Acting on a tip from the Muslim community, police have arrested two people in Canada in connection with a plot to derail a passenger train in the Canadian portion of the Toronto-New York route.
“The individuals were receiving support from al-Qaeda elements located in Iran” RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia told reporters.
He said the support consisted of “directions and guidance” but added it was not supported by the state of Iran.
“This is the first known al-Qaeda plan or attack that we’ve experienced [in Canada],” RCMPSuperintendent Doug Best told reporters.
The two accused are Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal and Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, the RCMP said.
Neither man is a Canadian citizen. Officials would not provide more details about them. The Mounties arrested them on Monday.
According to his online biography, Mr. Esseghair was born in Tunisia and is now a PhD student at a Quebec university, the INRS (Institut national de la recherche scientifique), where he is a member of a team at a lab in Varennes, outside Montreal, developing biosensors.
A staffer at the lab said they had received an e-mail instructing them not to talk to the media. A blog about the research team was shut down after the arrest was announced.
Mr. Jaser appeared in Old City Hall court Toronto Tuesday to face charges that include conspiring to carry out an attack against, and conspiring to murder persons unknown for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a terrorist group. Mr.Esseghaier was sheduled to appear in Montreal court Tuesday morning.
The CTV network captured footage of a handcuffed Mr. Esseghaier arriving at Toronto’s Buttonville Airport, disembarking from a private plane at Toronto’s Buttonville municipal airport.
RCMP Chief Superintendent Jennifer Strachan said the two suspects had scouted out their potential targets. “They watched trains and railways in the Toronto area,” she said.
She would say only that the pair was targeting a Via Rail route. A source confirmed in Ottawa confirmed that it was the Toronto-New York City train.
Amtrak, which operates the American portion of the route, said its police force was working with Canadian authorities. “Amtrak appreciates the actions of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in their ongoing investigation regarding a terror plot against our colleagues at VIA Rail,” the company’s CEO, Joe Boardman, said in a statement.
Asked about the timing of the arrests, Chief Supt. Strachan said there had been no impending danger for the public.
“It was in the planning stage but not imminent … We had contingency plans.”
The two suspects had been under investigation since last August, according to a person briefed by police. The police were tipped a year and a half ago by members of the Muslim community in Toronto, a source said.
While al-Qaeda’s Iranian connection is little-known, U.S. officials have in past alleged that two financiers of the terrorist organization are based in Iran.
Last fall, the U.S. Department of State said it was offering rewards of $7-million for Muhsin al-Fadhli, “a senior facilitator and financier” and $5-million for his alleged deputy, Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi. Both are also wanted by Saudi authorities.
On Tuesday, Iran denied any link to the two suspects held in Canada. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that there is “no firm evidence” of any Iranian involvement. He called the Canadian claims part of hostile policies against Tehran.
At a separate news conference on Monday, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews praised the co-operation among various law-enforcement agencies in Canada and abroad, including the FBI.
“Terrorism continues to be a real threat to Canada,” he said. “The success of Operation Smooth is due to the fact that Canada works closely with international partners to combat terrorism.”
The announcement came as the government is pushing for the passage of an anti-terrorism bill, called S-7, which would authorize police to pre-emptively detain Canadians and hold them for up to three days without charging them. The bill would also allow authorities to imprison a Canadian for up to 12 months if they refuse to answer questions posed by a judge in what are called investigative hearings.
“Our government remains unwavering in its commitment to protect Canadians and support the global fight against terrorism,” Mr. Toews said. “Canada will not tolerate terrorist activity, and we will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those who support terrorist activity.”
Citing the ongoing legal proceedings, Mr. Toews refused to take questions on the matter.
The arrests are the third recent set of terrorism allegations involving Canadian citizens.
The RCMP has been investigating a group of students from the same high school in London, Ont. Two of them, Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, died in last January’s terrorist attack at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria. A friend of the duo, Aaron Yoon, is serving a two-year terrorism-related sentence in Mauritania while a fourth London man, Mujahid Enderi, is still being sought by police.
At the same time, officials are also investigating whether another Canadian, a former York University student from Markham, Ont., joined Somalia’s Al Shabab insurgency and was part of a team of suicide bombers who attacked Mogadishu’s courthouse earlier this month.
With a file from the Associated Press