The two suspects accused of being involved in an alleged al-Qaeda-linked terrorism plot may have led vastly different lives after their arrival in Canada, but allegedly shared the goal of killing Canadians by derailing a Via Rail passenger train, police say.
Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, and Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal, are charged with conspiracy to commit murder, participating in the activities of a terrorist group and conspiracy to interfere with transportation facilities.
Mr. Esseghaier had been in Canada for only five years, apparently distanced from his family in Tunisia, but seemed headed for a promising career in biomedical research. Mr. Jaser, a Palestinian, came to Canada as a teen, his employment history marked by jobs at small family businesses and financial troubles.
How the two became acquainted remains a mystery.
The world was Mr. Esseghaier’s oyster when he arrived in Sherbrooke, Que., in 2008. Then in his mid-20s, Mr. Esseghaier moved to Canada to work as a graduate researcher at the University of Sherbrooke, according to his LinkedIn profile. In 2010, he began research on biosensors as a PhD student at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique at the University of Quebec.
But soon after he arrived in Canada, Mr. Esseghaier showed paranoia about his new home, according to Mohammed Kammoun, an acquaintance and fellow native of Tunisia.
“He was afraid of the mosque, at first. He thought the security services would be watching,” Mr. Kammoun said. He added that Mr. Esseghaier was religious without being fanatical about it at first, but seemed to get more serious with time.
Mr. Kammoun and other acquaintances have said Mr. Esseghaier demanded a prayer room at the institute in Montreal, and bragged about tearing down posters he found offensive. “He wasn’t that conservative to start, but he liked to do his own research, off on his own,” he said.
“I don’t think it would be correct to say, ‘He got radicalized.’ He was much too stubborn to be manipulated by anyone, for better or for worse. He was much too set in his ways to be led around,” Mr. Kammoun said.
When Mr. Esseghaier was in provincial court in Montreal, he appeared weary and glanced at the gallery, which was filled with journalists. No one appeared to be present to offer Mr. Esseghaier support, and he chose not to be represented by a lawyer for the hearing.
A day earlier, a calm Mr. Esseghaier allowed plainclothes and uniformed RCMP officers to handcuff him at about 12:20 p.m. at a McDonald’s restaurant inside Montreal’s busy Central Station, a Via Rail hub, according to a person who saw the arrest.
“He didn’t try to get away or struggle,” the witness said. “He kept his head down and listened.”
About half an hour after Mr. Esseghaier’s arrest, another team of police officers with rifles and search dogs was combing through a Toronto business called North York Moving and Storage. Employees of nearby shops said they saw a dark-skinned man with a beard being taken away. It is believed that man was Raed Jaser.
Many individuals assumed to be family of Mr. Jaser attended his bail hearing on Tuesday morning, including his brother-in-law, who said his name is Joseph. Provincial records list Taher Zibak as the owner of North York Moving and Storage. A former employee said Mr. Zibak always went by the name Joseph.
“We’re all shocked. We all have a question mark, a big question mark,” Joseph said.
From what Joseph and public records suggest, Mr. Jaser and his family struggled with finances.
Joseph said Mr. Jaser used to work as a dispatcher and a school bus driver. He was director of Nexus Executive Limousine Services, Inc. The business’s registered office address was a house in Markham. Property records show that Mohammed Jaser, Mr. Jaser’s father, bought that house with Sabah Jaser in 2000. After they defaulted on mortgage payments, the lender sold it in 2009.
Before his arrest, Joseph said, Mr. Jaser was unemployed and helped out at the moving and storage company. However, an auto-reply message from the moving company’s sales department comes from an R. Jaser, whose e-mail signature lists him as a “customer service rep.” And reviews of the company on HomeStars began mentioning a Mr. Jaser or a Jasser starting last month.
Joseph said his sister married Mr. Jaser five or six years ago. The couple rented an apartment in a quiet, east-end neighbourhood, which was flooded with police on Monday evening.
Joseph said he saw no suspicious signs or unusual behaviour.
“It’s very strange,” Joseph said. “If he’s trustful with little kids for so many years, I don’t know how to comment on whatever is happening.”
The day after Ms. Jaser’s arrest, Muslim leader Muhammad Robert Heft wondered aloud if he had missed an opportunity to lead Mr. Jaser onto the right path. He previously worked to help “de-radicalize” Muslim youth in the Greater Toronto Area and had counselled Nishanthan Yogakrishnan, one of those convicted in the Toronto 18 case, before Mr. Yogakrishnan’s arrest in 2006.
In 2009, Mr. Heft bought a house in Markham that came with a basement tenant: Mr. Jaser’s father, Mohammed. He said in the year and a half that Mr. Jaser rented from him, he mentioned a few times that he was concerned about his son’s interpretation of Islam.
“He just came to me with, ‘My son has an intolerant understanding of the religion. Can you talk to him?’” Mr. Heft recalls. “He was being pushy and a little bit self-righteous in his views.”
Despite several chats with his father, Raed Jaser never came to meet with him.“I feel bad he didn’t call me,” Mr. Heft said. “Why didn’t you come to me?”
With reports from Jill Mahoney, Rick Cash and Patrick White in Toronto