Press, Terrorists and Justice

A traditional attraction of Ukrainians to any text that has the features of a journalistic investigation has evolved very rapidly. The quality of writing or a method of presenting information in its sophistication goes far beyond disclosure of secrets.

An opportunity to look through a keyhole might have appeared at the same time with keys which could open the same lock. If there is a chance to detect money, sex, violence from outside, success is guaranteed. However, the situational success of the press rarely considers (sometimes intentionally) an obvious connection of events which, in fact, might be not so obvious. Moreover, journalists trying to tell a story of good and evil seem to understand a complex reality of cause-and-effect relationships. As a result their intended chivalry tries its best to cut off the newly growing heads of dragons and to heal the wounds with a flaming sword of truth.

My story is old rather than new for two reasons. First, you will see a lot of what authors sometimes call “the coincidence of any names, titles or events is entirely accidental.” This is important, because Ukrainian-centric thinking, from one side, fixes the social-political drama’s lenses on ethnicity. From another side, just a natural developmental success often is depicted like a country’s unique victory.   In addition, both objective trends are actively personified which reminds a buzzing mosquito flying around barns.

The second reason is that the majority of newly emerged stories in their post-presidential election reality often undergo a subjective “good” or “evil” assessment. The very fact that such stories have nothing to do with reality does not really matter to their readers.

On February 22, 1988, something unusual happened at one of auxiliary premises of the Toronto Pearson International Airport Second Terminal. Three RCMP (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officers stared at a frightened forty six years old black haired man.  His name was Mahmoud Mohammad Issa Mohammad. According to his documents, he was a Canadian-Palestinian businessman and lived in Brantford, Ontario with his wife and three children.

Twenty years earlier, Mahmoud took part in a terrorist attack against El Al Airlines in Athens. He was sentenced to the seventeen years and five months in a Greek prison.  Due to change of power in Greece, a new “black colonels” regime exchanged him and other six Palestinian terrorists under the auspices of a hostage exchange program between Greece and Lebanon. Mahmud spent only twenty-two months and nineteen days in prison. He returned to Lebanon, opened his own business, married, moved to Spain and began to look for an opportunity to immigrate to Canada to join his relatives.

While filing in his immigration documents, Mahmoud was detected by the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service (CSIS) as someone who might be used for a Palestine Liberation Organization terrorist surveillance due to his extended contacts in Syria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. Mahmud was allowed into Canada although he provided false testimony.

The Immigration Service of Canada investigated the details of Mahmoud’s arrival and, comparing his June 1987 fingerprints, found out that he was indeed a former terrorist who came into Canada deceptively.

The Israeli Mossad, which is known for not forgiving anything to anyone, was interested in Mahmoud as well. In order to make Mahmoud get out of Canada as soon as possible, the Mossad contacted their Canadian colleagues and portrayed Mahmoud as a dangerous member of a Palestinian terrorist network, although during all his time under surveillance, it turned out that the greatest crime Mahmoud had committed in Canada was a slaughtered lamb on a Muslim holiday. Reports to the Canadian Foreign Ministry indicated that the Israeli counterparts were persistent regarding the case, at the same time, Mahmoud’s deportation would mean his quick death.

The Intelligence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Immigration Service, each within their own protocols, were concerned about their country’s security. Mahmud was finally told that it would be better for him to leave. He would be eligible for a visa to visit his family in Canada.

George Tenet, a former CIA head, in his memoirs ” At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA “(2007) wrote that conflicts of corporate interests are common in the intelligence community and “exist to defend democracy not to practice it”.  Often such cases were agreeably solved. When similar facts, which contradicted to the democratic principles, became known to the general public, it obviously made it upset.

In our case, someone informed the press about Mahmoud’s story. Journalists literally set a tent camp near his house and school for his children became unbearable.  Saleh, one of the local Arab activists helped Mahmoud to arrange the property ownership at his wife consent. Two agents came to his home and asked Mahmoud to go immediately to a pre-arranged room at a hotel because it was unknown who could hide in a crowd of journalists.

The police, which had been always in certain competitive relationships with special services, appeared at this stage of Mahmoud’s life. The Canadian police did not take part in those secret intrigues and, though Mahmoud and CSIS had been changing hotels, he was “on a police tail” as well. At a certain moment during his brief stay with his family at his own home, Mahmoud was caught by the police which escorted him to the airport.

Several groups of people – attorneys, police and CSIS agents – came across each other at a crowded airport. Though Mahmoud under tight security measures had already bought some false tickets for other flights, questions “what is really happening here?” were left without answers. An ex-terrorist refused to go anywhere from the airport premises. He was convinced that all this chaos was not a routine bureaucratic mess, but a result of a Mossad secret operation.

A plan presented to Mahmoud looked as follows: Mahmoud secretly flies to London, UK, then takes an Algerian flight in order to follow a legend, as if he is flying to Tunisia. The Director of the Ottawa Immigration office, inspector Zaccardelli and lawyer Saleh were with Mahmoud during his flight to London.

On the same morning, somebody called anonymously to a CTV television studio in Canada.  A caller claimed that his friend saw Mahmud at the Pearson airport. In the afternoon somebody by the name Shapiro informed CTV about all the details about Mahmoud’s itinerary and named a source of his information: Gilbert Zamonsky. Zamonsky was widely known in the narrow circles as a security administrator at one of the largest synagogues in Toronto. The press stunned with enthusiasm.

As soon as Mahmoud’s plane took off, the mission was being publicly discussed. The  Mahmoud’s entourage did not wish to continue to test luck but to return by the same 857 flight back to Canada. Crowds of journalists, photographers and cameramen were waiting at Pearson.

The special services kept silence, breaking it for some short remarks and indicating that they had nothing to do with the leaked information about the case. Later they presented a version that Mahmoud was accidentally recognized by an occasional passenger.  A question of how this passenger happened to talk about the details, known only to a very narrow circle, was left unanswered.

The Mahmoud’s case was later discussed at the parliamentary SIRC Committee. Its spokesman said that it would be included in a separate proceeding in addition to the annual report. The Committee was interested in Shapiro and Zamonsky as well. Shapiro, a computer businessman, moved away from the subject and claimed that Zamonsky knew the case superficially and had nothing to do with the Mossad or CSIS.  Zamonsky talked about his anonymous source, as a passenger who described some details to a talkative employee from an airport’s ground service.

The press assumed that the Canadian government suspected the CSIS in closer cooperation with the Mossad than expected.  Such a failure with the press on its background was obviously intended to impress those who knew about intelligence services from literature or cinema:  an intention to send a Canadian agent to an environment with a traditional interest from leading world intelligence services under a coverage of seemingly illegal escape from the country might provide Canadians with information about foreign agents, including those within Canada.

No public investigation of any kind happened. The Parliamentary Committee Annual Report covered the story in a couple of abstracts (35 words). The relations between Canada and Israel worsened and CSIS had suffered reputational damage. Gaetan Lussier, a Former Deputy Minister of Agriculture, noted that “perhaps thirty years later,” he will write a book about this story because too many respectable people had been involved in it. The key element of failure, according to Lussier, was in a technological gathering of people with different motivations in the same airport building. Then began a chain reaction with the press participation.

In Ontario, Mahmoud established a public organization to protect refugees from Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and other regions.

What conclusions can be drawn from this exotic case for Ukrainians?

Similar stories happen in different countries. Sometimes they are tragic, sometimes-comic. We see only what is allowed for us to see and what we want to see.  More and more in the dissemination of technological information, that strives to look for justice, a press community is used as “useful idiots”. The press does not really resist such usage.

Public interest in journalistic inquiries is often determined by a drive for legitimacy. Justice is more attractive than the law because it allows everyone to fill it in with their own emotions.  When it seems to you that you have found your long-awaited justice, remember that even bigger part of it might still be hidden behind the curtains.

I would like to thank Dr. Michael Sinclair from Toronto, Canada who gave me an opportunity to tell this story in detail.

Oleh Pokalchuk

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