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Canada Has Paroled a Convicted Terrorist— And He’s Headed to Grad School

His release was enthusiastically endorsed by officials, but has also raised questions about how Canada is rehabilitating convicted terrorists.
Image of police arresting Saad Gaya and co-accused Saad Khalid in the 'Toronto 18' terror plot in 2006

A lot changed in three months for convicted terrorist Saad Gaya.

Last September, he was fighting the previous Conservative government from his prison cell to stop them from rescinding his Canadian citizenship — even though he holds no other nationality. Come New Year's Eve, the recently elected Liberals had suspended the case, and the country's parole board granted him day parole to get a job and attend grad school.

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"You have clearly demonstrated your denunciation of radicalization and you presented as being very genuine in this regard," the board wrote of Gaya in its December 31 decision. "You admitted today that as a result of your growing extremist views that if an innocent person had died as a result of a bombing attack, that it was an unacceptable outcome."

The former science student from suburban Ontario was arrested in 2006, when he was 18, and pleaded guilty in 2009 for his involvement in the so-called "Toronto 18" al-Qaeda-inspired terror plot to blow up buildings in downtown Toronto and a military base. In 2010, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but an appeal court increased it to 18. The judge at the sentencing hearing told the court at the time he was confident Gaya would one day "be rehabilitated and become a law-abiding member of society."

Gaya, now 28, will be released from prison into a halfway house in Toronto and must abide by a number of strict conditions including not using the internet, and getting regular counselling from a government-approved imam. The board will review his parole in six months.

In the last decade, there has been a wave of terrorism-related convictions in Canada, especially as the country reacts to new threats at home and abroad. Canadian experts on terrorism and radicalization say Gaya's situation could provide a good precedent for other convicted terrorists in Canada as they become eligible for release. This is especially so here as, unlike many other nations that have prison deradicalization programs, Canada does not have rehabilitation programs specifically for terrorists.

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Saudi Arabia's prison deradicalization program, implemented in 2004, is known for its rigorous approach that includes lectures, counselling, and social supports for offenders when they're released. Singapore has a committee of Islamic scholars and imams who administer the country's Religious Rehabilitation Group. Offenders meet regularly with counsellors. Although it's difficult to measure, these programs experience varying degrees of success.

"The issue of whether they have been rehabilitated is something we will see more and more," Kent Roach, a University of Toronto law professor who specializes in anti-terrorism, told the Canadian Press this week in response to Gaya's case. He added he's concerned that Canada does not have a dedicated rehabilitation program for radicalized offenders.

"It is important to have people who have expertise and legitimacy to try to address these misreadings of Islam that may have motivated many people who have been convicted of terrorism offences in Canada," Roach said.

For years, researchers and religious leaders have tried to pressure the government to create such a program.

One of the three studies released by Correctional Service Canada in 2014 about violent extremists in federal prisons urges the department examine "effective disengagement and deradicalization strategies" for radicalized offenders.

Related: Canadian Senators Want to Target Radicalization by Training and Certifying Imams

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In 2012, the Conservative government under former prime minister Stephen Harper, privatized chaplaincy services for the country's federal prisons. It ended its government-run chaplain system, gutted a number of positions, and awarded a multimillion dollar contract to a company with Christian leanings that handpicks its own chaplains.

One prominent imam and the only one working full-time in Ontario's federal prisons, Yasin Dwyer, and another imam, worked closely with a number of radicalized offenders, including Gaya and other Toronto 18 members. He quit abruptly in 2014 after the shift to privatization, which he says compromised the counter-radicalization work he was doing, including close mentorship and theological discussions.

"We have programs for anger management, drug addictions, but we now have this very contemporary issue of religiously motivated violence, but we don't have a formal program or strategy to deal with this in prisons. My own experience emphasizes the importance of a formal strategy dealing with these offenders," Dwyer told VICE News. He said the government should reassess its approach to chaplaincy, and hire more qualified Muslim chaplains who have credibility with mainstream Muslim communities.

Dwyer said Gaya is an example of how that approach can be successful — with or without the support of the government.

Dwyer, who attended Gaya's parole hearing, said he was struck by the confidence the board had in his ability to reintegrate into society. "I've rarely seen an offender have such an effect on a parole board and he really earned it. He clearly and honestly explained in detail what he had gone through over the last 10 year and how much he had changed."

He added that Gaya's story could serve as a template for any future program used by the government, if there's a will to do so.

"It was done it spite of a lack of support by the corrections department," he said. "We were improvising with these young men. And hopefully this improvisation could turn into some sort of formal approach to dealing with offenders convicted of terrorism-related offences."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne