April 23, 2013 9:40 am

Al-Qaeda in Iran and the Canadian train terror plot

A VIA Rail train leaves Union Station, the heart of VIA Rail travel, bound for Windsor on April 22, 2013 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report they have arrested two people connected to an alleged Al Qaeda plot to detonate a bomb on a VIA Rail train in Canada.

Ian Willms/Getty Images

Iranian al-Qaeda operatives, who RCMP said gave “guidance and direction” to a pair of co-accused terrorists, have been a concern for the United States for years.

So much that, since 2011, the State Dept. has offered almost $20 million in rewards for information that would locate three top facilitators of terrorism in the country.

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As recently as October, 2012, the U.S. took action to freeze the assets of some of the network’s major players and financiers residing in the country. Those include Yasin al-Suri, Adel Radi Saqr al –Wahabi al-Harbi and Muhsin al-Fadhli, who is considered to be the leader of Iran’s al-Qaeda operations.

The U.S. is willing to pay a reward up to $5 million for Al Harbi, $7 million for al-Fadhli and $10 million for al-Suri.

The al-Qaeda network – and some of its most prominent figures – has been in Iran for more than a decade, since at least the 9/11 attacks and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.

On Monday, the RCMP arrested two men for allegedly conspiring to attack a Canadian passenger train.

Canadian authorities claim the suspects — 30 year-old Chiheb Esseghaier and 35-year-old Raed Jaser, — had “direction and guidance” from al-Qaeda members in Iran.

Iran has denied any link with two suspects charged with plotting a terrorist attack against a Canadian passenger train.

Mounties quickly clarified there was no reason to believe there had been any state involvement in offering support to the foiled terror suspects.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters Tuesday that there is “no firm evidence” of any Iranian involvement and groups such as al-Qaeda have “no compatibility with Iran in both political and ideological fields.”

He called the Canadian claims part of hostile policies against Tehran.

READ MORE: ‘Unprecedented’ collaboration among Canada, US agencies preempted alleged terror plot

But the relationship between Iran and the terrorist organization is unclear, says Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel.

Elements of al-Qaeda, including members of the bin Laden family, fled to Iran from Afghanistan and have maintained a “clandestine presence” since the U.S. invasion, often using the country as a transit route between Pakistan and Iran.

“It’s all very murky because neither [al-Qaeda] nor Iran speaks publicly about the AQ operational presence in Iran,” he said in an email to Global News.

Riedel, along with other Middle East or terrorism experts, said the Iranian government has kept al-Qaeda members under house arrest or, more recently, deported them to Egypt, Kuwait, Mauritania or other countries.

Canadian officials did not specify how al-Qaeda factions in the Islamic Republic might have supported Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser.

Esseghaier and Jaser are due to appear in court for  bail hearings on Tuesday.

Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier: Two suspects, two paths in Canada, one alleged terror plot

Seth G. Jones, associate director of the RAND Corporation’s International Security and Defence Policy Centre, was surprised to hear Canadian authorities connect the plot to al-Qaeda in Iran.

“I’m not aware of al-Qaeda’s Iran segment [being] involved in a plot for about a decade,” he said.

That attack — a set of simultaneous suicide bombings in May 2003 — killed 10 Americans and more and more than 10 other foreign citizens in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Iran has kept a handle on domestic al-Qaeda elements, he said – they’re better known for trafficking weapons and fighters than plotting foreign attacks.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an advantage for Iran to have al-Qaeda operatives within its borders.

“Part of the incentive for Iran to allow al-Qaeda’s management council to operate from its soil is that in the event they are eventually targeted by, say, the U.S. or Israel, it might a be useful proxy down the line,” Jones said.

Perhaps because of that, it isn’t clear to what degree Iran is still limiting al-Qaeda operations. And because of its diplomatically isolated status, he added, Iran is also a safe haven for al-Qaeda to avoid the watchful eyes of international intelligence agencies.

“It’s quite possible that there’s more leniency now with these individuals, in terms of what the house arrest actually means,” says Aaron Zelin, who researches jihadi groups in the Arab world, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So it’s possible they might have been in contact [with Essaghaier and Jaser] over the internet.”

While Jones suggested it was out of the ordinary for al-Qaeda in Iran to be linked to a foreign plot, he said the RCMP and CSIS – Canada’s intelligence agency – have released so little information that it’s almost impossible to determine what role al-Qaeda in Iran had to the alleged plot.

*With files from Erika Tucker and the Associated Press

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