AFP: Assistant RCMP Commissioner James Malizia told reporters the suspects “were receiving support from Al-Qaeda elements located in Iran” but added: “There’s no indication that these attacks were state-sponsored.” By Michel Comte
OTTAWA (AFP) — Two foreign nationals arrested in Canada over a suspected Al-Qaeda-backed plot to derail a passenger train in the Toronto area were due to appear in court Tuesday for a bail hearing.
The two, Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, were arrested on Monday for allegedly planning to carry out an attack on a Via Rail passenger train, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) told a news conference.
The “arrests demonstrate that terrorism continues to be a real threat to Canada,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews warned.
Charges filed against the two include conspiring to carry out an attack and conspiring with a terrorist group to murder persons, though very few details about the plot were revealed.
Assistant RCMP Commissioner James Malizia told reporters the suspects “were receiving support from Al-Qaeda elements located in Iran” but added: “There’s no indication that these attacks were state-sponsored.”
When asked to describe the kind of support offered, he replied: “Direction and guidance.”
Malizia said the suspects are “not Canadian citizens” but declined to reveal their nationalities. One of the two men lived in Montreal for several years, he added, without saying which one.
The suspects’ plans were “not based on their ethnic origins but on an ideology,” police said.
Canadian media reported authorities had first been alerted to the suspects by the local Muslim community.
A Toronto lawyer said his client, a local imam, tipped police after he noticed one of the suspects trying to spread extremist propaganda, according to local newspaper the Globe and Mail.
Community leader Robert Heft, who runs an out-reach program for youth at risk of being radicalized, told the Toronto Sun that Muslim leaders can play a crucial role to “cooperate with authorities so (suspected plotters) can be brought to justice.”
RCMP Chief Superintendent Jennifer Strachan said the duo — who had been under surveillance since last August — planned “to derail a passenger train” in the Toronto area, though she would not specify which route.
“We are alleging these individuals took steps and conducted activities to initiate a terrorist attack,” Strachan added.
However, police emphasized that an attack had not been imminent.
“While the RCMP believed that these individuals had the capacity and intent to carry out these criminal acts, there was no imminent threat to the general public, rail employees, train passengers or infrastructure,” said an RCMP statement.
The arrests come one week after the twin bombings at the Boston Marathon killed three people and wounded 200, and as Canada’s parliament debates a proposal to beef up anti-terror laws, including criminalizing the travel of Canadians abroad in order to participate in an attack.
It appeared there was no link between the Boston bombings and the alleged train plot.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation was involved in the Canadian investigation, though the extent of the information-sharing was not immediately clear.
Details about the supposed identities began to emerge in local media.
The National Post reported that Esseghaier was born in Tunisia and identified Jaser as a Palestinian with United Arab Emirates citizenship who has Canadian permanent resident status.
On Esseghaier’s LinkedIn profile, whose authenticity Radio-Canada said it had been able to verify, the 30-year-old presented himself as a Tunisian engineer who was a PhD student at Quebec’s INRS University since November 2010.