TERRORISM

Erratic behaviour put Via terror suspects on radar

TORONTO and TUNIS — The Globe and Mail

Terror suspect Chiheb Esseghaier, top, arrives at Buttonville Airport just north of Toronto on Tuesday. , April 23, 2013. Esseghaier is accused with another man of plotting to derail a train in Canada with support from al-Qaida elements in Iran. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

One man is a school-bus driver who had a habit of proselytizing to the lone passenger on his route.

“Muslim women – even Christian women – who are unveiled will be punished when the day comes,” Raed Jaser, 35, told his congregation of one, according to the teenaged student Mr. Jaser drove to school north of Toronto a few years ago.

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The other is a 30-year-old scientist and doctoral student who tore down charity posters that featured provocative portraits of women.

Weeks before that incident at his school near Montreal, Chiheb Esseghaier travelled to Iran in search of a wife, his family in Tunisia told The Globe and Mail.

This week, Mr. Jaser and Mr. Esseghaier stood accused of plotting to derail a passenger train travelling from New York to Toronto as it crossed a bridge at the border – a murderous terrorist act, the RCMP allege, that had the support of al-Qaeda.

The Mounties have offered scant detail about the nature of the alleged plot – no motive, no means, no timeline for execution. But on Monday, Canadians were told that police had thwarted a significant threat.

Erratic behaviour and strange travel patterns put the two men on the intelligence radar, multiple security and law-enforcement sources told The Globe. And while authorities have long considered the suspects as worth watching, they were never considered sophisticated targets who posed imminent danger.

Some members of Canada’s national-security establishment question whether the case should be characterized as “al-Qaeda-supported” – a powerful label that, some contend, overstates the magnitude and gravity of the alleged plot.

“They’re not the A-Team,” one intelligence official said of the two accused. The official, who had knowledge of the investigation, said the case is “still frightening.”

‘He was in New York’

In Tunisia, the epicentre of the 2011 Arab Spring, the PhD science student is regarded as a misunderstood genius.

“He cannot even kill a mouse. So what about planning to kill people?” Mr. Esseghaier’s mother, Raoudha, told a Globe and Mail reporter, at the family’s middle-class home in Tunis.

If her son really were a terrorist, she asked, would authorities have let him travel the world? Just two weeks ago “he told us he was in New York,” she said, explaining how the family keeps in touch through Skype.

Mr. Esseghaier – heralded as a “brilliant” scientist by the Tunisian government – first moved to Canada in 2008. He was a clean-cut young man then, intent on studying medical technology.

Arrested at a rail-station McDonald’s this week, he is now a much more haggard and religious man than when he left Tunisia, his family says.

Police say he had no fixed address. His family denies that he ever had mental problems or became homeless.

He came to Canada to study at the Université de Sherbrooke, and then Montreal’s Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, but was not always focused on work.

His parents say that, two years ago, he stopped his studies to roam the world. In 2011, he travelled to Iran, possibly in search of a bride, his parents said. “I don’t remember where exactly in Iran,” said Mohamed Esseghaier, the father.

The timing of this journey is significant.

This week, Reuters reported that authorities believe Mr. Esseghaier could have had interactions with extremists in Zahedan, Iran, in June of 2011.

Sitting at the crossroads of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, Zahedan is one of the few havens for Sunnis in the Shia state. Still, militants on both sides of the city’s religious divide are known to attack and kill one another.

In July of 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted six members of al-Qaeda that it said were operating in this region.

Whatever happened in Iran, Mr. Esseghaier was back in Montreal by the fall of 2011.

A spokesperson for his school says it was during that semester that he was called into an office and chastened – for tearing down United Way charity posters featuring nude models covering their chests with the caption, “Underneath, we are all the same.”

‘America is trying to take over’

In the Toronto region one year earlier, a 15-year-old teenager was developing a “very bad feeling” about his bus driver.

It was 2010, and Chris (who asked The Globe to withhold his last name) was the only student being picked up and dropped off on a special-needs route.

Every day, the teenager, a Lutheran Christian, spent an hour alone with his Sunni Muslim driver.

He remembers Raed Jaser wearing a black skullcap. And sometimes Mr. Jaser played a religious lecture aboard the minivan en route to school. Often, discussions turned to religious matters.

“This Koran is the word of God. Men wrote your Bible,” Mr. Jaser once said, according to Chris.

Another time, he remembers Mr. Jaser telling him that “America is trying to take over the world.”

After five months, Chris asked for a new driver.

It was during this time that Mr. Jaser’s own father was also faulting him for being a fanatic.

“My son has an intolerant understanding of the religion,” Mohammed Jaser is said to have complained to acquaintances, explaining that his son had “pushy” and “self-righteous” views. This, at least, is the recollection of a prominent Toronto Muslim leader, Muhammad Robert Heft, who had been the older man’s landlord.

Today, Raed Jaser and his wife rent the back of a beige-brick duplex on Cherokee Boulevard in Toronto.

Neighbours say the couple keep to themselves. But a year ago, a dark sport utility vehicle with tinted windows began parking daily near the house. Soteris Antoniou, who has lived in the neighbourhood for three decades, believes the SUV’s occupants were government authorities.

“A lot of people in the neighbourhood knew it [the SUV] was there,” Mr. Antoniou said. “We thought it was the police watching somebody.”

Mr. Jaser, an Arab asylum seeker who was convicted of five counts of fraud as a young man in Canada, has ties to a moving company operated by a family member.

He was arrested at North York Moving and Storage on Monday. On Friday, two RCMP members showed up to interview his brother-in-law.

While reports suggest Mr. Jaser flew back to the Middle East several times on a fake Jordanian passport, his family says that’s not the case. “He’s been 20 years stuck in Canada,” said Taher (Joseph) Zibak, the brother-in-law.

He says his relative doesn’t even have a passport.

He added that he has no idea how Mr. Jaser knows the Montreal suspect, Mr. Esseghaier.

“You never know what the RCMP has,” said Mr. Zibak, hazarding a guess that maybe the two met in a mosque somewhere.

Unanswered questions

Nearly a week after the bust, many questions remain unanswered. Police won’t say just how the two suspects are supposed to have wanted to derail a train.

Nor will the RCMP spell out the precise nature of the supposed interactions with alleged al-Qaeda figures in Iran – which is the the most inflammatory, but also the most vague, part of the case.

Terrorism cases move slowly in Canada. History suggests it will be at least two or three years before the entirety of the allegations are made public. “I can’t talk about the evidence at all,” says John Norris, a defence lawyer for Mr. Jaser.