TORONTO — The RCMP has arrested two men and charged them with allegedly conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack against a VIA passenger train.
The men had the backing of al-Qaida elements in Iran, investigators said at a press conference Monday in Toronto.
Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal and Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto 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.
The suspects have been in the country legally for a “considerable period of time” but are not Canadian citizens, the RCMP said.
About two dozen Muslim community leaders were called to meet with the RCMP and received a briefing before Monday’s news conference.
They were told that one of the suspects is Tunisian and one is from the United Arab Emirates.
Watch: One of the suspects believed to be a part of an alleged terror plot is transferred into a car at Buttonville Airport
Police were carrying out search warrants at locations in Toronto and Montreal on Monday.
In Markham, Ont., north of Toronto, police tape cordoned off half a duplex, with officers remaining at the scene well into the night.
Sanjay Chaudhary, who lives in the other half of the duplex with his family, said RCMP questioned him about his neighbour, asking whether he knew him or spoke to him often.
Chaudhary said he didn’t know his neighbour or the woman he believes is the man’s wife but added “every day, we see them going out.” He said the pair was already renting the unit when Chaudhary and his family moved in next door a year ago.
Monday’s raid on the house stunned Chaudhary, who said the neighbourhood is otherwise “peaceful.”
Authorities declined to provide further details about the suspects, but a spokeswoman for the University of Sherbrooke told The Canadian Press that Esseghaier studied there in 2008 and 2009.
More recently, he has been doing doctoral research at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, a spokeswoman at the training university confirmed.
“His thesis was on nanosensors and he was in one of our research centres,” Julie Martineau said in an interview about the PhD student, who’s enrolled in the faculty of energy materials and telecommunications.
“We are giving our full collaboration to the authorities regarding this story, so if they have questions for us, or if they need information, of course, they can count on our collaboration.”
A man with the same name is scheduled to deliver a presentation on PSA cancer screening, with colleagues, at a conference in California this summer.
A LinkedIn 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.
RCMP have had the suspects under surveillance since August 2012 and learned the accused watched trains and railways in the Greater Toronto Area with plans to derail a passenger train on a specific route.
While investigators believe the suspects had the capacity and will to carry out the criminal acts, the RCMP said there was no imminent threat to the public, rail employees, train passengers or infrastructure.
“Through our vast partnerships across the two provinces we had contingency plans in place. It was definitely in the planning stages, but not imminent,” said Strachan.
In a statement, VIA Rail also stressed there was no imminent threat and said it was cooperating “with all involved in ensuring the safety and security of our passengers, our employees and the public.”
This is the first time the RCMP have laid charges in an al-Qaida supported plot in Canada.
In a brief statement at the House of Commons, Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the government “will not tolerate terrorist activity and will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those that support terrorist activity.”
Watch the video of Toews’ remarks:
The RCMP counter-terrorism investigation was named Project SMOOTH and was carried out by teams in Montreal and Toronto, along with the FBI. Strachan said search warrants were only very recently executed.
The U.S. Ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, congratulated the RCMP calling the cross-border cooperation “the hallmark of our relationship.”
“This is an example of the United States and Canada working together to protect our citizens,” said Jacobson. “It underscores the fact that we face serious and real threats, and that security is a shared responsibility.”
Though unrelated, the arrests come days after the Boston Marathon bombings and recent investigations into London, Ont. youth involvement in a terrorist attack in Algeria.
With files from The Canadian Press