Quote of the week

Case against Harkat "flawed": Expert

"Why would a dead anti-Russian combatant named Khattab send a sleeper to Canada to wake up seven years later just to chauffeur someone around? It just seems counter-intuitive."
— Professor Brian Williams

By Aedan Helmer
Ottawa Sun

Sophie and Mohamed Harkat. July 2006. (Image © Darren Ell.)
Sophie and Mohamed Harkat. July 2006. (Image © Darren Ell.)

Government lawyers spent Tuesday grilling a terrorism expert called to testify this week by the defence team of accused terrorist Mohamed Harkat.

Prof. Brian Williams, an expert in Islamic history with the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth who has worked with the U.S. Army and the counter-terrorism unit of the Central Intelligence Agency, was forced to defend testimony he gave two years ago in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that helped exonerate Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's personal driver.

Since that high-profile acquittal, Williams has been flooded with requests to testify at other ongoing terrorism trials, but declined each one until the Harkat case caught his attention.

The primary charge being levelled by the Canadian government is that Harkat was planted as a terrorist "sleeper agent," when Harkat claimed he entered Canada in 1995 as a refugee.

The government is seeking to deport Harkat to his native Algeria, where he says he will face torture.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service also claims Harkat acted as a chauffeur for Ibn Khattab, labelled a terrorist by CSIS, when Harkat was living in a suburb of Peshawar, Pakistan in the early 1990s.

Khattab, a fervent jihadist who fought Russian forces in Afghanistan and Chechnya, was assassinated in Chechnya in 2002.

"Why would a dead anti-Russian combatant named Khattab send a sleeper to Canada to wake up seven years later just to chauffeur someone around?" Williams testified. "It just seems counter-intuitive."

Williams went on the defensive when government lawyer Bernard Assan pointed out inconsistencies in testimony delivered Monday compared with testimony delivered in the 2008 Hamdan trial.

Lawyers spent the bulk of the time attempting to clarify Williams' position on the prominence of sleeper cells, a notion Williams said has been "overexaggerated."

"I'm very critical and suspicious of the whole notion of sleepers," said Williams. "I strongly believe sleepers don't exist."

Williams said he had declined all invitations to testify at trials concerning terrorists accused of killing American civilians, but accepted this latest invitation after reading a summary of the government's case against Harkat.

"The summary in my mind seemed flawed," said Williams, adding conventional wisdom among North American security experts "debunks the notion of sleepers."

"If I thought Harkat was indeed a threat to Canada, there's no way in hell I would take this case," Williams testified.

Cross examination is expected to be completed Wednesday, and Harkat's defence team is planning to call upon two expert witnesses to testify through the week.

Closing arguments in the lengthy hearing will be made by both sides in late March, and a decision on whether to deport Harkat or release him from house arrest is expected in April.

9 March 2010 — Return to cover.