Canadian security officials say they have thwarted a terrorism plot and arrested two suspects in Ontario and Quebec.
Two terrorism suspects charged with plotting to derail a VIA passenger train travelling between Toronto and New York, in what police are calling a “Al Qaeda-sponsored” attack with alleged ties to Iran, will appear in court Tuesday morning.
Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, and 30-year-old Chiheb Esseghaier, from Montreal, both face five charges including a conspiring with a terrorist group, although the RCMP said the public did not face “imminent” danger.
The Tunisian-born Esseghaier is an engineer with a master’s degree in industrial biotechnology from Tunis, according to an online blog that was deleted shortly after his arrest was announced. He studied at Quebec’s Université de Sherbrooke from 2008-2009 and is currently listed as a doctoral student at the Institute National de la Recherche Scientifique, near Montreal.
RCMP officers flew Esseghaier to Toronto Monday, escorting him off a small aircraft at Buttonville Municipal Airport in handcuffs and shackles 10 minutes before his arrest was announced publicly.
Jaser, according to sources, is of Palestinian descent and lived in the United Arab Emirates before moving here. Neighbours confirmed he lived in a rented North York apartment but were unaware of his profession.
Lawyer John Norris said he spoke with Jaser from custody and has been retained to represent him at his bail hearing at Old City Hall court Tuesday.
“I don’t know what to expect,” said Norris Monday night, who has represented other high-profile Canadians such as former Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr and a member of the 2006 so-called Toronto 18 case.
RCMP Superintendent Doug Best called the arrest the “first known Al Qaeda-planned attack” in Canada.
Both men had reportedly been under surveillance and police would not comment on the timing of Monday’s arrest or if any further arrests were expected here or abroad. Police allege the men were still in the planning stage.
Security sources close to the investigation told the Star the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had been tracking the pair since last year and the RCMP launched “Project Smooth,” in co-ordination with local police in Toronto and Montreal and the FBI in September.
The two men did surveillance on trains and railways in the GTA, police said, adding they are still executing search warrants related to the plot, which they said was in the planning stage.
The arrests came as a shock Monday to a public weary of terrorism headlines following last week’s deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon and two recent high-profile attacks in Algeria and Somalia, allegedly led by Canadians.
“Had this plot been carried out, it would have resulted in innocent people being killed or seriously injured,” said RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia.
Malizia said “Al Qaeda elements in Iran” were providing support to the two men in the form of “direction” and “guidance” but that the alleged plot was not state-sponsored.
The connection to Iran is still unclear and raised questions Monday as Al Qaeda’s membership is largely Sunni extremists, not normally welcomed in a country governed by Shia theocrats. However, there have been cases of high-level Al Qaeda members hiding in Iran — most notably Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was arrested and brought to the U.S. to face trial last month after he left Iran for Turkey.
“It’s the old saw the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Fen Hampson, the director of the Global Security Program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. “These people can be useful for them in their efforts to undermine Western influence.”
“The nature of the connection in this case is pretty unclear, at least in terms of what we know publicly,” he added. “It’s likely, if there is a link to Iran, it’s more likely the Iranians are looking the other way as opposed to directly state sponsoring attacks.”
Alireza Miryousefi, the spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, disputed the suggestion that the terrorist network was operating in Iran.
“Iran’s position against this group is very clear and well known. (Al Qaeda) has no possibility to do any activity inside Iran or conduct any operation abroad from Iran’s territory,” Miryousefi said in a statement emailed to the Associated Press late Monday. “We reject strongly and categorically any connection to this story.”