It’s been 2½ years since Hani Al Telbani, luggage in tow, was sent home from Montreal’s Trudeau Airport—the first-ever casualty of Canada’s “no-ﬂy list.” Since then, the young Muslim has proclaimed his innocence again and again, insisting that he is “not a danger to the public” and has been “unjustly associated with terrorism.” Telbani is so certain of his version of events that he is even suing the federal government, demanding $550,000 for the “stigma, humiliation, contempt, hatred and ridicule” he has endured because of Ottawa’s “errors.”
Only now, after its own legal fight, can Maclean’s finally reveal the other side of his story.
According to newly released evidence from CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, Hani Al Telbani was one of the devoted administrators of a notorious but now defunct Web forum dedicated to “virtual jihad.” From his fifth-floor apartment in the suburb of Longueuil, Que., the computer engineering grad allegedly posted messages and offered detailed technical support to fellow members of al-Ekhlaas, a militant, password-protected site frequented by thousands of hard-core Islamists—and used by al-Qaeda to broadcast fresh messages from Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Telbani’s online alias was “Mujahid Taqni” (Technical Jihad).
A Palestinian from Saudi Arabia, Telbani immigrated to Quebec in 2004 and, according to CSIS, soon began offering “information security instruction” for the “benefit of the extremist movement.” In fact, the spy service claims he was involved in publishing an infamous online magazine—Technical Mujahid—that distributed how-to articles on everything from data protection to creating “professional” videos to “eliminating the phobia and anxiety that some people feel and which hinders them from participating actively in jihad because they assume that intelligence services are counting their breaths and monitoring their every move.” The magazine made headlines when it first appeared in 2006, but until now, its Canadian connection was unknown.
The second edition, published in February 2007, may have been Telbani’s undoing. It featured a lengthy story, written under the byline Abul-Harith al-Dilimi, that explained how to launch a shoulder-fired Stinger missile. “This type of weapon is highly effective in shooting down aircraft of all kinds,” it said.
Now 28, Telbani has been branded “an immediate threat to aviation security” and banned from the skies. Along with his civil lawsuit, he is battling Ottawa in Federal Court, hoping to convince a judge that his name should be removed from the no-fly database (officially known as the “Specified Persons List”). In the process, his lawyers also asked that the evidence against him remain sealed, claiming that the accusations are so prejudicial that his reputation would never recover from the publicity. “This will irreversibly tag me as an active terrorist in a very detailed and specific manner,” he said in an affidavit. “My life, liberty and security would be at risk.”
A lawyer for Maclean’s objected to the confidentiality motion, arguing that Telbani’s concerns do not trump the fundamental principle that justice must be rendered openly and publicly. On Jan. 19, the chief justice of the Federal Court agreed—lifting the veil on Telbani’s mysterious predicament.
The unsealed documents, including the synopsis of a coffee-shop chat between Telbani and two CSIS operatives, reveal exactly why the service was keeping such a close eye on “Mujahid Taqni” and his al-Ekhlaas postings. “The activities of the forum are devoted to the support of Mujahideens fighting the infidels in conflict zones,” it reads. “Telbani entirely supports and approves the war fought by the insurgents against the army troops in Iraq.” Confronted by the agents, Telbani insisted he “has never criticized Canadian foreign policy and appreciates his life in Canada,” and “has never done harm to Canada and has no intention of doing anything that would go against the interests of Canada.”
When asked about his connection to the forum, Telbani allegedly explained that he has never met his online contacts and hasn’t revealed to anyone “the role he holds within the virtual jihadist movement.” He then “mentioned that his father would be in complete disagreement with his jihadist cyber-activities if he was to find out about them.”
While the revelations fill in many of the blanks surrounding Telbani’s precedent-setting case, they also raise just as many new questions about the scope of our no-fly list—and what it takes for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to label someone an “immediate threat” to fellow passengers. As previously reported in Maclean’s, independent security experts hired by the government to review Telbani’s file concluded that the evidence (still secret at the time, but available to them) was too “vague and incomplete” to keep him off a plane. “We have not been able to identify a discernible threat, immediate or otherwise,” the consultants wrote.
The latest disclosure will no doubt reignite the debate. Clearly, Telbani and his online chatter made him a legitimate target, and CSIS had every reason to knock on his door and ask some questions. (If Telbani is correct, the agents also promised that his problems would disappear if he worked with them.) But to this day, he has never been charged with a crime. While dozens of other accused terrorists have been rounded up in Canadian police raids—including last week’s arrest of Sayfilden Tahir Sharif, an Edmonton man who allegedly helped organize a pipeline for would-be suicide bombers in Iraq—Telbani is stuck in a sort of national security limbo: too dangerous to fly, though not quite dangerous enough to put on trial.