My beloved 12-year-old daughter asked me to share my story with you. I am having a difficult time deciding what to write, and from which point to start. Perhaps I should begin from the present and work my way back to the pas
This is my 12th year in prison. I received a life sentence after pleading guilty to being one of the ringleaders of the “Toronto 18” terror plot. Thankfully, no one was physically hurt. I was 20 then, I am almost 33 now.
In pre-trial custody, I was deemed a radical threat to the inmate population and so I was involuntarily placed in solitary confinement for 3 years.
After receiving my sentence, I was once again considered a radical threat and sent to Canada’s only super-max prison. Usually, you have to kill or stab someone inside to be sent there, but not in my case. After spending 6 horrifying years there I was finally transferred to Millhaven max, where I currently reside. (This story was written in 2018)
Based on what you just read, it is easy to imagine me as a tough, violent, angry man with a threatening demeanor. But the truth is that I am the exact opposite of that image.
Guilty, I am.
Radicalized, I was.
Yet I still find my entire situation incredibly surreal. I often go back in time in order to retrace my steps and figure out how I ended up here. Sadly, every time I engage in this exercise, I find a young man who was caught up in a perfect storm of internal and external influences. The inevitability of it all is what I find most remarkable.
After any major terrorist attack there is usually a fierce debate about what makes individuals susceptible to radical ideologies. Unfortunately, this rarely occurs when the perpetrators are non-Muslims (For example: Neo Nazi extremists in the States and Europe). Having said that, if I had a noose around my neck, and the only thing that could save my life was the answer to this apparently dumbfounding question, then I would have to say that it is the emotional state of feeling utterly worthless.
I have always felt worthless. I still struggle with this feeling to this day. Perhaps I feel this way because I carry within me a strong inner critic that has been ripping me apart ever since I was a child. Or maybe, it is due to the fact that I have always felt like an outsider. You see, even though I am a citizen of this country, I have never felt Canadian. That’s because ever since I arrived here as a 12-year-old-boy, in my mind, to be a real Canadian, you had to be white.
Prior to immigrating to Canada, I lived in my mother’s country of birth, Cyprus. There too, I felt like an outsider since I was keenly aware that my Arab features automatically disqualified me from claiming to be Cypriot.
Prior to that, I lived in Saudi Arabia where native citizens are infamous for looking down upon all non-Saudis. I still remember the words of a Saudi boy who referred to us Palestinians as “Phalas-Teezi”, (a hybrid word that combines “Palestinian” with the Arabic word for “ass”). The sad fact that I was sexually molested while living there could have only intensified my inner feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.
Even in Jordan, my own country of birth, I never considered myself Jordanian since I belonged to a family that originally came to Jordan as refugees after losing their land to the Israeli occupation.
Many of you have probably wondered why the Muslim world has produced so many radicalized individuals in the modern era. Blaming Islam for it is incredibly simplistic, if not absolutely wrong. When I look at what the people of that region have gone through over the last 150 years I am actually surprised that there aren’t more extremists, not less. I can’t imagine how utterly worthless many of them are made to feel. The culprits are foreign and local governments who systematically strip powerless human beings of their dignity.
What happens to a street vendor who can’t sell his fruits without having to pay a bribe to a policeman?
What happens to a young man or woman who just graduated from university, but can’t find suitable employment because all the jobs have been given to those with special connections?
What happens to a people who have no say whatsoever in how their governments are run and are treated like cattle, if not worse?
What happens to a people who have to live under the deadly shadows of drones?
What happens to a person who witnesses their entire family get wiped out by a “precise” missile strike?
Desperate for belonging in my teen-age years, these are the only people I have ever felt an affinity towards, and so as they radicalized, I radicalized with them. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and its resulting massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis represented the crossing of the “Rubicon” for me. You can pretty much draw a straight line from there to my arrest in 2006.
How does it feel to be radical?
You feel worthy, righteous, and heroic. You see yourself as a savior of your people. Your mind obsesses with the injustices that they endure and it eventually becomes the only thing you wish to talk about. You see the world in strictly black and white terms. Deep inside you suspect that there may be other colours, which subconsciously drives you to engage in constant re-enforcement of your beliefs. It is said that those who are the most dogmatic are usually the least certain. A vivid depiction of this internal struggle is that of a boy who is perpetually fortifying the walls of a sandcastle he built too closely to the waves.
When I arrived at the Special Handling Unit (Canada’s super max) I was willing to give change a chance for the sake of my family, but unfortunately the administrators were unresponsive. Feeling rejected once again intensified my radical state and I, in fact, became more extreme in the SHU than I ever was on the outside. Soon thereafter I adopted a standoffish attitude towards the administrators and refused to meet my parole officers for many years.
This state of affairs continued until ISIS declared its Caliphate and news of its atrocities began streaming in. Prior to ISIS, whenever innocent people were killed, I would simply tell myself that it was “collateral damage” or a “mistake”. The savagery of ISIS, however, made this self deception extremely difficult to go on with. Every atrocity committed by them was like a tsunami that would violently demolish my sandcastle, leaving no trace of it behind. And yet, I kept frantically rushing back to rebuild it.
Eventually, the hideousness of this group led me to periods of depression that followed every massacre. At the time, I did not see my radical ideology as separate from my religion, and so this caused me to fear that abandoning it would lead to abandoning my faith. I also feared confronting the reality that I may have thrown my entire life away and brought so much suffering upon my family for nothing…
Accepting the truth is never easy…
Holding on became harder and harder until it finally became impossible and I had to let go out of sheer disillusionment. Surprisingly, what followed was not a free fall into a dark abyss of disbelief, but rather a spiritual ascent that is best captured in a poem I wrote called “Servant of the Ever-Merciful”.
If you are not as beautiful as the sun,
when it spreads its light,
upon the face of lands and seas.
If you do not glow as the full moon does,
in the midst of darkness,
illuminating the way for life’s travelers.
If you are not as graceful as the lofty clouds,
spreading shade over life’s scorched inhabitants,
raining water upon their parched lips,
bringing life to their dead lands,
then I am afraid,
you have misunderstood,
what it means to be,
a servant of God.
I felt liberated to finally be able to see the world in its true colours. This feeling only intensified as I slowly took the shackles off, one by one.
How do I view my experience?
Despite its hardships and painful losses, I see it as a blessing. Sometimes I tell myself that I am acquiring a PhD in Life Studies from the University of the Incarcerated. My life is meaningful life despite it being lived behind bars and I am incredibly optimistic about my future.
To God I am ever grateful for all of this…
I ask the Canadian public to forgive me for betraying their trust and welcoming arms.
I ask the Muslim community to forgive me for causing them so much apprehension by helping to cast them under a dark cloud of suspicion.
I ask my dear parents to forgive me for breaking their hearts.
I ask my brother and sister to forgive me for causing them so much sadness and distress.
I ask my former wife – whose loss I have never recovered from – to forgive me for abandoning her and devastating her in such a way.
I ask her entire family to forgive me for turning their lives upside down.
I ask all the young men who became involved because of me to forgive me for everything.
I ask their families for forgiveness as well.
Last but not least, I ask my beloved daughter to forgive me for leaving her without a father.
Princess, when I see you in my dreams I sometimes hold you in my arms and weep, and weep, and weep ‘till I awake.
Beloved, knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time to be with you, I would be there in a heartbeat.
But grieve no more, for I once heard that “the Truth shall set you free”…
And now I know…
That what I heard is true.
27 thoughts on “The Boy and his Sandcastle”
We all have bad circumstances in our lives. Blaming our badness on circumstances is an attempt to abdicate responsibility for our badness.
I’m sorry that you felt that I was trying to abdicate responsibility. It’s not the case at all. It’s taken me years to be able to go back in time to understand what was going through my mind then. I began this blog and with this story specifically because I would like to help others who maybe trapped in unhealthy thoughts. Ultimately, I would like this to be an important resource for young men who are radicalized in various realms, including along the lines of politics, religion, race, misogyny, etc (Sena from Cell Count). I would love if you continue to follow along and you’re feedback is greatly appreciated.
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Thanks Zakaria, God bless
Assalamu Alaikum Zak. You really shocked me with this one. I never understood what happened, and why you pled guilty. I think I understand now. We live in two worlds, one foot in each one. We wax and wane, in and out, looking for balance and immerse ourselves in the pain of the state of the world. That was a time when no one knew what to do, how to be a spectator, how to go on about our days…
This whole experience taught each one of us, on such a personal level. The lessons are still being revealed. Had this not happened, we would have lost hundreds of young men to ISIS, maybe thousands. Parents everywhere stopped and talked to their children about their feelings, their angst, their fears, and their desires to make a difference.
Waiting for a book, waiting for the whole truth to be published. Waiting for the movie to be shattered. (I still want millions! 😉
I have read this for a second time and it is very saddening. This vastly changed the way I thought of you. From what I read, you don’t seem to be a harmful man. You were at a young vulnerable age when you were radicalized. Lots of men like you have been and are being radicalized at the ages of 20 and younger. It is a sad thing to see and realize. I wish those men can read what you have written.
I’ll continue to follow and read your stories, poems, and writings. They are inspirational and original.
I hope you will see and respond.
I wish you happiness every day.
Thank you so much for your kind words. The fact that your reading my work means to me more than you can imagine.
I just broke my fast and your comment uplifted my spirits.
Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh dear brother Zakaria,
Your story brought tears to my eyes. SubhanAllah, you must be special to Allah that He chose you out of many young people to be the one to see the light and have the courage and perseverance in correcting a wrong to help other young ones not to fall in this dark trap through this blog. Truly as you said it was a blessing in disguise. May Allah reunite you with your family and bless you with a wife who will love you and honor you and take great care of you and most of all be proud of what a wonderful man you have become, aameen!
Your suffering actually has saved and insha’Allah will continue to save many young people from this deception ruining their lives.
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Walaikum Asalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh sister Salehah
Thank you for your kind and uplifting words. May Allah reward you. Ameen
This is brilliant, Zakaria. Thank you for sharing your gifts and insights so beautifully. In prison, you’ve gained greater freedom than most people on this planet. Freedom through captivity. The gifts found within when we strip away all the distractions. I agree there’s a life-changing book in you, and I look forward to reading it. Many blessings ❤️
Hi Melissa, I just wanted to thank you for reaching out to me when I was inside. I just got released 2 weeks ago. Anything is possible! Never despair. Wish you all the best!
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