Toronto: Two foreign nationals arrested on suspicion of what police say was an Al-Qaeda-backed plot to derail a Canadian passenger train rejected the charges as they made their first court appearances Tuesday.
Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, were arrested on Monday for allegedly planning to carry out an attack on a Via Rail train in the Toronto area.
The pair have been charged with conspiring to carry out an attack and conspiring with a terrorist group to murder persons, though very few details about the alleged plot have been revealed. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the suspects were “receiving support from Al-Qaeda elements located in Iran” — a claim quickly rejected by Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi as “truly ridiculous.”
Esseghaier, in a Montreal courtroom, and Jaser, through his lawyer after a hearing in Toronto, both said they were distressed over what they described as unfounded allegations made against them. Neither man entered a formal plea.
Jaser “is in shock and disbelief,” his attorney John Norris told reporters outside the courthouse, adding: “He intends to defend himself vigorously against these charges.”
Norris also accused authorities of “demonizing” the two suspects and questioned the timing of their arrests on the heels of last week’s deadly bomb attacks in Boston and as Canadian lawmakers consider new anti-terror measures.
“It’s surprising,” he said.
In Toronto, Jaser’s defense team was granted a ban on publishing any evidence from the proceedings, and a bail hearing was set for May 23.
In Montreal, meanwhile, Esseghaier told Judge Pierre Labelle that the accusations were unfounded, but he was quickly cut off by the judge, who ordered the matter transferred to the Toronto court.
The RCMP told a press conference on Monday that the suspects had been under surveillance since last August, and were observed monitoring railways.
Police however emphasized there had been “no imminent threat.”
The suspects’ plans were “not based on their ethnic origins but on an ideology,” RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia said.
According to local media, authorities had first been alerted to the suspects by a Toronto imam who noticed one of the men trying to spread extremist propaganda.
Malizia said the suspects had received “direction and guidance” from Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran, but emphasized the plot was not “state-sponsored.”
Iran is a Shiite Muslim majority nation, while Al-Qaeda is made up of Sunni Muslims who consider Shiites to be heretics. The two sides, according to a former Canadian envoy to Tehran, John Mundy, are “natural antagonists.”
“If it turns out Al-Qaeda is now able to operate from an Iranian base (to strike western targets), that would be very new. That’s something new and it has implications for us and the United States,” he told the Ottawa Citizen.
The National Post reported that Esseghaier was born in Tunisia and identified Jaser as a Palestinian with United Arab Emirates citizenship. Norris said Jaser is a Canadian permanent resident who has lived in this country for 20 years, and in that time has developed “very deep roots here.”
On Esseghaier’s LinkedIn profile, the 30-year-old presented himself as a Tunisian engineer who was a PhD student at Quebec’s INRS University since November 2010.