What we know about the Via terror plan suspects

Details on the men RCMP say are behind the first known al-Qaeda-backed plan to commit terrorism in Canada

In the wake of the spectacular announcement that police foiled a terror plot to derail a Via passenger train, details are emerging about the two suspects taken into custody today.

One of the men, Raed Jaser, is believed to have grown up in a Palestinian family with Jordanian roots. Court records seem to indicate he went on to a troubled history in Toronto, where authorities arrested him after a months’-long investigation they say ultimately leads back to al-Qaeda elements in Iran.

Although he is not a Canadian citizen, Jaser, 35, appears to have been in Ontario for at least two decades.

In October 1995, a man with the same name and year of birth was criminally charged in Newmarket, Ont., with fraud under $5,000 (the charge was withdrawn a year later). In December 2000, a week after his 24th birthday, Jaser was arrested and charged again, this time with uttering threats. Although court records show he was convicted of that charge, it’s not clear what sentence he received.

Such details are helping to flesh out the scant information provided today by RCMP investigators who say they have foiled the first known al-Qaeda-backed plan to commit an act of terrorism on Canadian soil.

Even as RCMP brass unveiled the little information they could ahead of a bail hearing scheduled for Tuesday morning, officers in Toronto and Montreal were executing search warrants at the residences and workplaces of Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal.

The RCMP investigation leading to these arrests began as early as last summer, and involved numerous police forces, including the FBI. The arrests follow a week during which Canadians were gripped by the Boston Marathon bombings, and the subsequent manhunt for the two brothers police say were responsible.

‘An entrepreneur making a bid for success’ 

Some details of Jaser’s life suggest a degree of normalcy, an entrepreneur making a bid for success.

In the summer of 2005, a man named Raed Jaser registered a numbered company with Industry Canada. Specifics about the business are not contained in corporate records filed with the federal government, but a house in Markham, Ont., north of Toronto, was listed as the head office.

On Monday, a woman who answered the phone at that address said Jaser once rented a room in the basement. “It was a long time ago,” she said. “We have no connection. We don’t know him at all.” (His company dissolved in June 2008.)

At that point, Jaser may have moved in with his parents and siblings in the Swan Lake area of Markham, where former neighbours described the family as cordial and kind.

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Max Salida, who lived next door, recalls Raed Jaser as friendly and willing to make small talk—an average young Canadian with a black sports car. “If it’s the same person,” Salida told Maclean’s, “I can’t believe he could be connected to something like this.”

The rambling two-storey detached house on Lehman Crescent was home to a middle-aged couple, two sons and a daughter, according to neighbours.

The father, Mohammed, told people they were Palestinian, and had come to Canada from Jordan. They did not talk religion or politics, says Salida, and seemed generally adjusted to Western life (women in the house did not wear head coverings; family members wore swimwear in their pool).

But they were open about their Muslim faith. One neighbour, who asked that his name be withheld, recalls being in the house when a young, white man walked in and greeted them with the common Arabic phrase salutation, “Salam alaikum” (peace be upon you). “I kind of looked at [Mohammed],” said the neighbour. “He said, ‘We’ve converted this man to Islam from Christianity.’ ”

During this time, Raed Jaser appears to have been running a limousine company, which was registered under his name and linked to the Lehman Crescent residence.

But about three years ago, Mohammed told his neighbours he was considering returning to Jordan. Not long after, he and his wife disappeared from the house, leaving behind one of their sons and a daughter. Within months, the home was under foreclosure, selling well below market value at about $380,000.

‘The resumé of an academic posed to go places’

Details about the other man police say was involved in the plot, Esseghaier, a resident of Montreal, are also coming into focus. A highly trained engineer, he had the resumé of an academic poised to go places.

As recently as last month he was publishing research papers.

The March 2013 edition of journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics published a paper on advanced HIV detection by Esseghaier, Mohammed Zourob and a fellow PhD student named Andy Ng.

According to his CV, Esseghaier was born in Tunisia. He received an engineering degree from Institut Tunisia’s National des Sciences Appliquées et de Technologie in 2007, with his masters degree following in 2008. He then moved to Université de Sherbrooke to research “SPR biosensor and gallium arsenide semi-conductor biofunctionnalization.” In November 2010, he joined Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), a graduate institution associated with the Université du Québec.

In 2009, Esseghaier and several other students presented a conference on biosensors in Hamilton. In 2012, along with fellow PhD students and his INRS advising professor Mohammed Zourob, Esseghaier presented “Novel and Rapid Assay for HIV Diagnosis and Drug screening” at technology conferences in Santa Clara, California, Montreal and Cancun, Mexico.

Esseghaier still lists an email address associated with INRS, as well as a phone number with a Montreal area code. A professor at INRS said he thought Esseghaier had left the institution in October 2012, at roughly the same time as Zourob. Professor Zourob didn’t respond to an email requesting comment. At 4:50 p.m. ET today, Zourob’s WordPress website containing his contact information as well as Esseghaier’s CV disappeared.

Despite these somewhat middle-of-the-road backgrounds the two men are charged with numerous terrorism-related offences, including conspiring to carry out an attack that would have led to the murder and serious injury of innocent people, part of a plot sanctioned and perhaps directed by al-Qaeda, investigators said.

That group, Assistant Commissioner James Malizia, who is responsible for federal policing operations, told a crush of reporters this afternoon, is a chapter of the infamous Osama bin Laden-founded organization operating out of Iran, a majority Shia country where the Sunni terror group has not hitherto enjoyed much support.

Rather than material or financial help, “what the investigation has demonstrated was that the support being received was in the form of directions and guidance,” said Malizia, who stressed that there was “no information to indicate that these attacks were state-sponsored.”

While Iran’s support for the militant group Hezbollah is well established, its ties to al-Qaeda are far less known. Yet according to an article in Foreign Affairs, al Qaeda first established its “management council”—a body with the task of providing strategic supports to the organization’s leaders in Pakistan—there in 2002.

Iran, perhaps fearful the U.S. would use it as a justification for war, rounded up the members of the management council, and many of them remain under limited house arrest. Yet the article says Iran remains an important hub for al-Qaeda. The group’s operatives use it as a base from which to target donors and transfer funds to its leadership in Pakistan.

It’s a puzzling relationship, given the animosity between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region.

What they do have in common though, as the Foreign Affairs article points out, is a hatred of the U.S.—and, by extension, if these latest allegations prove true, Canada. By having the organization close at hand, some believe Iran’s leaders might hope to employ the terror group in the event a direct conflict with the U.S. or Israel break out.

Role of Iran will be crucial part of investigation

Whatever the case, as police continue their probe into the alleged plot, the exact role of Iran will be a crucial part of the investigation.

The RCMP alleges that the two men, whose relationship or country of origins they would not comment on except to say they are not Canadian citizens and were legally living in the country, monitored Via trains as part of efforts to plan a massive derailment.

The two men were said to have come to the attention of law enforcement officers after members of the Muslim community became concerned about one of them and approached authorities.

“The very first instance we were aware of the activities of one particular individual–that, yes, was brought to our attention by the community,” said RCMP Superintendent Doug Best, the assistant criminal operations officer responsible for national security counter terrorism investigations in Ontario.

Authorities began investigating the two men in August, 2012, and said they broke the case with the close collaboration of the FBI.

In a tightly scripted, carefully stage-managed press conference at an RCMP detachment nearby Toronto Pearson International Airport, the high-ranking officers would not answer questions about whether the attack was planned for Montreal or Toronto, or even in what direction the train they planned to strike would be moving in. “I would suggest it was a route as opposed to a train,” said Chief Superintendent Jennifer Strachan.

One Muslim, Muhammad Robert Heft, sought to reassure members of his community that today’s arrests did not reflect a political agenda to push through the Combating Terrorism Act, a bill that had been set for debate in the House of Commons today. (The government has denied any link in the timing between the RCMP announcement and the terrorism act debate.)

“The community’s going to say, Harper was about to pass a bill, suddenly put it on the forefront, Monday they come in, all the pressure of the anti-terrorism—boom, the law gets passed,” said Heft, a Muslim convert who runs a de-radicalization program based in the GTA, who the RCMP invited to the press conference.

Heft said he believed there was no connection between the arrests and the terror bill because last week contacts with the RCMP approached him on an investigation, the details of which he would not discuss.

“That was prior to the whole Boston bombings and everything that happened,” said Heft. “So I know that they’re being legitimate. But still, perception is everything.”

Heft was among a group of Muslims who in 2006 watched as his community descended into the chaos of the Toronto 18 trials.

Heft and his fellow community members may now be in for a dose of déjà vu.

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