RCMP: Alleged terror plot in Canada backed by al Qaeda; 2 arrested
RCMP officers have arrested two people in connection with an alleged al-Qaeda-backed terror plot to derail a passenger train running on a Via Rail track.
Assistant RCMP Commissioner James Malizia said the plot was supported by “al Qaeda elements located in Iran” in the form of “direction and guidance,” but added there “is no information to indicate that these attacks were state-sponsored.”
Al Qaeda is linked to Sunni extremists, while Iran is predominately Shia.
CTV’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife reported earlier Monday that the Amtrak train the suspects were targeting would have been travelling on a track linking New York and Toronto, and the attack would have occurred on the Canadian side of the border. The RCMP would not confirm the targeted train’s route.
Police identified the suspects as Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, a resident of Montreal and Raed Jaser, 35, a resident of Toronto. They were arrested Monday morning and are facing terror-related criminal charges including conspiracy to carry out an attack against, conspiring to interfere with transportation facilities and murdering persons for the benefit of a terrorist group.
Assistant RCMP Commissioner James Malizia, the officer in charge of federal policing operations, said neither of the accused is a Canadian citizen. One suspect is originally from Tunisia, while the other is from the United Arab Emirates.
“Had this plot been carried out, it would have resulted in innocent people being killed or seriously injured,” Malizia told reporters Monday afternoon at a news conference in Toronto.
He added that, “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.”
The arrests were the culmination of a nearly year-long investigation, dubbed “Operation Smooth,” which began in August 2012. Police said Monday the investigation ongoing.
The investigation is a joint effort by the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Canadian Border Services Agency, and included assistance from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations. It also included input from police forces around the Greater Toronto Area, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police.
Investigators would not say what brought the two suspects to their attention, or if they were known to police before their arrests.
Esseghaier studied at the University of Sherbrooke in 2008-2009, a university spokesperson told The Canadian Press.
More recently, he had been conducting doctoral research at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, a spokesperson for the university confirmed to CP. The training university is based in Quebec City.
RCMP Chief Supt. Jennifer Strachan, criminal operations officer for the force in Ontario, said search warrants were executed “at various locations” in both Montreal and Toronto, but said it was too early to say what evidence, if any, they uncovered.
Strachan told reporters that police believe the two suspects “watched trains and railways in the Greater Toronto Area.”
Amtrak, which jointly operates trains between Canada and the U.S. with Via Rail, said in a statement that it is aware of the ongoing investigation and will continue to assist Canadian authorities with their efforts.
Police would not comment on whether they believe there were other people involved in the alleged plot.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews commended the RCMP on its efforts and thanked the FBI for its assistance in the investigation.
“Today’s arrests demonstrate that terrorism continues to be a real threat in Canada,” Toews told reporters Monday afternoon.
Canada “will not tolerate terrorist activity and we will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those who support terrorist activity,” he said.
Toews said “preventing, countering and prosecuting terrorism is a priority for our government.”
David Jacobson, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, said the arrests were a result of 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.
New York congressman Rep. Peter King commended Canadian authorities for the arrests, “particularly the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for their efforts in stopping a major terrorist plot which was intended to cause significant loss of human life including New Yorkers.”
Earlier Monday, Fife reported that the two suspects arrested Monday are not linked with two men from London, Ont., who died in an al Qaeda-linked siege on a gas plant in Algeria last January. They are also not linked to the suspects in last week’s deadly Boston Marathon bombing.
Fife said police had planned to make the arrests three weeks ago, but for unknown reasons they picked up the suspects on Monday.
The suspects are being held until a bail hearing scheduled for Tuesday at Toronto’s Old City Hall courthouse.
The arrests came as MPs debate an anti-terrorism bill that has been in the works for months but has taken on greater significance in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Bill S-7, the Combating Terrorism Act, includes provisions that make it an offence to leave the country to participate in acts of terror. It also grants police the powers to pre-emptively arrest someone and hold them for three days without charge, and allows for imprisonment for up to 12 months for refusing to testify before a judge in an investigative hearing.
Geoffrey O’Brian, former chief of counter-intelligence at CSIS, said such provisions provide law enforcement agencies with a “tool kit” for investigating just these types of crimes.
“Those are the kinds of things that police and intel services need in order to be able to do their jobs,” O’Brian told CTV’s Power Play.