TORONTO – Two men charged in an alleged al-Qaeda supported terror plot to attack a Via passenger train made their first court appearances Tuesday morning in Toronto and Montreal.
Toronto area resident Raed Jaser, 35 and Montreal resident Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, were arrested and charged Monday in what authorities are calling the first known al-Qaeda directed plot in Canada.
Charges against the two men include conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group.
Jaser appeared in a Toronto court Tuesday morning and was accompanied by family members. He is being detained and has not had a bail hearing. His next court appearance is scheduled for May 23.
Outside the Toronto courtroom in a press conference, Jaser’s lawyer John Norris said his client has been in Canada for 20 years and had deep roots in the community. He said his client will defend himself vigorously on the charges.
Extended: Terror plot suspect’s lawyer John Norris addresses media
“Mr. Jaser is presumed innocent of these charges, just as any other person who would be facing such a charge is to be presumed innocent,” said Norris. “All Canadians should want him to have a fair trial.”
Norris also cautions the public should wait for the evidence and not judge the accused based on yesterday’s RCMP news conference.
A publication ban is in effect on any evidence going forward.
Video: Mother of terror plot suspect leaves Toronto courthouse
The second suspect, Esseghaier, was flown back to Montreal Tuesday morning. He appeared briefly in court and was also remanded in custody pending the execution of an arrest warrant issued for him in Toronto.
Esseghaier faces five terrorism related charges, including a count of conspiring to commit murder for the benefit of a terrorist organization. The other charges relate to participating in terrorist activities, interfering with a transportation system and giving instructions to someone to carry out a terrorist activity.
Prosecutor Richard Roy said Esseghaier will be flown back to Toronto to face the charges.
No request for a publication ban was made.
Video: Train terror plot suspect arrives at Montreal courthouse
The police investigation, named “Project Smooth,” involved Canadian and U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Following the arrests, the Ontario government said on Tuesday that it wants to talk with its federal counterparts about beefing up security on passengers trains.
Tip from Muslim community leads to investigation
RCMP officers said tips from the Muslim community prompted them to investigate the two suspects and that the two men have been under surveillance since August.
Leaders from the Muslim community were briefed on the arrests prior to them being made public Monday.
As part of the investigation, police and RCMP have been carrying out search warrants in Toronto and Montreal.
Esseghaier is a Tunisian industrial biologist who studied at the University of Sherbrooke in 2008 and 2009, the school confirmed Monday.
Jaser lived with his parents and siblings in Markham, previous neighbours said. A limousine company listed in his name dissolved several years ago but neighbours and a former landlord say they recall seeing the cars on the street near his home.
A national Muslim group and community leaders are thanking police for foiling an alleged terror plot against a Via Rail train.
In a press conference Tuesday, Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the Canadian version of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the plot had nothing to do with the Muslim community as a whole.
Video: Who are the suspects in the train terror plot?
In Markham, Ont., half of a duplex was cordoned off by police tape Monday as officers questioned neighbourhood residents.
Several U.S. media outlets have cited sources saying the alleged plot was aimed at a passenger train travelling between Toronto and New York City. Via Rail and Amtrak jointly run routes between Canada and the U.S.
Both Via Rail and Amtrak say they’re working with authorities.
Tehran denies links to suspects
Tehran is denying any link with the two men charged with allegedly plotting the train attack.
One of the suspects is believed to be Tunisian and one is from the United Arab Emirates.
RCMP say the suspects are not Canadian citizens.
Authorities said they had “direction and guidance” from al-Qaeda members in Iran.
But the country’s foreign ministry said there is “no firm evidence” of any Iranian involvement.
“If the news that you are announcing is true, this is the most hilarious thing I’ve heard in my 64 years,” the ISNA news agency reported Ali Akbar Salehi as saying Tuesday.
You can get more of Global’s up-to-the-minute coverage of the VIA Rail terror plot by clicking here.
– With files from Global News and The Canadian Press