MISSISSAUGA, Ontario - Canadian authorities investigating an alleged homegrown plot to blow up buildings in Ontario said Monday more arrests were possible as part of a wider probe into terrorist cells in at least seven countries, including the United States.
A U.S. law enforcement official said investigators are looking for connections between the 17 detained in Canada and suspected Islamic militants in custody in the United States, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Denmark, Great Britain and Sweden.
Separately, a U.S. counterterrorism official said there wasn't any reason to believe there were targets in the United States but also no reason to be dismissive of the potential.
"This investigation is not finished," Royal Canadian Mounted Police assistant commissioner Mike McDonell told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on Monday. "Anybody that aided, facilitated or participated in this terrorist event will be arrested and prosecuted in court."
A court said authorities charged the 12 adults in custody with participating in a terrorist group, with other charges including importing weapons and planning a bombing. The charges against five minors arrested were not released because of privacy laws.
The 17 suspects are scheduled to appear again in court Tuesday.
The arrests were made Friday and Saturday after the group acquired three tons of ammonium nitrate from undercover Mounties in a sting operation, the Toronto Star reported. The fertilizer can be mixed with fuel oil or other ingredients to make a bomb.
That is three times the amount of fertilizer used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, McDonell said. The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killed 168 people and injured more than 800.
The suspects followed "a violent ideology inspired by al-Qaida," said Luc Portelance, the assistant director of operations with the spy agency CSIS.
The operation involved 400 intelligence and law-enforcement officers and was the largest counterterrorism effort in Canada since the Sept. 11 attacks. The Star reported that the investigation began in 2004 with the monitoring of Internet chat rooms.
"We've been investigating them for some while and it got to the point where we could no longer control the risk," McDonell told National Public Radio on Monday.
A prayer leader at a storefront mosque west of Toronto said several suspects prayed daily there but never spoke of hurting others.
"I will say that they were steadfast, religious people. There's no doubt about it. But here we always preach peace and moderation," Qamrul Khanson, an imam at the one-room Al-Rahman Islamic Center for Islamic Education, said Sunday.
The 40-50 Muslim families who worship at the mosque were astonished, he said, to learn that police had arrested 12 adults, ages 19 to 43, and five suspects younger than 18. Two Americans who met with the suspects also are in custody.
The 17 suspects represent a spectrum of Canadian society, from the unemployed to a school bus driver to the college-educated. The 12 adults live in Toronto, Mississauga and Kingston, Ontario.
Police said the suspects, all citizens or residents of Canada, had trained together. The oldest suspect, Qayyum Abdul Jamal, often led prayers at the storefront mosque.
Khanson said Jamal's Friday night prayers were "more aggressive" than those of other prayer leaders, but there was no talk of hostility or terrorism.
The modest mosque is sandwiched between The Cafe Khan, which offers Pakistani kabobs, and a convenience store in Mississauga, a city of 700,000 people with many immigrants. Mohammed Jan works at the cafe and said several suspects often came in for snacks after prayers.
"It's pretty shocking. They used to come every day and they just seemed normal," Jan said. "I definitely didn't find their behavior suspicious."
Neighbors said Jamal's wife drove a school bus, and he was always home and did not seem to work regularly. The couple has three small children, neighbors said.
Jerry Tavares, a Brazilian living two doors down from Jamal, said the suspect was unfriendly and rarely interacted with neighbors.
"I wasn't surprised," the construction worker said, adding that he intends to move out of the neighborhood with his wife and toddler. "You never know who lives next door."
A woman in a burqa peeked out from behind a curtain but would not answer the door at Jamal's home in a brick townhouse rental compound.
Another neighbor, Peter Smith, said a half-dozen SWAT team officers converged on the home Friday evening and began screaming at the family to get outside and get down on the ground. Even the young children were handcuffed, Smith said.
"Other kids were yelling, 'Terrorists! Terrorists!' and they were asking their mom, 'Mom, are we terrorists?'" he said.
Nada Farooq, the wife of 20-year-old suspect Zakaria Amara, described how police crashed into the family's home as the couple played with their 8-month-old baby. Family members were moved to the garage and her husband was taken away, she said.
"They're not guilty," she told CTV News. "They're still innocent until proven guilty and yet they're taking measures as though they're monsters."
The U.S. counterterrorism official said the 17 suspects are an example of a type of group authorities have been concerned about for some time: self-organized, ad-hoc cells of homegrown extremists.
This was first seen during last year's London bombings, and the official said the Canadians are rightfully taking seriously the threat the 17 could have posed because there is evidence they were far along in their planning.
Authorities also have established that two men from Georgia who were charged this year in a terrorism case had been in contact with some of the Canadian suspects via computer, the U.S. law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
Prosecutors have said Ehsanul Islam Sadequee and Syed Haris Ahmed traveled to Washington to shoot "casing videos" of the Capitol and other potential targets, a prosecutor said.
Sadequee, 19, a U.S. citizen who grew up near Atlanta, is accused of lying to federal authorities amid an ongoing FBI terrorism investigation. Ahmed, 21, a Georgia Tech student, has been indicted on a charge he provided material support and resources for terrorism.
Khanson said at least three suspects regularly prayed at the Al-Rahman Islamic Center for Islamic Education.
"I have faith that they have done a thorough investigation," Khanson said of authorities. "But just the possession of ammonium nitrate doesn't prove that they have done anything wrong.
"We value our Canadian culture and we would never allow any links with the so-called Taliban or al-Qaida."
Rocco Galati, a lawyer for two defendants from Mississauga, said: "Both of their families are very well-established professionals, well-established families, no criminal pasts whatsoever."
He described Ahmad Ghany, 21, as a Canada-born health sciences graduate of McMaster University whose father, a physician, emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago in 1955.
His other client, Shareef Abdelhaleen, 30, is an unmarried computer programmer who emigrated from Egypt at age 10 with his father, he said.
Two suspects, Mohammed Dirie, 22, and Yasim Abdi Mohamed, 24, are serving two years in an Ontario prison for weapons possession. The Somali immigrants, who lived in Kingston, Ontario, were arrested in August at the border crossing near Buffalo, N.Y., while trying to smuggle guns and ammunition into Canada, authorities said.