TORONTO (AP) - Two men arrested on Monday and charged with plotting a terrorist attack against a Canadian passenger train with support from al-Qaida elements in Iran, appeared in court on Tuesday.
In a brief court appearance in Montreal, a bearded Chiheb 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.
Raed Jaser appeared in court in Toronto and did not enter a plea, and is due to return on May 23rd. Jaser 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
The case has raised questions about Shiite-led Iran's murky relationship with the predominantly Sunni Arab terrorist network.
Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, had "direction and guidance" from al-Qaida members in Iran, though there was no reason to think the planned attacks were state-sponsored, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner James Malizia said Monday. Police said the men did not get financial support from al-Qaida, but declined to provide more details.
RCMP chief superintendent Jennifer Strachan said they were targeting a route, but did not say whether it was a cross border route.
However, the route of the targeted train reportedly runs between Toronto and New York City. In the U.S., that train is operated by Amtrak and stops in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, before crossing the border at the Whirlpool Bridge.
U.S Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY 26th) represents the border crossing area in Western new York, and says the alleged plot demonstrates the very real threat of potential terrorism in the region.
Speaking with WGRZ-TV, Higgins listed off several tempting targets, including the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, The Robert Moses hydroelectric plant north of Niagara Falls, and the world famous falls themselves which attract millions of tourists annually.
At the same time, though, Higgins says citizens should take comfort in the proficiency demonstrated by law enforcement to thwart the alleged attack.
"I think the remarkable thing is the good work of the Canadian law enforcement officials, and the FBI in our country collaborating and working together to help thwart a plot that could have exacted death and destruction on a lot of people," he said.
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.
Higgins, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, and is ranking member of the Counter Terrorism and Counter Intelligence Committee, says he was briefed on the events as they unfolded Monday, but would not offer specifics of what he was told, or say if the alleged plot involved the Whirlpool Bridge.
"The detail will be forthcoming and as that information becomes available I will make that public as well...(but only) that which can be made public," Higgins said.
"What they know the alleged plot to be was to blow up some train tracks, right before a train arrived and to have that train crash," said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) following a debriefing with intelligence officials on Tuesday."Whether it was on the Whirlpool Bridge, someplace in Canada, or someplace in New York they're not 100% certain," Schumer said.
"This is the first known al-Qaida planned attack that we've experienced in Canada," Superintendent Doug Best told a news conference. Best said the duo had been under investigation since last fall.
Officials in Washington and Toronto said it had no connections to last week's bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
Charges against the two men include conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group. 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.
The attack "was definitely in the planning stage but not imminent," Strachan said Monday. "We are alleging that these two individuals took steps and conducted activities to initiate a terrorist attack. They watched trains and railways."
Via Rail said that "at no time" were passengers or members of the public in imminent danger. Via trains_Canada's equivalent of Amtrak passenger trains in the U.S. -carry nearly four million passengers annually.
WGRZ-TV, wgrz.com, Associated Press