Friend remembers Via plot suspect as stubborn and ‘afraid of the punishment of the grave’

The Globe and Mail

Raed Jaser, 35, is brought into Toronto’s Old City Hall court building in the back of an RCMP cruiser on April 23, 2013. He faces three charges: Three charges: conspiracy to interfere with transport facilities; participating in a terrorist organization, and conspiracy to commit murder (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Before he was accused of terrorism, Raed Jaser was known to his Muslim friends as a hardliner. The 35-year-old Torontonian is said to have been stubborn about trying to convert people to his way of thinking, and to have sometimes expressed worry about falling under state surveillance.

But one close friend says that, more than anything else, he was consumed with thoughts of the afterlife: For how long might he suffer in purgatory – or even hell?

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“He was afraid of the punishment of the grave – it was something on his mind,” said Mohamed Ali, a close friend who prayed with Mr. Jaser, including just a few hours before his arrest.

He added that about six months before the bust, Mr. Jaser put up a short-term visitor at his house – a dishevelled science student from Montreal.

On April 23, Mr. Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier, a 30-year-old PhD science student residing in Quebec, were charged with jointly hatching a terrorist conspiracy. Police allege the two immigrants to Canada planned to derail a Via passenger train and kill untold numbers of people.

Hours after the arrests, the RCMP claimed that the plot was an “al-Qaeda-supported” scheme linked to figures in Iran. Yet counterterrorism detectives have publicly provided almost no details – including how the two alleged co-conspirators in Canada met or interacted.

Some sources say that Mr. Jaser – a labourer who had never formally studied Islam – was outraged about the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

For many months, Mr. Ali, 32, worked with Mr. Jaser at a Toronto moving company, while praying beside him at a Scarborough mosque.

He says he never considered his friend dangerous.

But his friend was always convinced that his own ideas were right. “He always liked to convert people,” Mr. Ali said.

The two men had met at a house that serves as a tiny mosque in Scarborough, after Mr. Jaser had worn out his welcome at other prayer centres in East Toronto.

Mr. Jaser seems to have wanted to avoid one prayer centre in particular – the Abu Huraira mosque in north Toronto.

“He said, ‘No, We shouldn’t go there,’” Mr. Ali recalls. “He said ‘Everyone’s eye is on you.’ He said he was under surveillance there.”

Mr. Jaser had put up Mr. Esseghaier as a guest in Toronto for a few days last fall, according to Mr. Ali. “He was a very quiet guy,” he said, adding the visiting Montrealer appeared to have fallen under Mr. Jaser’s sway.

This visit is said to have occurred last September – significant timing given that the Mounties allege that the two men set in motion the alleged terrorist conspiracy between April and September of 2012.

On April 23, after dawn prayers at the mosque, Mr. Jaser invited Mr. Ali to join him for a Tim Hortons coffee at an Esso gas station.

But Mr. Jaser seemed edgy that morning. “‘I said what’s wrong? He said ‘nothing, I just didn’t get enough sleep,’” recalls Mr. Ali.

Later that morning, Mr. Jaser and Mr. Esseghaier were arrested on terrorism charges. They face life in prison if convicted.

Mr. Ali says he can’t believe his friend was charged with terrorism – as he knew Mr. Jaser, he was a man preoccupied only with the kind of punishment that God metes out. “He would question ‘What is the punishment of the grave?’ Is there a punishment of the grave?’”