Terrorism charges against Toronto man 'ridiculous': lawyer

The lawyer for a Toronto man accused of planning a trip to Somalia to join a group linked to al-Qaida says his client had no intention of becoming a member of al-Shabaab and was set up by a man who tried to befriend him.
Mohamed Hersi made an appearance in a Brampton, Ont., court on Wednesday. (Alex Tavshunsky/CBC)

The lawyer for a Toronto man accused of planning a trip to Somalia to join a group linked to al-Qaida says his client had no intention of becoming a member of al-Shabaab and was set up by a man who tried to befriend him.

Mohamed Hersi, 25, was arrested last month at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Police allege he planned to travel to Somalia via London and Cairo to join al-Shabaab, a group Canada has labelled as a terrorist organization.

But Anser Farooq said Wednesday his client was travelling to Egypt to take Arabic language courses, and that his mother was considering moving there.

"He didn't have a ticket to Somalia," Farooq said Wednesday after Hersi's appearance at a bail hearing.

Hersi has been charged with attempting to participate in terrorist activity and providing counsel to a person to participate in terrorist activity. The bail hearing was put over until April 20 to give the Crown time to produce audio tapes.

"This is a ridiculous charge as far as we're concerned," Farooq said outside the court.

The tapes allegedly involve conversations between Hersi and a man whom Farooq says befriended Hersi and bought him dinners and tickets to basketball games.

Farooq suggested the man provided his client with a particular magazine, and then coaxed him into making statements that were then misconstrued through "cutting and pasting dialogues over time."

"I'm not suggesting it. It is the case," he said. "Innocent conversations can be twisted around."

Farooq said he doesn't know much else about the man or how he is involved in the case.

"If [the Crown] has got these conversations, then produce it," Farooq said.

Police have revealed little about Hersi, but say he is a Canadian citizen who quit his job in preparation for the trip.

Hersi, who wore a black NASCAR bomber jacket over a grey hoodie sweater and blue jeans Wednesday, is the first Canadian arrested on charges related to al-Shabaab, which is an al-Qaida-linked militant group trying to overthrow Somalia's transitional government.

The RCMP, speaking generally about al-Shabaab, suspects several young Canadians have gone to Somalia to join the group in recent years, but RCMP Sgt. Marc LaPorte said it's unclear how many.

"Some of them are reported to us, some of them are reported to the police, some of them are not reported missing, it's a very vague thing," he said in a recent interview. "If there is indication that they went off to join al-Shabaab or another extremist group, then it would be an ongoing investigation and we wouldn't discuss it until we know more information or we laid criminal charges."

Al-Shabaab — which means "the youth" in Arabic — embraces an extremist form of Islam similar to the conservative brand practised by Afghanistan's Taliban. Its fighters number several thousand.

Canada listed the Somali group as a terrorist organization last year, citing youth recruitment as one reason.

That same month, Mohammed Elmi Ibrahim, a former University of Toronto student who went missing in 2008, was killed in Somalia after joining the group.

Six Muslim men who attended a Toronto mosque went missing in 2009 and are believed to have joined as well.