By Anna Mehler Paperny, Jennifer Tryon, Kieron O’Dea, Mike Armstrong and Hannah James, Global News
TORONTO and MONTREAL – Mohammed Jaser was worried about his son.
Raed’s views were getting a little more radical, his preferred brand of Islam a little more rigid, his enthusiasm bordering on zealotry.
“He came to me several times” around 2010, said Muhammad Robert Heft, who has done “de-radicalization” work with Muslim youth. The elder Jaser was renting the basement of Heft’s house at the time.
“It had nothing to do with violence … [Raed] had sort of went down a path where his father was saying it was difficult for them to deal with their son, because he was coming across a little self-righteous.
“He asked me if I would come speak with his son, and I absolutely agreed.”
The meeting never happened.
Three years later Raed Jaser is in custody, accused of conspiring to attack a train in an unprecedented, al-Qaeda assisted assault on Canada.
Heft hastens to say he doesn’t know the details of the case and nothing’s been proven.
But “I feel bad,” Heft said in an interview. “I wish they had set up a meeting.”
Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier made brief court appearances in two different provinces Tuesday amid apparent confusion as to where they were supposed to be: 30-year-old Esseghaier, flown to Toronto from Montreal Monday, was flown back on Tuesday so a Quebec court could formally transfer him to Ontario’s justice system (he’s scheduled to appear in Toronto court Wednesday morning). Jaser, 35, was in a court that didn’t have the jurisdiction to give him a bail hearing for the charges, so he’s on a detention order pending an appearance in Superior Court at an date to be determined.
Several members of Jaser’s family were in court, his parents included.
“I don’t know anything, believe me. Let the police do their job,” Mohammed Jaser told a crush of reporters as he left the courthouse flanked by police officers. He added, when asked, “Of course I’m supporting my son. Of course. He’s my son.”
Raed Jaser’s lawyer John Norris, whose previous clients include Omar Khadr, said his client “intends to defend himself vigorously against these charges.”
RCMP investigators say they’ve been watching the pair for months and are still monitoring other potential suspects. They haven’t said how they think al-Qaeda operatives in Iran assisted the two accused. The charges against Jaser and Esseghaier include multiple counts of terrorist conspiracy between April, 2012 and February, 2013; Esseghaier is also charged with instructing another person to assist a terrorist group. But investigators say there was no “imminent” threat to public safety.
Norris argued that makes the timing of Monday’s arrests “a bit of a mystery. … There was no risk to public safety, and it’s surprising, to say the least, this arrest would be made now, so close on the heels of the events in Boston and timed perfectly with what was happening in the House of Commons yesterday,” when MPs debated stricter terror legislation.
Investigators noted Monday that neither accused is a Canadian citizen, which Norris argues has served to “demonize” his client.
Tunis-born Esseghaier came to Canada in 2008 to study at the University of Sherbrooke. Since 2010, he had been at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, most recently on his PhD thesis on biosensors. Spokeswoman Julie Martineau said he was supposed to finish his thesis next year.
Martineau said Esseghaier was a student in good standing and had only caused concern during one incident two years ago, when he pulled down posters of naked people, apparently offended. ”We met with him and we explained that we don’t do this kind of thing,” she said.
Martineau said Esseghaier’s advisor Mohammed Zourob, whose blog was taken offline Monday, left the school for “unrelated” reasons in November. She wouldn’t say what those reasons were or where Zourob, a prominent researcher in the biosensor field, is now. Calls to numbers listed as Zourob’s as well as to Esseghaier’s new advisor, Tsuneyuki Ozaki, were not returned.
Jaser, on the other hand, has lived in the Toronto area with his family for the past two decades, chiefly in Markham and Scarborough.
During that time he has run into trouble with the law, beginning with a charge of fraud under $5,000 in 1995. The then-18-year-old was sent to a diversion program, which usually involves some counselling instead of jail or probation. He was convicted of fraud again in 1996 and given a conditional discharge – two years’ probation and 50 hours of community service.
In 1997, a failure to comply with bail conditions landed Jaser in police custody for three days.
And in 2001, a conviction for threatening death got him a $1,000 fine (plus $150 surcharge, for which he requested a 35-day extension) and two years’ probation. Jaser was also forbidden to possess firearms for the following five years.
While businesses previously registered in his name have been dissolved, Jaser appears to have worked at the North York Moving Company. As recently as last Wednesday, online reviews of the company mentioned an employee named Jaser – “extremely professional and nice,” according to a review April 17, “offered to send his team to my apartment right away, in order to give me an estimate.”
A man who had been at Jaser’s court appearance was at the moving company late Tuesday afternoon; as he left and drove off, he declined to comment. Another time, he said. “It’s been a long day.”
Read more: In-depth coverage of the train terror plot