught and convicted of training terrorists.
Yar could face up to 10 years in prison on a charge that he participated in a terrorist conspiracy.
Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association, said she has spoken to Imam's shocked family.
"From all indications, these were normal kids going through university with everything going for them," she said.
Stressful to Muslim community
The fallout of the investigation has been stressful to Muslim people in Winnipeg.
As news broke last fall that the three men were being sought, it was reported that the case was one of the largest security investigations in Canada since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Muslim groups called all the suspicion and speculation stressful and detrimental. As well, CSIS agents and members of the RCMP counterterrorism unit were spending a great deal of time interviewing Muslim students on the U of M campus.
Robinson stressed Tuesday that the charges were against Imam and Yar — not a whole community.
"This investigation, like all national security investigations, targets criminal activity and not specific communities or groups," he said.
"The RCMP is committed to respecting all people and does not target individuals or groups based on racial, ethnic or religious background. Rather the RCMP focuses on criminal behaviour.
"We recognize that the actions of two individuals in no way reflects the beliefs and values of any entire community."
Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews echoed Robinson's remarks, saying community members have been helpful to investigators.
"We have had excellent co-operation from the community that these young men are from. We should be very careful when you deal with terrorist activities that we do not tar entire communities," Toews told CBC News.