Mentally ill Canadian convicted in terror probe lands in U.S. supermaximum security prison

A Canadian family and U.S. experts alike say a mentally ill man from Mississauga, Ont., who was convicted for his role in an online terror plot while a teenager shouldn't be in a supermaximum security prison in Colorado. Instead, they say he should be sent back to Canada where he can serve the remainder of his 40-year sentence and get the psychiatric help he needs.

Calls grow louder for transfer of Abdulraham El Bahnasawy to a Canadian prison

Canadian Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy was recently transferred to the ADX supermaximum security prison in Colorado. Increasingly, there are calls for his transfer to a Canadian prison. (Submitted by El Bahnasawy family)

A Canadian family and U.S. experts alike say a mentally ill man from Mississauga, Ont., who was convicted for his role in an online terror plot while a teenager shouldn't be in a supermaximum security prison in Colorado.

Instead, they say he should be sent back to Canada where he can serve the remainder of his 40-year sentence and get the psychiatric help he needs.

Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy was a 17-year-old living at his parents' home in Mississauga, west of Toronto, in 2015 when he met an undercover FBI agent online who he thought was a member of ISIS. El Bahnasawy agreed to help plot attacks in New York City, including the bombing of Times Square and the city's subway system.

At the time, the teen had been diagnosed with a severe bipolar disorder and addiction problems. He had gone off his two mood-stabilizing and anti-psychotic medications and was on a waiting list for further psychiatric care.

None of the attacks were carried out. El Bahnasawy pleaded guilty to conspiracy-related terror charges and was sentenced in a U.S. federal court in Manhattan in 2019 to 40 years in prison. At the time, both U.S. and Canadian security officials were aware of his longstanding mental health problems.

Now 23, El Bahnasawy has spent the past five years in U.S. custody, where his family says he can't access the medication and psychiatric help he could get in a Canadian prison.

Osama El Bahnasawy, left, and his wife, Khadiga Metwally, are hoping their son is transferred to a Canadian prison to serve his sentence and receive psychiatric treatment. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

"He attempted suicide five times in prison because of depression. This is why his transfer is very, very important because he is not a U.S. citizen, he is not eligible to go to a [U.S.] prison with a mental health facility attached to it," his father, Osama El Bahnasawy, told CBC News.

"The situation right now is very risky and he could lose his life any time." 

Right now, El Bahnasawy's future is in limbo. He could be transferred under the International Transfer of Offenders Act. 

However, both the Canadian and U.S. governments would have to agree to the move. Right now, the Canadian government has only gone as far as requesting paperwork about El Bahnasawy's case — the first step of the process, according to the family.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada said they can't comment on individual prison transfer requests because of privacy rules.

'He is fully isolated'

The Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) Florence, located about 180 kilometres south of Denver, is designed to hold the United States' most dangerous prisoners deemed a threat to themselves or others. It has 351 inmates. 

Prisoners are isolated in their own two-metre-by-three-and-a-half-metre cells for 23 hours a day. Those cells, which are built with concrete, have soundproof walls and a concrete door. Inmates cannot see outside.

Mexican drug lord Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman began serving a life sentence there in 2019. No one has ever escaped from the prison.

El Bahnasawy has been transferred to numerous prisons in the last five years and arrived at the ADX facility in April.

His mother said he's shackled in leg irons, belly chains and handcuffs for much of the time, even during meals.

"They put his food on the floor and he has to kneel like a dog to eat," Khadiga Metwally told CBC. 

"It's the very worst prison in the world. He cannot talk to anybody, see anybody. He is fully isolated."

A guard tower looms over the federal prison complex that houses a supermax facility outside Florence, in southern Colorado. (Brennan Linsley/The Associated Press)

The family said the prison has told them they can no longer visit or speak directly with their son. They're only allowed to correspond by mail.

The family wants him transferred to a Canadian prison to access medication and psychiatric counselling. 

"The prisons here have a mental health unit attached to it, so in Canada he's going to get a lot of help, medical treatments and everything," said Osama El Bahnasawy.

'We've not used the right tools'

The family aren't the only ones calling for El Bahnasawy's transfer to a Canadian prison.

Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a former U.S. army general and psychiatrist, said El Bahnasawy's arrest and prosecution haven't made his country any safer.

"My biggest concern is that we've really not done our job when it comes to identifying someone who's really dangerous and that we've not used the right tools and the right mechanisms to protect our countries."

Xenakis said security officials should do more to identify those who may be an actual threat and those who aren't.

Metwally says her son was diagnosed with mental health problems as a child. (Submitted by El Bahnasawy family)

"There are dangerous people out there. There's just no doubt about it. And there's various tactics that should be used to protect ourselves from these dangerous people."

Xenakis said mentally ill people can become low-hanging fruit, or essentially easy to manipulate for security agencies trying to keep Americans and Canadians safe.

"I believe that we should do everything we can to be very engaged proactively in identifying those people and getting them treatment. And I think that's what was the mistake in this case, that this young man had a serious mental illness. He'd been sick for many years."

Not 'the mastermind of 9/11'

Former U.S. federal prosecutor Andrew Frisch has been hired by the El Bahnasawys to review their son's situation.

Frisch, who now practises law privately in Manhattan, said the 17-year-old El Bahnasawy likely wasn't capable of knowing what he was doing when he began chatting with the undercover FBI agent and others online.

"He's not Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11. He's not Ted Bundy. He's not Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. He's a disturbed teenager who literally was in the bedroom of his parents' suburban home, with a documented history of inpatient psychiatric care," Frisch told CBC .

Frisch said he understands why some people may feel El Bahnasawy got what he deserved, but locking up the mentally ill and denying them medication or treatment isn't a long-term solution.

"It's not good for any of us. We're not making the world safer, or any one of us safer, by treating people the way he's been treated. In fact, we're doing the opposite."

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons wouldn't comment on how long it may take to approve or reject a request.

The New York judge who sentenced El Bahnasawy recommended he be transferred to Canada to serve his sentence. 

That still hasn't happened but his parents want to make sure it does.

"We will never stop fighting for Abdulrahman. We will never stop fighting for those kind of vulnerable, voiceless mentally ill people who need our help," Metwally said.


John Lancaster

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

John Lancaster is a senior reporter with CBC News focusing on investigative and enterprise journalism. His stories have taken him across Canada, the US and the Caribbean. His reports have appeared on CBC Toronto, The National, CBC's Marketplace, The Fifth Estate-and of course CBC online and radio. Drop him a line anytime at