Inside terror suspect's refugee claim

Court documents shed new light on accused Via Rail plotter’s journey to Canada

Courtroom sketch of Jaser.

The Toronto-based suspect in the alleged terror plot to derail a Via Rail train is part of a Palestinian family that felt aggrieved, persecuted and cast adrift after the creation of Israel forced them from their home, according to court documents viewed by Maclean’s.

Raed Jaser—now locked in a solitary jail cell—was 15 when he, his parents and his two younger brothers arrived in Canada from Germany, where they’d lived for two years. They had abandoned a refugee claim in that country in March 1993, citing anti-immigrant sentiment that culminated in someone throwing a Molotov cocktail into their home.

“Our lives were threatened and we were harassed and abused during the process of our refugee claims in West Germany,” Jaser’s father Mohammed wrote on a document filed with the court. “Ultimately, we were forced to flee in fear of our lives.”

Maclean’s viewed the full refugee file Tuesday. The full report about the claim and the Jaser family’s recent history is in this week’s issue of the magazine.

Mohammed applied on behalf of the family for asylum in Canada, telling a back story that dated to the creation of the Israeli state. When the claim was rejected over questions of credibility, he appealed to federal court and—with the consent of federal lawyers in 1995—was granted a new hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board.

The outcome of that hearing isn’t known: decisions of the IRB aren’t made available to the public unless the matter winds up before a court. But the Jasers did obtain residency and are “very well settled in Canada,” according to Raed’s lawyer, John Norris.

Raed Jaser is one of two suspects charged this week in an alleged terrorist plot the RCMP claims included “direction and guidance” from al-Qaeda elements in Iran. His co-accused, 30-year-old Chiheb Esseghaier, is a Tunisian PhD student at a Quebec university. During a brief court appearance Wednesday, he told a judge that the “Criminal Code is not a holy book, it’s just written by set of creations.” Both will remain behind bars until their next court appearance May 23.

Raed Jaser (Image courtesy CTV)

Whatever the facts surrounding Jaser’s arrest, the plight of stateless Palestinians is interwoven into his family’s history, evoking a discernible sense of resentment in their statements to Canadian refugee officials.

In 1948, Mohammed said, his family was forced from its home in Jaffa to make way for Jewish arrivals and retreated to camps in the Gaza Strip. “The Israeli government had established a policy of ‘religious cleansing,’” he wrote, “which promoted and forced the transfer of non-Jewish citizens and residents from the state of Israel. Our families were all forced into exile because of our identification as Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and most importantly as non-Jews.

“[The] Israeli army seized our land, confiscated our home and all our belongings. Our family was forced to attempt resettlement in the Gaza Strip where we lived in extremely harsh conditions after our exile. We lived in tents, through freezing winters and blazing hot sun. We were homeless and in poor health.”

Mohammed moved at the age of 19 to the United Arab Emirates and set himself up first as a purchasing officer in a garage, then as a school teacher and ad salesman for a newspaper. At some point he married Raed’s mother Sahab, and Raed, their eldest son, was born in the U.A.E. in December 1977.

They left, however, in the wake of the Gulf War of 1990, citing growing hostility toward Palestinians, who were seen as sympathetic to Iraq. Mohammed claims the family’s phone was tapped, and he was pressured by U.A.E. security officials to spy on other members of the Palestinian community there. They arrived in West Germany in 1991, settling in Berlin and applying for refugee status. They lasted just over two years, giving up on Germany after the Molotov cocktail incident. “We lived as outsiders, in fear of growing and hardening anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments,” Mohammed told the refugee board.

According to court documents, the family flew to Toronto on March 26, 1993 using fake French passports that they purchased from a Turkish contact living in Germany. They destroyed the documents after clearing passport control at the Frankfurt airport and claimed refugee status immediately upon arrival in Canada.

The influence of this upheaval on Raed, then in his early teens, is hard to know. But he appeared to have trouble integrating to life the Toronto suburbs where the family settled.

In October 1995, less than three years after he arrived in Canada, he was criminally charged in Newmarket, Ont., with fraud under $5,000. The charge was eventually withdrawn. In December 2000, a week after turning 24, he was arrested again, this time accused of uttering threats. Court records show Raed was convicted of that charge, but later pardoned.

Mohammed Jaser was so worried about his son’s increasingly radical views on Islam that he sought out the counsel of Muhammad Robert Heft, a Muslim convert who operates the Paradise Forever Islamic Centre, a place for new Muslims. Heft, 40, also runs a de-radicalization program for at-risk Muslim youths.

By sheer chance, Mohammed Jaser and his youngest son were already living in a basement apartment of a home in Markham that Heft purchased in 2009. Jaser and that son, who suffered a car accident many years ago that had left him unable to climb stairs, would live in Heft’s home for a year and a half.

Mohammed, Heft says, worked seven days a week driving a cab, but otherwise devoted himself to caring for his injured son. “I thought he was a hero,” says Heft. “He’s a fantastic man. I love the guy. He’s my friend.”

During that time, Mohammed Jaser learned of Heft’s outreach work as a Muslim youth counsellor, and of his de-radicalization program, and approached him with a sensitive problem. One of his other sons, Raed, was becoming deeply involved in his faith. Although initially Mohammed Jaser was pleased with this new development in his previously troubled son’s life, his zealous devotion to religion brought with it troubling consequences for the rest of his family.

“He came to me and he said one of his sons was becoming a little bit rigid, a little bit self-righteous, arrogant, aggressive, intolerant,” Heft told Maclean’s. “He was concerned enough to bring it to me.”

In particular, Raed Jaser raised issues with his family along the lines of the length of his father’s facial hair and the colour of his mother’s hijab. “They weren’t practicing Islam to the standard he was setting for himself,” Heft says.

Mohammed Jaser spoke to Heft about these conflicts with his son on numerous occasions. Heft promised Mohammed Jaser that he would talk to Raed. But work difficulties and Heft’s heavy travel schedule proved an obstacle, and that meeting with Raed never happened. Eventually, Mohammed Jaser and his younger son returned to live at the Jaser home in Markham.

Heft, one of the Muslim community members who the RCMP invited to the airport detachment on Monday before holding the press conference in which they unveiled the terror allegations, did not realize his connection with the accused, Raed Jaser, until watching the news on Tuesday night.

There, on the courthouse steps in Toronto, he saw his old tenant, Mohammed Jaser. “I had to take a double take,” Heft says.

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