Via Rail suspects 'motivated by Islamic extremism', trial hears

Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier both face multiple charges in alleged Via Rail plot

Chiheb Esseghaier is led off a plane by an RCMP officer at Buttonville Airport north of Toronto Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (Chris Young/CP)

Chiheb Esseghaier is led off a plane by an RCMP officer at Buttonville Airport north of Toronto Tuesday, April 23, 2013. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – Two men accused of planning a terrorist attack on a passenger train travelling between Canada and the U.S. were motivated by Islamic extremism and spent months plotting to murder as many people as they could, their trial heard on Monday.

Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier both face multiple charges in the alleged Via Rail plot. Not-guilty pleas have been entered for both of them.

On the first day of the trial, Crown lawyer Croft Michaelson said the pair made up a terrorist group operating in Canada in 2012.

“Mr. Esseghaier and Mr. Jaser, motivated by Islamic extremism, agreed that they would murder persons to instil fear in the community,” Michaelson said in his opening remarks.

“They did this so that Canadians and Americans would remove their troops from Muslim lands.”

Esseghaier, a Tunisian national who was doing doctoral research on nanosensors in Quebec, travelled to Iran in early 2012 and met with people who were, in his words, “carrying out Jihad for the sake of Allah,” Michaelson said.

“Mr. Esseghaier returned to Canada intent on establishing a terrorist cell to facilitate and carry out terrorist acts in Canada,” he said.

Jaser, a permanent resident of Palestinian descent, got involved with Esseghaier and wanted to “conduct multiple missions so people in Canada would realize they would not be safe until they left the lands overseas,” Michaelson said.

An undercover FBI officer, however, was able to gain the pair’s trust, which was how conversations about the men’s plans were recorded, forming crucial evidence in the case.

“They discussed more than one way to kill people. And one of the ways that they agreed upon was to derail a passenger train travelling from New York to Toronto,” Michaelson said.

The undercover officer, posing as a wealthy businessman involved in real estate, met Esseghaier in June 2012 on a flight to California.

Esseghaier told him of his time in Iran and the undercover officer said he provided financial support to mujahedeen but wanted to do more, Michaelson explained.

Esseghaier eventually told the undercover officer about “a Palestinian friend” in Toronto — a reference to Jaser — who was “in the Jihad truly” and that they had a project together, Michaelson said.

That project was the alleged train plot.

“Mr. Esseghaier explained that their plan was to make a five- to six-metre hole in a railway bridge, which would cause a ‘big accident,'” Michaelson said. “He said it was to be executed in December.”

Part of the plan was also a video, which would be posted online to deliver a message after the attack that “it’s just the beginning, if you don’t get out of our land we will do more,” Michaelson said.

The undercover officer was introduced to Jaser by Esseghaier and got involved in their plans, Michaelson said, at which point more conversations were intercepted.

“Mr. Jaser stated that he could care less who dies. He said that everyone is a target,” Michaelson said.

Jaser also told the undercover officer of a “long-term” plan to use a sniper to target leaders in Canada, he added.

Jaser and Esseghaier took trips to at least two railway bridges as they plotted their attack and determined the ideal location would be a bridge on the eastern edge of Toronto.

At one point, however, Jaser became concerned about the impact their attack would have, court heard.

“Jaser said that it seemed like too much work for a small result. He indicated that the train plot would result in the killing of a few ‘sheep,'” Michaelson said. “He said, ‘we don’t want the sheep. We want the wolf.'”

In late September 2012, during a scouting trip to a bridge, the pair’s plot started to unravel when they were approached by uniform police officers who questioned them and took down their identification information, court heard.

It was at that point that Jaser explained he didn’t want to get caught because he wanted to “continuously fight.”

Jaser and Esseghaier were arrested in April 2013.

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