Niagara Gazette

April 24, 2013

Bridge commission says it knew nothing of terror plot

Staff and wire reports
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — TORONTO — A suspect accused of plotting with al-Qaida in Iran to derail a train in Canada said Tuesday authorities were basing their conclusions on mere appearances. Iran, meanwhile, denied any involvement.

Canadian investigators say Raed Jaser, 35, and his suspected accomplice Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, received “directions and guidance” from members of al-Qaida in Iran. Iran said it had nothing to do with the plot, and groups such as al-Qaida do not share Iran’s ideology.

Locally, a Niagara Falls Bridge Commission spokesman said there was no indication that the Whirlpool Bridge was the target of any terrorist activity.

”The RCMP did not, have not advised us of any possible threat at our bridges,” said Brent Gallagher, the commission’s manager of agency relations and security.

The bridge commission oversees the Whirlpool, Rainbow and Queenston-Lewiston bridges.

”If there had been a threat, I’m fully confident they (RCMP) would have advised us,” Gallagher added.

Charges against the two men include conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group. Police — tipped off by an imam worried about one of the suspects’ behavior — said it was the first known attack planned by al-Qaida in Canada.

Early reports from U.S. officials said a potential bomb plot involved a passenger train over the Niagara River. It was one of the plots uncovered by the RCMP and other agencies, the news agency Reuters reported.

“The plan was to take out a train with passengers on board and the crossing trestle,” said a source. “It was meant to be spectacular and there would have been a lot of carnage.”

In a brief court appearance in Montreal, a bearded Esseghaier declined to be represented by a court-appointed lawyer. He made a brief statement in French in which he called the allegations against him unfair.

”The conclusions were made based on facts and words which are only appearances,” he said in a calm voice after asking permission to speak.

Jaser appeared in court earlier Tuesday in Toronto and also did not enter a plea. He and was given a new court date of May 23. He had a long beard and wore a black shirt with no tie, and was accompanied by his parents and brother. The court granted a request by his lawyer, John Norris, for a publication ban on future evidence and testimony.

”I don’t know nothing. Let the police do their job,” his father, Mohammed Jaser, said outside the courtroom in a crush of journalists.

The men’s case has raised questions about the extent of Shiite-led Iran’s relationship with the predominantly Sunni Arab terrorist network. Relations between the two have been rocky for many years, but some al-Qaida members were allowed to stay in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan following the U.S. led invasion there. Iran watched them carefully and limited their movements.

U.S. intelligence officials track 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 the Iranian regime. 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.

Officials in Canada said Jaser and Esseghaier had “direction and guidance” from al-Qaida members in Iran but no financial assistance, and there was no reason to think the planned attacks were state-sponsored.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters on Tuesday that groups such as al-Qaida have “no compatibility with Iran in both political and ideological fields.”

”We oppose any terrorist and violent action that would jeopardize lives of innocent people,” he said.

Mehmanparast called the Canadian claims part of hostile policies against Tehran, and accused Canada of indirectly aiding al-Qaida by joining Western support for Syrian rebels. Some Islamic militant factions, claiming allegiance to al-Qaida, have joined forces seeking to topple the regime of Bashar Assad, one of Iran’s main allies in the region.

The two countries have no diplomatic relations after Canada unilaterally closed its embassy in Tehran in 2012 and expelled Iranian diplomats from Ottawa.

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.

Norris, Jaser’s lawyer, said his client would “defend himself vigorously” against the accusations, and noted his client was a permanent resident of Canada who has lived there for 20 years. He refused to say where Jaser was from, saying that revealing his nationality in the current climate amounted to demonizing him.

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. Canadian police said the men never got close to carrying out the attack.

RCMP chief superintendent Jennifer Strachan said Monday that Jaser and Esseghaier were targeting a route, but did not say whether it was a cross border route.

In New York, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne declined to discuss reports that the plot targeted a passenger line between New York City and Canada. However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday that Canada has kept New York posted on the investigation.

”I can just tell you that you are probably safer in New York City than you are in any other big city,” Bloomberg told reporters Tuesday without discussing details.

Police in Canada said Jaser and Esseghaier had been under investigation since last fall.

The Niagara Falls, Ont., Review contributed to this story