TORONTO — Two men face a bail hearing today after their arrest on charges of plotting a terrorist attack against a Canadian passenger train with support from al-Qaeda elements in Iran, authorities said. The case has raised questions about Shiite-led Iran’s murky relationship with the predominantly Sunni Arab terrorist network.
Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, had “direction and guidance” from al-Qaeda members in Iran, though there was no reason to think the planned attacks were state-sponsored, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner James Malizia said Monday. Police said the men did not get financial support from al-Qaeda, but declined to provide more details.
“This is the first known al-Qaeda planned attack that we’ve experienced in Canada,” Superintendent Doug Best told a news conference. Officials in Washington and Toronto said it had no connections to last week’s bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
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Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters today there is no evidence of any Iranian involvement and groups such as al-Qaeda have “no compatibility with Iran in both political and ideological fields.”
“We oppose any terrorist and violent action that would jeopardize lives of innocent people,” he said.
Mehmanparast called the Canadian claims part of hostile policies against Tehran, and accused Canada of indirectly aiding al-Qaeda by joining Western support for Syrian rebels. Some Islamic militant factions, claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda, have joined forces seeking to topple the regime of Bashar Assad, one of Iran’s main allies in the region.
Charges against the two men include conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group. Police said the men are not Canadian citizens and had been in Canada a “significant amount of time,” but declined to say where they were from or why they were in the country.
The arrests in Montreal and Toronto bolstered allegations by some governments and experts of a relationship of convenience between Iran and al-Qaeda.
Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran who is now a Brookings Institution senior fellow, said al-Qaeda has had a clandestine presence in Iran since at least 2001 and that neither the terror group nor Tehran speak openly about it.
“The Iranian regime kept some of these elements under house arrest,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. “Some probably operate covertly. AQ members often transit Iran traveling between hideouts in Pakistan and Iraq.”
U.S. intelligence officials have long tracked limited al-Qaeda activity inside Iran. Remnants of al-Qaeda’s so-called management council are still there, though they are usually kept under virtual house arrest by an Iranian regime suspicious of the Sunni-/Salafi-based militant movement. There are also a small number of financiers and facilitators who help move money, and sometimes weapons and people throughout the region from their base in Iran.
Last fall, the Obama administration offered up to $12 million in rewards for information leading to the capture of two al-Qaeda leaders based in Iran. The U.S. State Department described them as key facilitators in sending extremists to Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Treasury Department also announced financial penalties against one of the men.
The investigation surrounding the planned attack was part of a cross-border operation involving Canadian law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The attack “was definitely in the planning stage but not imminent,” RCMP chief superintendent Jennifer Strachan said Monday. “We are alleging that these two individuals took steps and conducted activities to initiate a terrorist attack. They watched trains and railways.”
Strachan said they were targeting a route, but did not say whether it was a cross border route. Best said the duo had been under investigation since last fall. Their bail hearing was scheduled in Toronto today.
Via Rail said that “at no time” were passengers or members of the public in imminent danger. Via trains_Canada’s equivalent of Amtrak passenger trains in the U.S. —carry nearly four million passengers annually.
In Washington, Amtrak president Joe Boardman said the Amtrak Police Department would continue to work with Canadian authorities to assist in the investigation. Via Rail and Amtrak jointly operate trains between Canada and the U.S.
Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the arrests show that terrorism continues to be a real threat to Canada.
“Canada will not tolerate terrorist activity and we will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those who support terrorist activity,” Toews said in the House of Commons.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, said in a statement praising Canadian authorities for the arrests, that the attack was intended “to cause significant loss of human life including New Yorkers.”
Muhammad Robert Heft, who runs an outreach organization for Islamic converts, and Hussein Hamdani, a lawyer and longtime advocate in the Muslim community, said one of the suspects is Tunisian and the other is from the United Arab Emirates. Heft and Hamdani were part of a group of Muslim community leaders who were briefed by the RCMP ahead of Monday’s announcement.
In Abu Dhabi, a UAE source informed about the attack plot said there was “no UAE citizen” with the name Raed Jaser. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.
Authorities were tipped off by members of the Muslim community, Best said.
The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim civil liberties organization, planned to hold a news conference in Toronto today to comment on the terror-related arrests.
A spokeswoman for the University of Sherbrooke near Montreal said Esseghaier studied there in 2008-2009. More recently, he has been doing doctoral research at the National Institute of Scientific Research, a spokeswoman at the training university confirmed.
Julie Martineau, a spokeswoman at the research institute, said Esseghaier began working at the center just outside Montreal in 2010 and was pursuing a Ph.D. in nanotechnology.
“We are, of course, very surprised,” she said.
A LinkedIn page showing a man with Esseghaier’s name and academic background said he helped author a number of biology research papers, including on HIV and cancer detection. The page says he was a student in Tunisia before moving to Canada in the summer of 2008.
The page carries a photo of a black flag inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” The same flag was used by al-Qaeda in Iraq and then started being used by ultraconservative Islamic groups in Egypt, Tunisia, Mali and elsewhere across the region.
In Markham, Ontario, north of Toronto, police tape cordoned off half of a duplex, with officers remaining at the scene well into the night. Sanjay Chaudhary, who lives in the other half of the duplex with his family, said the RCMP questioned him about his neighbor Jaser, asking whether he knew him or spoke to him often.