Canada·CBC Investigates

Documents show CSIS and RCMP's role in post-9/11 torture of 3 Canadians in Syria

Thousands of pages of secret files obtained by CBC reveal how Canada’s police and intelligence service not only knew three Canadians were being tortured in Syrian jails, but co-operated with Syrian officials in their interrogations.

Canadian officials supplied Syrian authorities with interrogation questions

(left to right) Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin and Ahmad Elmaati are shown in Ottawa on May 8, 2008. Each was tortured in Syria and is suing the Canadian government. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Thousands of pages of secret files obtained by CBC reveal how Canada's police and intelligence service not only knew three Canadians were being tortured in Syrian jails in a post-Sept. 11 crackdown, but co-operated with Syrian officials in their interrogations.

The files also show a Canadian ambassador helped deliver questions the RCMP and CSIS wanted put to the Canadians imprisoned in Syria, a country with a dismal human rights record.

The revelations are featured in "The Torture Files," a joint investigation by The National and the fifth estate that airs this week.

  • Watch Terence McKenna's report on The National on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. 
    You can watch the full documentary on the fifth estate's YouTube channel on Thursday, or on CBC TV Friday night at 11:30 p.m. ET., or CBC NN on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET and Sunday at 7 p.m. ET.

Abdullah AlmalkiAhmad Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin were never arrested in Canada for suspected terror offences, but to this day there is a cloud of suspicion hanging over them. Ten years ago, they each filed $100-million lawsuits against the government.

Maher Arar, another Canadian arrested and tortured in Syria in the wake of al-Qaeda's deadly attacks on New York and Washington, received an apology and a $10.5-million settlement from the federal government in 2007.
The rubble of the World Trade Center in New York smoulders following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Alex Fuchs/AFP/Getty)

Lawyers representing Almalki, Elmaati and Nureddin fought and eventually won a lengthy court battle with the RCMP and CSIS to gain access to thousands of heavily redacted files, amounting to hundreds of thousands of pages.

They consist of internal memos, briefing notes from field agents to their superiors, inter-agency communications, emails, reports and even a memo that shows at least one senior RCMP case officer might have had serious doubts about the evidence Almalki was engaged in anything nefarious.

CBC News obtained exclusive access to some 18,000 pages, which the trio's lawyers plan to use when the long-anticipated civil trials begin early next year.

Abdullah Almalki

A few weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, CSIS called in the RCMP's top brass for an urgent meeting to discuss high-priority terror suspects in Canada.

Richard Fadden, a security adviser to Prime Minister Jean Chretien who would become CSIS director from 2009-2013, said the government "didn't know if there was going to be a third or fourth or fifth attack. So it did serve to focus the mind."

At the top of CSIS's list was Almalki, a Syrian-born graduate in electrical engineering from Carleton University with a successful electronics export business.
Abdullah Almalki was at the top of CSIS's list of potential terror suspects following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

CSIS had the Ottawa man in its sights because he had spent some time in Afghanistan working for a charity associated with Ahmed Said Khadr, a known associate of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

CSIS wanted the RCMP to go after Almalki, whom the spy agency described as "a potential procurement officer for the BEN LADEN organization."

The task would fall to the RCMP's A-O Division under the command of Insp. Michel Cabana. A day after that meeting, Cabana writes Almalki  "is believed to be a procurement officer for Bin Laden and the El Quaida." The word "potential" disappeared.

After nearly two weeks of 24/7 surveillance of Almalki, an RCMP case officer wrote in a memo: "O Div task force are presently finding it difficult to establish anything on him other than the fact that he is an arab running around."

Even so, the RCMP put out a worldwide terrorist alert about Almalki to its agents and passed it along to the CIA and FBI.

A confidential RCMP report on Almalki dated March 28, 2002, noted: "We have also been advised that this individual has been placed on a watch list which will cause him to be detained and interviewed."

'A grave'

The documents show Canadian officials shared the information with Syrian authorities in Damascus — a move that would seal Almalki's fate.

When he went to visit his ailing grandmother in early 2002, he was detained upon arrival at the Damascus airport, taken to a prison and subjected to a vicious cycle of torture. He was beaten with an electric cable, strung up to the bars of a window and lashed with leather belts.

Back in Ottawa, documents show the RCMP and CSIS were eager to exploit Almalki's vulnerability as he sat in a dark cell, described by Amnesty International as "a grave."

An RCMP memo marked "secret" read: "Insp. [Michel] Cabana believes it would be prudent ... to begin the planning for a potential interview of Almalki by Syrian officials based on questions derived from the [RCMP] Project A-O investigation."

Instead of pressing Syria for the release of Almalki, documents show Canada's ambassador to Damascus, Franco Pillarella, arranged for the RCMP's questions to be hand-delivered to the Syrian agency that was responsible for torturing him.

Pillarella later testified about his excellent relations with the Syrian prison authorities, claiming "no ambassador has ever, with my exception, has ever had access to the head of military intelligence." He also said he was aware of widespread allegations of torture in Syria, but unless a person witnessed it "one cannot say for a certainty that this is what would happen."

Almalki told CBC that he falsely confessed to belonging to al-Qaeda and being the "left-hand man of Osama bin Laden."
Almalki told CBC’s the fifth estate that he falsely confessed to belonging to al-Qaeda and being the 'left-hand man' of Osama bin Laden because he was being tortured. (Associated Press)

What he said to his Syrian torturers under duress was relayed back to CSIS and RCMP officials in Ottawa.

Cabana, who's now deputy commissioner of the RCMP, declined to be interviewed for the story because, according to an RCMP spokesperson, the matter is before the courts.

Efforts to locate Pillarella, who is retired and lives in Monte Carlo, have been unsuccessful. 

Ahmad Elmaati

Elmaati found himself on CSIS and the RCMP's radar and was subjected to 24/7 surveillance because he, too, had spent time in Afghanistan in the 1990s. After returning to Canada, he became a truck driver and had contacted Almalki for advice in finding a wife.
Canada’s ambassador in Damascus agreed to deliver questions from the RCMP to Syrian military intelligence. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

In the summer of 2001, U.S. border agents in New York stopped Elmaati on the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge and searched his truck. The RCMP, documents reveal, pegged its case against Elmaati on a map of federal government buildings in Ottawa.

The RCMP determined the map suggested Elmaati was preparing to attack nuclear and biological facilities in Ottawa. The map listed the location of Atomic Energy of Canada, Eldorado Nuclear Ltd., HBW Virus Labs, and HBW Disease Control.

Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International Canada, said the map "was a simple photocopied map that was given regularly to delivery people and truck drivers so they could find their way around that particular office complex."

When Elmaati arrived in Damascus to get married in the fall of 2001, his fate was sealed. 

He was handcuffed and hooded at the airport and taken to the Far Falestine prison and tortured. 

Back in Ottawa, RCMP officials were less concerned about Elmaati's fate, documents reveal, and more worried that others might connect his detention to A-O Division's surveillance. 

'Syrian style' 

In an exchange of emails on Nov. 15, 2001, the RCMP's liaison officer in Rome was distressed that low-level Canadian consular officials in Syria may have discovered Elmaati's arrest and detention in Damascus.

He wrote: "I don't know how DFAIT found out about this 'covert' surveillance/arrest. If consular section approaches the Syrians and ask for access to this guy [Elmaati] they could uncover O Div's operation."

He leaves no doubt what the RCMP was expecting: "He [Elmaati] will be arrested and 'interrogated' (Syrian style)."

Phil Gurski, a retired CSIS analyst who worked on this file, says "you've got dedicated, passionate, devoted intelligence people doing what they can to keep Canada and Canadians safe," but "once there was a certainty, or relative certainty, that a Canadian was being mistreated, I think at that point the co-operation should have stopped. Absolutely."

Two months after his detention in Syria, Elmaati was put on a private jet and sent to Egypt where he was tortured further.

He told Canadian consular officials in Egypt that he had been badly tortured in Syria.

He was released in January 2004 and returned to Canada shortly after. 

Muayyed Nureddin

By the end of 2003, the torture of Canadians in Syria and Egypt was beginning to make headlines. Maher Arar was speaking openly about his torture in Syria. Members of Parliament were being asked uncomfortable questions.

But on Oct. 16, 2003, more than a week after Arar's release and his public testimony that he was tortured, documents show the RCMP was trying to have one more Canadian interrogated in Damascus.
Muayyed Nureddin was tortured in Syria. (CBC)

Nureddin, a principal at an Islamic school in Toronto, had no idea what was in store for him when he boarded a KLM flight from Toronto to visit relatives in northern Iraq.

The RCMP informed the CIA, and CSIS issued an all-points bulletin to foreign intelligence agencies.

It read: "We can confirm that we are searching for and will arrange for the detention of naturalized Canadian citizen Muayyed Abduljabbar Nureddin. If encountered, we thank you for your co-operation."

And sure enough, as Nureddin crossed the Syrian border on his way back to Canada in January 2004, he was arrested and tortured at the same Damascus prison.

As they had done with Almalki and Elmaati, the RCMP and CSIS provided Syria with a list of questions they wanted put to Nureddin.

Eventually he, too, was released and returned to Canada. 

Two commissions of inquiry, one led by Justice Dennis O'Connor, the other by retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, concluded that Almalki, Elmaati and Nureddin were wrongfully targeted by CSIS and the RCMP.
Muayyed Nureddin, Ahmad Elmaati and Abdullah Almalki (left to right) have each filed $100-million lawsuits against the government. (Canadian Press)


Nazim Baksh

CBC investigative producer

Nazim Baksh is a producer with The Fifth Estate. He has won numerous awards over the years for his work on The National, The Fifth Estate and the CBC's documentary unit among more. Since 9/11, he has worked extensively on issues of national security and violent religious extremism.