TORONTO, Canada – Two terror suspects who were arrested for allegedly plotting to attack a Via passenger train received “direction and guidance” from al-Qaida elements in Iran, the RCMP said Monday.
The suspects — identified as Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, — were arrested Monday morning in Montreal and Toronto.
“While the RCMP believed the accused had the capacity and intent to carry out these criminal acts, there was no imminent threat to the general public, rail employees, train passengers or infrastructure,” RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia said at a news conference.
Dubbed “Project Smooth,” the investigation was part of a cross-border operation involving Canadian law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Malizia said protecting Canada’s national security entails the “awareness and active engagement” of all citizens.
Police said the suspects were conspiring to derail a passenger train but refused to elaborate beyond saying the plot had the “direction and guidance” from al-Qaida elements in Iran.
“Now I can tell you that there is no information to indicate that these attacks were state-sponsored,” Malizia said.
RCMP Supt. Doug Best said “this is the first known al-Qaida planned attack that we’ve experienced in Canada.”
He said the suspects have been in the country legally for a “considerable period of time” but are not Canadian citizens.
The two men are charged with conspiring to carry out an attack against, and conspiring to murder, persons unknown for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a terrorist group.
Authorities declined to provide further details about the two suspects, but a spokeswoman for the University of Sherbrooke told The Canadian Press that Esseghaier studied there in 2008-2009.
More recently, he has been doing doctoral research at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, a spokeswoman at the training university confirmed.
A Linked In page says a man with Esseghaier’s name and academic background helped author a number of biology research papers, including on HIV and cancer detection. The page carries a photo of a black flag inscribed with the Islamic declaration of faith.
The arrests come only four months after two young Canadians were found among militants killed in a terrorist siege at a gas plant in Algeria. The siege killed at least 38 hostages and 29 militants, including Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, two high school friends from London, Ont.
Authorities said Monday the latest arrests were not related to the Algerian attack or last week’s Boston Marathon bombings.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the arrests show that terrorism continues to be a real threat to Canada.
“The success of Operation SMOOTH is due to the fact that Canada works very closely with international partners to combat terrorism,” he said in the House of Commons.
“Canada will not tolerate terrorist activity and we will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those who support terrorist activity.”
U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson congratulated the RCMP on the arrests, saying they were the result of extensive cross-border co-operation.
“Dedicated professionals on both sides of the border brought these arrests to fruition, and I thank them for their service and hard work,” Jacobson said in a statement.
“We all need to remain vigilant in confronting threats and keeping North America safe and secure.”
The two suspects are expected to appear in court Tuesday.