A man accused of plotting with al-Qaeda members in Iran to derail a train in Canada was due to appear in a Toronto court yesterday after declaring at his initial court appearance that the charges against him are unfair. Law enforcement officials in the US said the target was a train that runs between New York and Canada.
Canadian investigators say Raed Jaser, 35, and his suspected accomplice, Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, received guidance — but no money — from members of al-Qaeda in Iran.
Iran released a statement saying it had nothing to do with the plot, even though there were no claims in Canada that the attacks were sponsored directly by Iran.
In a brief court appearance in Montreal, a bearded Esseghaier declined to be represented by a court-appointed lawyer. He made a brief statement in French in which he rejected the allegations against him.
“The conclusions were made based on facts and words which are only appearances,” he said in a calm voice after asking permission to speak.
Esseghaier, who was arrested on Monday afternoon at a McDonald’s restaurant in a train station, was later flown to Toronto for a court appearance yesterday in the city where his trial is to take place.
Jaser appeared in court earlier on Tuesday in Toronto and also did not enter a plea. He was given a new court date of May 23. He had a long beard, 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 the extent of Shiite-led Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda, a predominantly Sunni Arab terrorist network. It also renewed attention on Iran’s complicated history with the terror group, which ranges from outright hostility to alliances of convenience and even overtures by Tehran to assist Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
“We oppose any terrorist and violent action that would jeopardize lives of innocent people,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said on Tuesday.
Charges against the two men in Canada include conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group. Police — tipped off by an imam worried by the behavior of one of the suspects — said it was the first known attack planned by al-Qaeda in Canada. The two could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
Law officials in New York with knowledge of the investigation said the attack was to take place on the Canadian side of the border. They were not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Amtrak and Via Rail Canada jointly operate routes between the US and Canada, including the Maple Leaf from New York to Toronto.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Canada has kept the city posted on the investigation.
“I can just tell you that you are probably safer in New York City than you are in any other big city,” Bloomberg said on Tuesday, without discussing details.
Jaser’s lawyer said his client questioned the timing of the arrests, pointing to ongoing debates in the Canadian parliament over a new anti-terrorism law that would expand the powers of police and intelligence agencies.
Norris, speaking outside the court, said his client is “in a state of shock and disbelief.”
He said his client would “defend himself vigorously” against the accusations, and said that Jaser was a permanent resident of Canada who has lived there for 20 years.
The investigation surrounding the planned attack was part of a cross-border operation involving Canadian law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security. Canadian police said the men never got close to carrying out the attack.