The RCMP have charged two Canadians with terrorism-related offences in connection to a 2009 plot to blow up packed subway cars in New York.
The RCMP allege that the al-Qaeda terrorists behind the plot were trained by a University of Manitoba student who has disappeared from Canada.
Ferid Imam vanished from Winnipeg in 2007 and is now suspected of being in the lawless mountains of northwestern Pakistan. He is now being sought on terrorist-training charges as part of a new criminal case.
The case, which alleges lesser offences by a second suspect, amounts to a crucial test of the reach of Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act. Passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it allows police to charge suspects who are suspected of committing terrorist offences outside Canada's borders. The new case is the first time that the Mounties have charged someone with acts taking place entirely overseas.
Police hope the case against Mr. Imam - who faces a life sentence if he is caught and convicted of being a terrorist trainer - will alert the public about what they say is the growing threat posed by radicals from the West who want to join al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
The charges are new, but the investigation is not. Several counterterrorism agencies have been quietly hunting Mr. Imam over the years. But by obtaining warrants from a Winnipeg court on Monday, the Mounties have made the manhunt official - and laid a claim to the suspects by alleging they are fugitives from Canadian justice.
RCMP allege that Mr. Imam, while in Pakistan, had a role in training Najibullah Zazi - the Afghanistan-born New Yorker who has already pleaded guilty to plotting to bomb the subway system.
In 2009, the high-profile U.S. manhunt that resulted in Mr. Zazi's arrest in Colorado shocked Americans. He and two accomplices, also long-time U.S. residents, are now co-operating with authorities in hopes of reducing their jail terms.
Washington officials are growing more fearful about the prospect that "homegrown" terrorist attacks could cause carnage on U.S. streets. The fear is shared by officials in Ottawa, who face the added nightmare than any Canadian connection to any terrorist attack may lead U.S. lawmakers to tighten up the border - threatening billions of dollars in bilateral trade.
The American suspects have admitted to journeying to al-Qaeda's bomb-building camps prior to plotting the suicide bombings within the United States. "They told us we would be more useful if we returned to New York City … to conduct operations," Zarein Ahmedzay, one Zazi accomplice, said during his guilty plea in Brooklyn last year.
The Globe and Mail last year revealed a behind-the-scenes manhunt for three missing students from the University of Manitoba, including Mr. Imam. Their disappearance spawned a massive probe, not just by the RCMP, but also by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The counterterrorism operatives knocked on doors across Winnipeg and as far away as the United Arab Emirates.
A past head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has acknowledged that he briefed former president George W. Bush on intelligence that the Canadian students were in Waziristan, Pakistan. The CIA routinely targets terrorism suspects in the tribal regions - usually by zeroing in on them with Hellfire missiles fired from drone planes.
An immigrant from East Africa who came to Canada at the age of seven, Mr. Imam was a popular high-school student in Winnipeg not that long ago. He played soccer and was on the honour roll, before enrolling in the University of Manitoba to study pharmacy.
While at university, he weighed in on the notorious Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. "They attacked our Prophet [peace be upon him], who is Islam by himself," he wrote in an Internet forum. "Thus, I like to think of this as a crisis rather than a controversy."
In December, 2006, Mr. Imam went on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a few months before disappearing from Canada for good.
His alleged accomplice is a fellow Winnipegger, Miawand Yar, who had amassed a rap sheet for dealing crack before becoming a religious fundamentalist. He faces up to 10 years in prison if prosecuted on the catch-all charge that he participated in a terrorist conspiracy.
On Monday, the Mounties obtained warrants for these Canadian suspects from a judge in a Winnipeg court. The charge sheets were not immediately made available, but are to be publicly announced Tuesday.
A third missing University of Manitoba student, Muhannad al-Farekh, remains unaccounted for, but faces no charges.
There are no allegations that the Canadian suspects have hatched any specific plots targeting civilians. Nor is there any allegation they had any direct role in the New York bomb plot hatched by Mr. Zazi and his accomplices.
Top Obama administration officials have said the Manhattan subway plot is the most significant plot devised by "core" al-Qaeda members inside the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Though the U.S. indictment names no Canadians, it does name several fugitive al-Qaeda figures in the tribal regions of Pakistan - including some since reportedly killed by CIA strikes.
Under terms of the plea deal involving Mr. Zazi and his accomplices, they are to give "truthful, complete and accurate information" and must also "testify at any proceeding in the Eastern District of New York or elsewhere as requested."
There is no information indicating that the arrests of any Canadian suspects are imminent.
With a report from Patrick White