TORONTO, Canada – Two Canadian residents were charged Monday for allegedly planning to attack a Via Rail passenger train in what the RCMP is calling the first known al-Qaida directed plot in this country.
Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal, and Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, were arrested Monday morning.
Police said the suspects had been watching trains and railways in the Greater Toronto Area and were conspiring to derail a passenger train. They wouldn’t say how the suspects allegedly planned to attack, but said the plot had the “direction and guidance” from al-Qaida elements in Iran.
“This is the first known al-Qaida planned attack that we’ve experienced in Canada,” said Supt. Doug Best.
There is no information to indicate the alleged plot was sponsored, the RCMP added.
Dubbed “Project Smooth,” the investigation was part of a cross-border operation involving Canadian law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“While the RCMP believed the accused had the capacity and intent to carry out these criminal acts, there was no imminent threat to the general public, rail employees, train passengers or infrastructure,” RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia said at a news conference.
Police had Esseghaier and Jaser under surveillance since August. They were put on investigators’ radar thanks to tips from the Muslim community, Best said.
“The very first instance we were aware of the activities of one particular individual that yes, was brought to our attention by the community,” he said.
About two dozen Muslim community leaders were called to meet with the RCMP and received a briefing before Monday’s news conference.
They were told that one of the suspects is Tunisian and one is from the United Arab Emirates.
The suspects have been in the country legally for a “considerable period of time” but are not Canadian citizens, the RCMP said.
The two men are charged with 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.
Authorities declined to provide further details about the two suspects, but a spokeswoman for the University of Sherbrooke told The Canadian Press that Esseghaier studied there in 2008-2009.
More recently, he has been doing doctoral research at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, a spokeswoman at the training university confirmed.
A man with the same name is scheduled to deliver a presentation on PSA cancer screening, with colleagues, at a conference in California this summer.
A LinkedIn page says a man with Esseghaier’s name and academic background helped author a number of biology research papers, including on HIV and cancer detection. The page carries a photo of a black flag inscribed with the Islamic declaration of faith.
The Muslim leaders who attended Monday’s briefing with the RCMP were not surprised to hear that the original tip came from their community.
“I think now it’s becoming more apparent to the Muslim community about its involvement with police services and with public safety agencies,” said Kamran Bhatti, with North American Spiritual Revival, a Muslim cross-cultural community group.
The Muslim community is generally made up of law-abiding citizens who want to make a difference in their cities and towns, said Farina Siddiqui, with DawaNet, a Muslim outreach group.
“The partnership and collaboration between security agencies and the Muslim community is at a heightened level,” she said.
“We need to work to identify the problems that our youth is getting into…then identify the solutions to actually eliminate those kinds of situations.”
The arrests come only four months after two young Canadians were found among militants killed in a terrorist siege at a gas plant in Algeria. The siege killed at least 38 hostages and 29 militants, including Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, two high school friends from London, Ont.
Authorities said Monday the latest arrests were not related to the Algerian attack or last week’s Boston Marathon bombings.
Other instances of so-called homegrown terror plots in Canada are few, but none of them were directed by al-Qaida.
Momin Khawaja was convicted in 2008 of training at a remote camp in Pakistan, providing cash to a group of British extremists and offences related to building a remote-control detonator.
A group of young Toronto-area men, who have come to be known as the Toronto 18, plotted to bomb several targets including the Toronto Stock Exchange, CSIS headquarters and a military base. Though 18 men were arrested, 11 were ultimately convicted of terrorism offences.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the arrests show that terrorism continues to be a real threat to Canada.
“The success of Operation Smooth is due to the fact that Canada works very closely with international partners to combat terrorism,” he said in the House of Commons.
“Canada will not tolerate terrorist activity and we will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those who support terrorist activity.”
U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson congratulated the RCMP on the arrests, saying they were the result of extensive cross-border co-operation.
“Dedicated professionals on both sides of the border brought these arrests to fruition, and I thank them for their service and hard work,” Jacobson said in a statement.
“We all need to remain vigilant in confronting threats and keeping North America safe and secure.”
The two suspects are expected to appear in court for a bail hearing Tuesday in Toronto.
— with files from Andy Blatchford in Montreal and Stephanie Levitz in Ottawa
Here is the RCMP release on the case:
“Today, the RCMP arrested two individuals and charged them with conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack against a VIA passenger train. The accused have been charged under sections 248, 235 (1), 83.2, 83.18, 83.21 of the Criminal Code of Canada. As a result of extensive collaborative efforts, the RCMP was able to disrupt the threat early. While the RCMP believed that these individuals had the capacity and intent to carry out these criminal acts, there was no imminent threat to the general public, rail employees, train passengers or infrastructure.
“The two accused, Chiheb ESSEGHAIER and Raed JASER, who live in the Montreal and Toronto area were conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack against a VIA passenger train. Charges 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.
“The RCMP investigation named Project SMOOTH, was coordinated by RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSETs) in Montreal and Toronto with the close collaboration of domestic partners and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). The RCMP would like to thank its INSET partners including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada Border Services Agency, Toronto Police Service, York Regional Police, Peel Regional Police, Ontario Provincial Police, Durham Regional Police, the Sûreté du Québec and the service de police de la Ville de Montréal. The RCMP is also grateful for the valuable assistance of the FBI, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Transport Canada, VIA Rail and CN Police. These exceptional collaborative efforts directly contributed to making the arrests.
“Each and every terrorist arrest the RCMP makes sends a message and illustrates our strong resolve to root out terrorist threats and keep Canadians and our allies safe,” stated Assistant Commissioner James Malizia, responsible for Federal Policing Operations. “A meaningful response to these threats begins on Canadian streets and in Canadians homes and the RCMP works with all their partners, including communities across Canada, in the fight against terrorism.”
The public is always encouraged to bring any suspicious activities to the RCMP’s attention through the National Security Information Network (1-800-420-5805) or by contacting the police in their community.”
Here is the full statement from Public Safety Minister Vic Toews:
“The first responsibility of any government is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens. Our government takes this responsibility very seriously and we have strengthened the legislative and operational framework of our security agencies to carry out that mandate.
“As the RCMP have just announced, they have arrested two individuals as the result of an ongoing investigation into terrorism-related activities. Today’s arrests demonstrate that terrorism continues to be a real threat to Canada.
“The success of Operation SMOOTH is due to the fact that Canada works very closely with international partners to combat terrorism. I would like to commend the RCMP, CSIS, local law enforcement and all the agencies involved for their collaboration with security and law enforcement partners, and the thoroughness of the investigation that has led to these charges. I would also like to thank the FBI for their assistance throughout this investigation and their co-operation in bringing it to a successful conclusion.
“Operation SMOOTH is an example of Canada’s long-standing and productive intelligence-sharing relationship with domestic and international partners. This is a key component of Canada’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy and fundamental to protecting Canadians from terrorist threats.
“Our Government remains unwavering in its commitment to protect Canadians and support the global fight against terrorism. Preventing, countering, and prosecuting terrorism is a priority for our Government. Canada will not tolerate terrorist activity and we will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those who support terrorist activity. When terrorism offences occur it is important that they be prosecuted to the full extent of Canadian law.
“Our Government will continue to be vigilant and take the steps necessary to protect Canadians and their families, and our allies who share our common values. Canadians can be assured that our government will stand firm in our commitment to protecting this country from terrorists and the fear they hope to generate.
“As this has been an ongoing operational matter that will now go before the courts, I will conclude my statement and will not be taking questions.”
And here is a release from U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson in response to the news:
“I congratulate the RCMP on the arrest of two individuals on terrorism-related charges. These arrests were the result of extensive cross-border co-operation, which is the hallmark of our relationship. Dedicated professionals on both sides of the border brought these arrests to fruition, and I thank them for their service and hard work.
“This is an example of the United States and Canada working together to protect our citizens. It underscores the fact that we face serious and real threats, and that security is a shared responsibility. We all need to remain vigilant in confronting threats and keeping North America safe and secure.”