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Chiheb Esseghaier, one of two suspects accused of plotting with al-Qaeda in Iran
Suspect dismissive of ‘laws’ in Canada

TORONTO, April 24, (RTRS): One of the two men accused of an al-Qaeda-backed plan to derail a passenger train in Canada questioned the authority of Canadian law to judge him, telling a court on Wednesday that the criminal code is imperfect and is not a holy book.

Chiheb Esseghaier, a Tunisian-born PhD student, faces charges that include conspiracy to murder and working with a terrorist group.

He and another suspect allegedly hoped to derail a passenger train, perhaps at a bridge near the US-Canada border, with possible heavy loss of life, authorities said.

In a brief hearing where he was ordered back into custody, Esseghaier, 30, said the allegations against him are based on laws that are unreliable because they are not the work of God.

“All of these conclusions was taken out based on (the) Criminal Code,” he told a Toronto court. “The Criminal Code is not (a) holy book.”

He added: “Only the Creator is perfect.”

Esseghaier, who has a thick black beard and wore a blue-black windbreaker, declined to use an Arabic interpreter the court had made available. But he seemed to struggle at times to understand the proceedings.

Canadian authorities said they have linked the two to al-Qaeda factions in Iran. They said, however that there is no indication the plans, which police described as the first known al-Qaeda-backed plot on Canadian soil, were state-sponsored.

Tehran has vehemently rejected any ties to the arrests.

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Authorities said there is also no connection to the Boston Marathon bombing. But US officials say investigators are trying to establish if the two suspects were part of a wider network with associates in the United States, especially in New York.

Esseghaier, along with Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, were arrested on Monday in separate raids after what police said was a joint Canada-US investigation that started last year after a tip from a member of the Muslim community.

Jaser was remanded into custody on Tuesday. He denies the charges against him, said his lawyer John Norris, who has also represented Canadian Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr.

Jaser was born in the UAE and came to Canada with his parents as refugees 20 years ago, although he only recently obtained status as a permanent resident, Canada’s equivalent to a US Green Card.
US officials said that the suspects were believed to have worked on a plan to blow up a trestle on the Canadian side of the border as the Maple Leaf, Amtrak’s daily run between Toronto and New York, passed over it.

Canadian police said there had been no immediate threat to rail passengers or to the public.
Police had tracked Esseghaier for a year before making the arrests. US sources close to the investigation said he made several trips to the United States, with one official saying that “loose ends” were still being pursued in the United States.

CBC Radio cited Canadian official as saying they had monitored Esseghaier’s visit to a conference in Cancun, Mexico in 2012.

Why the arrests were made on Monday was the source of speculation on Wednesday, with some reports saying officials felt a sense of urgency to act preventively after the Boston tragedy and others saying they decided to act after intelligence showed the plot was closer to being execution.

“I don’t get into operational matters,” Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said when asked to comment on the timing of the arrests.

Jaser’s lawyer Norris called the timing of the arrests “notable”, citing the events in Boston and anti-terror legislation being debated in the Canadian parliament.

The link to Iran has puzzled some experts, as there has been little evidence of attempts by the few al-Qaeda figures there to attack the West.

However, a US government source said Iran is home to a little-known network of alleged al-Qaeda fixers and “facilitators” based in the city of Zahedan, very close to Iran’s borders with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran last year over what it said was Iran’s support for terrorist groups, as well as its nuclear program and its hostility towards Israel.

Canada’s Muslim community, which alerted police to an alleged plot to attack a passenger train that led to two arrests this week, said on Tuesday imams were ready to report radical members who seemed ready to cross a line.

Police arrested Raed Jaser of Toronto and Chiheb Esseghaier of Montreal on Monday and said they had been investigating them since last fall after a tip from the Muslim community in Toronto. The men appeared in separate courts on Tuesday.

Muslims comprise around one million of Canada’s 34.5 million population.

While relations between Muslims and law enforcement are generally not as tense as they can be in the large Muslim communities in France and Britain, Canadian spy agency officials have often expressed concern about the dangers posed by radicalized youth.

Naseer Irfan Syed, a lawyer who initially approached police on behalf of a Toronto imam who was concerned about Jaser, said community figures had to figure out what was just angry talk and when there was a real threat.

“People have to realize that the community leaders and imams are concerned about these accusations and are responsible people and they will report to the authorities when necessary,” he told Reuters.
“But at the same time they will also exercise judgment so it is not done frivolously or in a knee-jerk fashion,” he said. Syed declined to name the imam who spoke with police over the train plot.
Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews stood up in Parliament on Tuesday to thank the Muslim community.

Canada’s commitment to protecting minorities is enshrined in the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as a number of Supreme Court judgments.

Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, also stressed the importance of the imam’s decision last year to tip off police.

“This is a clear demonstration that Canadian Muslims, whose welfare is tied to that of our fellow citizens, are in fact partners for peace,” he told a news conference in Ottawa.

“We think it’s an important thing to acknowledge the role that Muslims are playing and regularly play in outreach work. We have regular contact with security agencies.”

Canadian police briefed Muslim representatives before publicly announcing the arrests on Monday, something they have done in similar cases in the past.

The most serious Canadian plot involving Muslims occurred in 2006, when police arrested and charged nearly 20 Toronto-area men accused of planning to plant bombs at various Canadian targets. Eleven of them were convicted.

Gardee said the community was aware of the risks of radialized youth and noted that groups of imams had in 2005 and 2010 condemned terrorism in any form.

“It’s a concern that we take very seriously and it’s something we’re continuously working to address. Can more be done? More can always be done and that’s why we’re reaching out to security agencies,” he said.

Christian Leuprecht, an expert in terrorism at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said the tip-off reflected extensive efforts by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to improve ties with Muslims.

“One of the key things, and what makes us very different from the United States, is that the RCMP has always very explicitly separated building relationships with local communities from the intelligence gathering side of the house,” he told Reuters.

An alleged al-Qaeda-backed plot to derail a US passenger train in Canada sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of railroads that have not gotten much attention from the American public.

While the United States has sharply tightened security around airlines since the Sept 11, 2001, attacks, trains are far harder to police, with masses of passengers getting on and off and stops at many stations on a single line. Thousands of miles (kms) of track, bridges and tunnels present a major challenge to monitor.

Even though the United States has largely been immune from attacks, extremists around the world have frequently exploited rail transport’s vulnerability, said Brian Michael Jenkins, a security expert with the Mineta Transportation Center at California’s San Jose State University.

“Surface transportation really has become the terrorists’ killing fields,” he said.

Two suspects were arrested in Canada on Monday charged with conspiring to blow up a trestle on the Canadian side of the border as the Maple Leaf, the daily Amtrak connection between Toronto and New York, passed over it. Amtrak is the US passenger rail service.

The two men charged in the plot made their first court appearances on Tuesday. A lawyer for one said his client would fight the charges vigorously.

Jenkins and Steve Kulm, an Amtrak spokesman, said trains presented a unique security challenge, different from airports with their screening process for passengers.

Amtrak coordinates security with local law enforcement, does counterterrorism exercises and patrols its tracks and stations, Kulm said. It also is reconfiguring stations to make them safer from potential attack.
“It’s no surprise and no secret that overseas terrorists have targeted rail transportation, and so we have, as I say, many seen and unseen measures that we have put in place and continue to improve upon,” Kulm said.

Although popular attention has tended to focus on airliner attacks, far more people have died worldwide from surface rail assaults, Jenkins said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, militant attacks on the United States, there have been 75 assaults on airliners, with 157 fatalities, he said.

During the same period, there were 1,800 attacks on surface transport, with nearly 4,000 people killed. Among them were attacks on Madrid in 2004 and on Mumbai in 2006 that each killed about 200 people, and a 2005 London bombing that claimed 52 lives.

In the United States, only one person has died from an extremist rail attack in recent decades, when Amtrak’s Sunset Limited was derailed in Arizona in 1995. Responsibility was claimed by a group calling itself Sons of the Gestapo and the saboteurs have not been found.

The United States has more than 200,000 miles (320,000 kms) of railroad, with about 21,000 miles (33,000 kms) used by Amtrak. Amtrak carried 31.2 million passengers in the last fiscal year, its ninth record year in the last 10, Kulm said.

Elliot G. Sander, a former chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York, which runs two of the biggest US commuter railroads, said public awareness was critical to countering potential attacks.

“One cannot understate the importance of the participation of the public, in terms of eyes and ears,” he said.

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