U.S. prosecutors have charged a third man in connection with an "al-Qaeda-supported" plot to derail a passenger train at the Canada-US border.
Authorities in New York unsealed an indictment Thursday against Ahmed Abassi, a Tunisian citizen in his early 20s, who used to reside in Canada, with fraudulently applying for a work visa in order to remain in the United States to facilitate an act of international terrorism.
Mr. Abassi was arrested by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation on April 22, 2013 but the charges against him were sealed until Thursday. The RCMP arrested two men in Canada that same day - Chiheb Esseghaier, also a Tunisian national, and Raed Jaser, an Canadian immigrant of Palestinian heritage.
The Mounties have accused the suspects they arrested of a murderous "al-Qaeda-supported" plot to derail a passenger train as it crossed the Canada-U.S. border, and recruiting an unnamed person to advance that conspiracy.
Mr. Abassi is accused of entering the United States specifically to advance a terrorism plot.
“As alleged, Ahmed Abassi had an evil purpose for seeking to remain in the United States – to commit acts of terror and develop a network of terrorists here, and to use this country as a base to support the efforts of terrorists internationally," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York in a statement.
U.S. authorities allege that Mr. Abassi travelled to the United States from Canada in mid-March 2013, where he was put under surveillance by law enforcement agents at all times.
It's alleged that, while in New York in early April, he had met Mr. Esseighaier there, during a short visit the latter man made to the city prior to his arrest in his adopted hometown of Montreal.
U.S. authorities allege that Mr. Abassi had radicalized Mr. Esseghaier previously, and that he had been recruiting or trying to recruit others, and that he expressed hopes of supporting al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq.
It's alleged that Mr. Abassi was caught making recorded remarks to an undercover FBI informant, discussing "his desire to engage in terrorist acts against targets in the United States and other countries, and his intention to provide support and funding to organizations engaged in terrorist activity."
The FBI says that 10 days before the arrests, Mr. Abassi was caught discussing plots to get fake U.S. work permits in order to "remain in the United States so that he could engage in “projects” relating to future terrorist activities, including recruitment."
Public U.S. court documents filed in connection with the case spell out details of the alleged plot in finer detail than has been released to date.
While in New York, the two conspirators were allegedly overheard arguing about the best way to advance terrorist actions, mulling everything from financing jihadist groups overseas to a deadly bacterial assault.
“Among other things, the defendant [Mr. Abassi] told the [FBI informant] that while Esseghaier's plans were good, the time was not right,” reads a U.S. court document. “The defendant noted that he had suggested an alternative plot contaminating the air or water with bacteria in order to kill up to 100,000 people - but that Esseghaier was dismissive of that plan.”
U.S. documents further allege that Mr. Abassi was caught saying that “that they help Muslims fighting in Syria by sending money or weapons.”
There is no information that either man took concrete actions toward turning their schemes into reality.
Mr. Abassi was arrested at JFK Airport on April 22. Court filed documents say that he initially denied any links to terrorism, but that he later made certain admissions and waived his right to remain silent.
The FBI says they questioned Mr. Abassi on a “near daily basis” for an entire week – from April 22 to April 29.
“During a post-arrest Mirandized interview with law enforcement, the defendant, among other things, acknowledged that he may have radicalized Esseghaier and explained that he and Esseghaier discussed plots to poison a water system and derail a passenger train,” U.S. court documents say. “No steps were further taken to the contamination plot that posed a danger to the public.”
A New York lawyer acting for Mr. Abassi says that the U.S. charges are highly questionable.
“He flatly denies these allegations -- he really does,” said defence attorney Sabrina Shroff, before adding that her client “is not charged with any terrorism offences. He’s charged with visa offences.”
She suggested that Mr. Abassi, who arrived in Canada from Tunisia on a student’s visa in 2010, could never have set foot in the United States without security officials’ permission or advance knowledge.
“It certainly raises a question about the government,” she said. “… Aren’t they the ones that issued him a visa?”
U.S. prosecutors say that Mr. Abassi was under surveillance from the time he crossed the border in mid-March until the time of his arrest on April 22. Along the way he was taped making remarks by an undercover FBI officer he had considered a confidant.
Prosecutors further allege that Mr. Abassi made other incriminating admissions during a week-long period in custody after his arrest, where he faced FBI questioning without a lawyer present.
“We would not agree that he waived his Miranda rights,” Ms. Shroff said.
Mr. Abassi faces no charges in connection with any train plot. The conspiracy is the crux of the Canadian terrorism case according to the RCMP, but U.S. authorities make only a passing mention of it in the Abassi prosecution.
In U.S. terrorism cases, prosecutors routinely offer to reduce jail sentences in exchange for testimony. The co-operation with the FBI makes it possible Mr. Abassi could turn into a co-operating witness.
Unlike U.S. counterparts, Canadian police and prosecutors do not generally publicize the specific mechanics of alleged criminal acts prior to trial. Terrorism cases usually take at least three years to get to trial in Canada.
U.S. authorities, who allege Mr. Abassi may have radicalized Mr. Esseghaier years ago, say the later man received “overseas terrorist training.” The location and timing is not disclosed, but information has previously surfaced that Mr. Esseghaier travelled to Iran recently as 2011. (Canadian authorities have alleged the terror conspiracy was helped along by unnamed al-Qaeda figures residing in Iran.)
In Tunis last month, Mr. Esseghaier parent’s told a Globe and Mail reporter that their son had last returned home in 2011, with an unnamed friend, and that the tandem were intent on going to Iran – possibly to facilitate a marriage for Mr. Esseghaier.
The parents also said their son had called them in mid-April, saying that he had travelled from Montreal to New York City.