It was sophisticated, outfitted with lights powered by a generator.
It was large, its reinforced ceilings tall enough for a person to comfortably stand.
It was dug near the Rexall Centre — the future tennis venue for Toronto’s Pan Am and Parapan Am Games this summer.
And it is not known why a mysterious, bunker-like tunnel was there at all.
Toronto police are expected to release more information Tuesday about the strange discovery last month of an underground tunnel located in a wooded area south of York University.
Monday night Toronto police confirmed the finding was made by a Toronto and Region Conservation Authority employee, who happened upon the tunnel while walking near the TRCA headquarters and York’s Keele campus.
The Toronto Star has learned that Canadian security officials have been informed of the discovery. Toronto police have scheduled a news conference Tuesday morning with Deputy Chief Mark Saunders, who heads the force’s Specialized Operations Command unit.
Two possibilities police are probing include that the tunnel may have been used to bypass Pan Am Games security, or to store explosive materials.
But while security experts agree the tunnel should be taken seriously — particularly during increased awareness of possible threats close to home — some warn not to assume it poses a terrorist threat just yet.
Details of the structure’s interior reveal it was much more than a mere hole in the ground. The Star has learned it measured approximately 2.5 metres in height and was roughly seven metres long, making it relatively spacious. It had lights inside that were powered by a generator. It has since been filled in by authorities.
According to CBC, which first reported the discovery Monday night, it likely took several weeks to dig, and the excavated earth seems to have been removed from the site, likely to avoid detection.
Contacted by the Star Monday night, Tennis Canada had no comment but said officials from the organization were notified of the situation several weeks ago.
The public is learning of the discovery at a time of heightened concern about a terrorist threat.
Al Shabab, East Africa’s Al Qaeda group, released a video this weekend urging followers to attack malls in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., specifically mentioning Alberta’s West Edmonton Mall.
The group has never struck outside of Africa and the RCMP confirmed there was no specific threat known, but in an era where online propaganda has inspired so-called “homegrown” or “lone wolf” terrorists to strike, no warning is taken lightly.
“We’re not saying it’s terror-related or national security-related, but unless there are some York University engineering students who thought this would be cool, it is highly suspicious,” said one Toronto police source, who spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity.
“The tunnel leaves little to no explanation that wouldn’t be nefarious, given the effort put into building it and its location in relation to upcoming events,” the source said.
“This took time and money.”
Sporting events have been targets attractive to terrorists in the past given their impact and media exposure.
Two pressure cooker bombs exploded at the finish line of the April 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 250. Jury selection is underway this week in Boston for the trial of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
In July 2010, suicide bombers with the Shabab targeted World Cup soccer fans in Uganda, killed 74 people and injuring at least 70 others who had gathered to watch a screening of the final match.
Terrorism would be the first thought for security services investigating the mystery tunnel, said Ottawa-based security expert Michel Juneau-Katsuya, 21-year veteran of CSIS and the RCMP who has been a private security consultant for the past 15 years.
“But that would be only the start of the investigation,” he said.
It is possible that whoever built the tunnel was planning to use it for storage, to hide drugs, or something else illegal.
“But you must, by training and experience, keep an open mind,” he said. “If your mind is too set on a conclusion, you might miss information, miss the clue or misinterpret the information.”
It could be a bunch of zealous engineering students trying to test their knowledge, he said, adding that in his line of work, some “very weird things are discovered.”
“But the initial reflex will be to think security in these times,” he said.
Juneau-Katsuya pointed to the rise of various forms of extremism over the past 10 years as another possibility, referencing the white supremacists who were arrested recently in Halifax.
“Basically, we need to keep an open mind. We don’t have enough information to make a conclusion. We definitely will consider the worst and hope for the best.”
Spokespeople for York University and for the Ontario Provincial Police — which is heading the Integrated Security Unit for the games — referred questions to Toronto police Monday.
A media relations officer for the Toronto police could not provide any additional information about the tunnel, saying details would be provided at the Tuesday news conference.
The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority headquarters are located at Shoreham Dr., just north of Black Creek Parkland and west of the Rexall Centre, considered Canada’s national tennis facility.
Toronto city councillor Anthony Perruzza, whose ward includes the area where the tunnel was found, called the discovery “quite interesting and bizarre at the same time.”
- With files from Diana Hall