Canadian police have arrested two men and charged them with plotting to derail a Toronto-area passenger train in an operation that they say was backed by al-Qaeda elements in Iran.
“Had this plot been carried out, it would have resulted in innocent people being killed or seriously injured,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) official James Malizia told reporters on Monday.
US officials said the attack would have targeted a rail line between New York and Toronto, a route that travels along the Hudson Valley and enters Canada near Niagara Falls.
The RCMP said it had arrested Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal, and Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto in connection with the plot. Authorities said it was not linked to last week’s Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people and injured more than 200.
Police gave little details about the alleged plotters, but said that a tip from Canada’s Muslim community had helped their year-long investigation.
Neither suspect is a Canadian citizen and police did not reveal their nationalities. Two sources following the investigation said one was Tunisian.
Esseghaier has been a doctoral student at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique near Montreal since 2010 and was about midway through his degree, the school said.
“He is doing a PhD in the field of energy and materials sciences,” said Julie Martineau, the school’s director of communications.
A bail hearing for the two men was due to take place in Toronto yesterday morning.
Malizia said they had received “support from al-Qaeda elements located in Iran,” but added that there was no sign that the conspiracy, which police described as the first known al-Qaeda-backed plot on Canadian soil, had been sponsored by the Iranian state.
Nevertheless, Iran reacted angrily. Canada last year severed diplomatic ties over what it said was Iran’s support for terrorist groups, as well as its nuclear program and its hostility toward Israel.
“No shred of evidence regarding those who’ve been arrested and stand accused has been provided,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said yesterday, according to the Mehr news agency.
He said al-Qaeda’s beliefs were in no way consistent with the Islamic Republic, and that Iran opposed “any kind of violent action that endangers lives.”
“In recent years, Canada’s radical government has put in practice a project to harass Iran and it is clear that it has pursued these hostile actions,” he added.
Al-Qaeda is strongly Sunni Muslim-oriented. Shiite Iran did host some senior al-Qaeda figures under a form of house arrest in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but there has been little to no evidence of joint attempts to stage attacks against the West.
However, a US government source said Iran was home to a little-known network of al-Qaeda fixers and “facilitators” based in the Iranian city of Zahedan, very close to Iran’s borders with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The source said they serve as go-betweens, travel agents and financial intermediaries for al-Qaeda operatives and cells operating in Pakistan and moving through the area. They do not operate under the protection of the Iranian government, which periodically launches crackdowns on al-Qaeda elements, though at other times it appears to turn a blind eye to them, the source said.