TORONTO (AP) — Two men were arrested and charged with plotting a terrorist attack against a Canadian passenger train with support from al-Qaida elements in Iran, police said Monday. The case bolstered allegations by some governments and experts of a relationship of convenience between Shiite-led Iran and the predominantly Sunni Arab terrorist network.
Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, had “direction and guidance” from al-Qaida members in Iran, though there was no reason to think the planned attacks were state-sponsored, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner James Malizia said. Police said the men did not get financial support from al-Qaida, but declined to provide more details.
“This is the first known al-Qaida planned attack that we’ve experienced in Canada,” Superintendent Doug Best told a news conference. Officials in Washington and Toronto said it had no connections to last week’s bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line.
The arrests in Montreal and Toronto raised questions about Iran’s murky relationship with the terrorist network. Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran who is now a Brookings Institution senior fellow, said al-Qaida has had a clandestine presence in Iran since at least 2001 and that neither the terror group nor Tehran speak openly about it.
“The Iranian regime kept some of these elements under house arrest,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. “Some probably operate covertly. AQ members often transit Iran traveling between hideouts in Pakistan and Iraq.”
U.S. intelligence officials have long tracked limited al-Qaida activity inside Iran. Remnants of al-Qaida’s so-called management council are still there, though they are usually kept under virtual house arrest by an Iranian regime suspicious of the Sunni-/Salafi-based militant movement. There are also a small number of financiers and facilitators who help move money, and sometimes weapons and people throughout the region from their base in Iran.
Last fall, the Obama administration offered up to $12 million in rewards for information leading to the capture of two al-Qaida leaders based in Iran. The U.S. State Department described them as key facilitators in sending extremists to Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Treasury Department also announced financial penalties against one of the men.
Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, said the terrorist network was not operating in Iran.
“Iran’s position against this group is very clear and well known. (Al-Qaida) has no possibility to do any activity inside Iran or conduct any operation abroad from Iran’s territory,” Miryousefi said in a statement emailed to the AP late Monday. “We reject strongly and categorically any connection to this story.”
The investigation surrounding the planned attack was part of a cross-border operation involving Canadian law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The attack “was definitely in the planning stage but not imminent,” RCMP chief superintendent Jennifer Strachan said Monday. “We are alleging that these two individuals took steps and conducted activities to initiate a terrorist attack. They watched trains and railways.”
Strachan said they were targeting a route, but did not say whether it was a cross border route. Best said the duo had been under investigation since last fall. Their bail hearing was scheduled in Toronto on Tuesday.
Via Rail said that “at no time” were passengers or members of the public in imminent danger. Via trains_Canada’s equivalent of Amtrak passenger trains in the U.S. —carry nearly four million passengers annually.
In Washington, Amtrak president Joe Boardman said the Amtrak Police Department would continue to work with Canadian authorities to assist in the investigation. Via Rail and Amtrak jointly operate trains between Canada and the U.S.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, said in a statement praising Canadian authorities for the arrests, that the attack was intended “to cause significant loss of human life including New Yorkers.”
Charges against the two men include conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group. Police said the men are not Canadian citizens and had been in Canada a “significant amount of time,” but declined to say where they were from or why they were in the country.