Anna Mehler Paperny, Catherine McDonald, Cindy Pom and Billy Shields, Global News
MARKHAM, TORONTO and MONTREAL – One of the two men accused of plotting a terrorist attack on a passenger train – the first al-Qaeda-assisted attack on Canada, police allege – already has multiple convictions against him.
Over the past 18 years, Raed Jaser has been charged with fraud under $5,000, failure to comply with the conditions of his probation and, most recently, threatening death causing bodily harm. The 35-year-old is not a Canadian citizen, RCMP officers say, but he appears to have lived for decades in the Toronto area, during which time he owned multiple (now dissolved) businesses.
Jaser and Montreal resident Chiheb Esseghaier were arrested Monday, charged with conspiring to derail a VIA Rail passenger train in a plan police say was aided by Al-Qaeda in Iran. At a press conference RCMP Superintendent Doug Best called it Canada’s “first known al-Qaeda plan or attack.”
Canadian officials took pains to note they don’t think this plot was state-sponsored, and they didn’t specify how al-Qaeda affiliates in Iran may have assisted the two accused.
Officers said Monday the investigation, dubbed “Project SMOOTH” and initiated by a tip from a member of Toronto’s Muslim community, was the culmination of “unprecedented” cooperation between agencies on both sides of the border, including the FBI, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and police forces in Toronto, York, Peel and Durham.
U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson said the joint sting “underscores the fact that we face serious and real threats, and that security is a shared responsibility.”
The two alleged co-conspirators – set to appear in court on Tuesday – appear to have had markedly divergent trajectories in Canada.
Thirty-year-old Esseghaier is a Tunisian industrial biologist who studied at the University of Sherbrooke in 2008 and 2009, the school confirmed Monday. An online biography for a Chiheb Esseghaier (on a blog for researcher Mohammed Zourob that was taken down Monday afternoon) says he was born in Tunis and earned his Master’s degree at the capital city’s Institut National des Sciences Appliquées et de Technologie (INSAT) before coming to Canada as a student.
His research in Canada has focused on biosensors – essentially, something that uses biological substances to detect or measure the presence of another material. According to the online bio, he joined Zourob’s Biosensor BioMEMS Bionanotechnology Lab at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) in 2010 to begin a PhD program “developing optical and electrochemical biosensors.” His recent papers include one on prostate-specific antigen cancer detection and another for rapidly detecting a type of HIV using “magnetic bead mediation.”
Esseghaier’s extension at the research institute in Varennes, about half an hour outside Montreal, was still listed on the facility door Monday afternoon.
“I know he was a student here,” said student, Gaston Contreras, who was listed on Zourob’s blog as working with Esseghaier. Contreras said he didn’t know anything about Esseghaier’s arrest.
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 Raed Jaser and his then-girlfriend rented the two-bedroom basement suite of Parvaiz Raja’s Markham house until about six years ago, Raja said. He remembers a pleasant, quiet tenant – no loud parties, few friends over. He had a brother, and sometimes a white limo in the driveway.
RCMP officers were scouring Jaser’s most recent home, in a northeast Toronto neighbourhood, late Monday afternoon.
They stopped Sanjay Chaudhary on his way home from work: “‘How do you know him? Did he ever talk to you? Did you talk to him?’ We never talked to him. We never said anything to him.”
In the year or so they were neighbours, Chaudhary said, he rarely spoke with Jaser or his wife. He knows they were religious: She covered her face, and the two of them went to mosque daily. “We never saw her face,” he said. But “she used to come to my backyard, to my cousin’s backyard, to look for their kittens.”
But for several months last summer, Chaudhary noted, the Jasers had company: “Five, six people used to live here, in one apartment.”
Chaudhary was accustomed to seeing the couple leave the house for prayers at 5:30 every morning. Not Monday; the last time he saw Jaser and his wife, Chaudhary said, was when they came home Sunday night.
Jaser’s landlord, reached at his Toronto home Monday evening, declined to comment.
An imam at the Victoria Park mosque Jaser and his wife attended daily remembers a calm, smiling man, who would “greet everyone, do his prayers and then he would leave.”
Jaser’s lawyer has had high-profile terror cases before: Toronto lawyer John Norris also represented Omar Khadr, a Canadian repatriated from Guantanamo Bay to a Canadian prison last fall, two years after accepting a plea bargain and being convicted of multiple terrorism charges, including murder.
“I’ve been retained by Mr. Jaser and will be in court with him tomorrow morning,” he said in an e-mail. “Beyond that, there’s nothing I can say at the moment.”
Hamid Slimi was among a handful of prominent members of the Muslim community who got a head’s up Monday morning and a briefing before the official press conference Monday afternoon.
It wouldn’t be the first time: “For the Toronto 18, we had a briefing the same morning,” he said. “It’s a good thing for law enforcement to talk to leaders from Muslim communities. At least … then we know. Because, unfortunately there’s a backlash in all of these things.”
Slimi has worked closely with the RCMP and other policing bodies, perhaps most prominently in de-radicalization programs for some of the youth among the “Toronto 18″ terror suspects. This time around, he said, that isn’t likely: These suspects are much older, and they aren’t Canadians, he said.
Did Monday’s announcement come as a surprise? “Of course it’s a surprise,” Slimi said, then added, “Unfortunately, in this context, today, I don’t know if you can say there are any more surprises.”
You can get more of Global’s up-to-the-minute coverage of the VIA Rail terror plot by clicking here.
With a report from the Canadian Press