Canadian terror suspects claim innocence as they're held without bail for 'al Qaeda directed plot to blow up train bridge'

  • Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, called the charges unfair and the lawyer of Raed Jaser, 35, said his client would fight the case vigorously at their first court appearance in Montreal today
  • The pair were arrested on Monday after a prominent Toronto imam reportedly tipped off authorities about plot
  • Suspected to have received orders and got guidance from an Al Qaeda leader in Iran
  • Planned to target New York-bound train leaving from Toronto
  • Jaser's house in Toronto was raided by police and evidence was removed
  • Iran denies involvement or that the orders came from al-Qaeda leaders in the country

One of the men charged with an alleged al Qaeda-backed plot to derail a Canadian passenger train labelled the accusations unfair, in his first court appearances on Tuesday, while the lawyer for the other insisted his client would fight the charges vigorously.

Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto and Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal face charges that include conspiring 'with each other to murder unknown persons for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a terrorist group.'

They were arrested on Monday in separate raids after what police said was a joint Canada-U.S. investigation that started mid-last year after a tip from a member of the Muslim community.

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Suspect one: Chiheb Esseghaier, one of two suspects accused of plotting with al-Qaida in Iran to derail a train in Canada, arrives at Buttonville Airport just north of Toronto, on Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Suspect two: Raed Jaser arrives to court in the back of a police car in Toronto, Ontario, today in this still image taken from video courtesy of CTV News

Officers detained Jaser at his home, a semi-detached house in a north Toronto neighborhood, and arrested Esseghaier at a McDonald's restaurant in Montreal's main train station.

Canadian police said the plot involved a passenger train route in the Toronto area, and that there had been no immediate threat to rail passengers or to the public.

Esseghaier, a Ph.D. student studying in Montreal, was earlier seen being led off of a plane in handcuffs after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police flew him to Toronto ahead of his court appearance today.

Canadian security authorities say the men were operating with the support and guidance of 'al-Qaeda elements in Iran.' Police have called it the first al-Qaeda-planned terrorist plot in Canada.

Neither man is a Canadian citizen, though both are in the country legally. Essaghaier is a graduate student studying material sciences at the Institute National de la Recherche Scientifique. He is from Tunisia.

Jaser, heavily bearded and wearing a black cap, was remanded in custody after a brief hearing in Toronto on Tuesday. Media were barred from giving details of Jaser's hearing under a publication ban requested by his lawyer.

Sketch: Raed Jaser, left, and lawyer John Norris are pictured in a courtroom sketch during a first appearance at Old City Hall Court in Toronto, Ontario April 23, 2013

Accused: Esseghaier, 30, pictured in a courtroom sketch, and Raed Jaser, 35, were arrested and charged Monday in what the RCMP said was the first known al-Qaida terror plot in Canada

Guidance: Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, pictured, received 'directions and guidance' from members of al-Qaeda in Iran, police believe

Unfair: In a brief court appearance in Montreal today, Esseghaier, pictured, made a brief statement in French in which he called the allegations against him unfair

Esseghaier is a Tunisian who was studying material sciences at Institute National de la Recherche Scientifique

'He denies the allegations and he will vigorously defend them,' said the lawyer, John Norris, who has represented Canadian Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr, as well as Asad Ansari, one of a group of Toronto-area men charged in 2006 with planning attacks on Canadian targets.

Norris would not disclose Jaser's nationality, but said he has been a resident of Canada for 20 years.

Outside the courtroom, a middle-aged man and a woman in a cream-colored hijab identified themselves as members of Jaser's family, but would not answer questions.

With them were two younger men, and two women in full black niqab face veils, who fled when confronted with a throng of reporters, photographers and television crews.

Esseghaier was flown to Toronto on Monday, but was quickly returned to Montreal to meet a legal requirement that he appear in a Quebec court within 24 hours of his arrest.

Bearded and bespectacled and wearing a shabby blue-and-black winter jacket, handcuffs and leg shackles, 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, telling the judge there that conclusions had been drawn from facts and words 'that are only appearances.'

Esseghaier's hearing was not covered by a publication ban.

Neighbors of Jaser told Reuters that he mostly kept to himself and attended a Masjid al-Faisal, a mosque in a refashioned house a short walk from his home.

'He was a normal attendee. If he's coming he says "salaam" to us and we say "salaam" to him. Nothing more special, nothing more unusual, nothing more abnormal,' said Rana Khan, a congregant at the mosque. His alleged involvement in a plot was 'a very, very shocking news for all of us over here.'

Support: Mohammed Jaser, father of Raed Jaser, leaves court in Toronto on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. His son is accused with another man of plotting to derail a train in Canada with support from al-Qaida elements in Iran

Family: Raed Jaser's father Mohammed Jaser, left, and another family member leave court in Toronto

Court appearance: An artist's sketch shows Chiheb Esseghaier, left, and Raed Jaser, right, at their first court appearance today

It was revealed late Monday that a prominent imam in the Toronto Muslim community tipped off authorities about the plot.

Officials reportedly watched the men for several months and say the plot never got past the planning stages.

Canadian counter-terrorism investigators say the public was never in danger, the the men would have carried out the attack if they had not been stopped.

The alleged plot is not believed to have any link with last week's Boston Marathon bombings.

However, the CBC reports the American attacks spurred Canadian authorities to make arrests on Monday, fearing the suspects would move up the timeline of their plot.

Police were seen raiding Jaser's house in northern Toronto on Monday, carrying away material that could be used as evidence in the suspects' prosecution. 

Raid: Police were pictured at a house in Toronto yesterday in connection with a plot to blow up a train

Operation: The alleged would-be terrorists were under surveillance from Canadian police for over a year

Evidence: Offers were pictured carrying away material from the home in the north of the city

The two men allegedly planned to derail an Amtrak or Canadian Via train as it crossed over the Whirpool Rapids Bridge from Canada into the United States, according to reports.

The 115-year-old arch bridge spans the Niagara River 225 feet above the water.

'The plan was to take out a train with passengers on board and the crossing trestle,' a police source told the Toronto Sun. 'It was meant to be spectacular and there would have been a lot of carnage.'

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service worked with FBI agents and the Department of Homeland Security in taking down the plot.

The men allegedly watched trains and rail yards across the greater Toronto area to prepare for their assault.

'Today's arrests demonstrate that terrorism continues to be a real threat to Canada,' Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told reporters in Ottawa on Monday.

'Canada will not tolerate terrorist activity and we will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those who support terrorist activities.'

Thwarted: The raid came in the wake of the arrest of two foreigners living in Canada with alleged Al Qaeda links

Link: The house belongs to Raed Jaser, 32, one of the two men arrested on Monday

Carried away: Some of the material removed from the home by police as part of their investigation

Thwarted: The suspects were allegedly planning to derail a passenger train as it cross the Niagara River on the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge (pictured)

Targeted: Authorities say two accused terrorists conducted surveillance on Via Rail trains, Canada's national passenger rail service, with the intention of derailing one of the trains

Authorities credited Toronto's Muslim community with assisting in the arrests. In a meeting the Muslim leaders, police revealed that a prominent imam had come forward to tip off the security services that at least one of the suspects may have been plotting an attack.

Yusuf Badat, director of religious affairs for the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, told CBC that before Monday's press conference, Mounties met with Toronto Muslim leaders.

'Not too many details were shared. They did say a prominent community leader has come forward,' he said.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to come out of the announcement is that the orders were given by al-Qaeda leaders in Iran.

Iran on Monday fiercely denied any involvement in the plot saying there was 'not a shred of evidence' that al-Qaeda leaders were operating from the country.

'The Islamic Republic of Iran is the biggest victim of terrorism, but the extremist administration of Canada has put Iranophobia on its agenda over the recent years,' an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said on Iranian state TV.

Video: Royal Canadian Mounted Police announce terror arrests

International terrorism: The suspects, who were based in Canada's two largest cities, planned to target trains between Toronto and New York

Iran, a Shi'a-majority country, is a strange ally for the fiercely Sunni Muslim terrorist group.

CNN reported last month that the few surviving members of Osama bin Laden's inner circle currently reside in Iran.

Some of bin Laden's family are said to be under house arrest in Tehran. Others - including top advisers - live in the ski resort city of Chalus on the Caspian Sea.

Canadian authorities, though, were careful to make clear that this was not an instance of state-sponsored terrorism.

'This is an example of the United States and Canada working together to protect our citizens,' said David Jacobson, the American ambassador to Canada. 

'It underscores the fact that we face serious and real threats, and that security is a shared responsibility. We all need to remain vigilant in confronting threats and keeping North America safe and secure.'

Another instance of American-Canadian co-operation that has made headlines of late was the joint effort to extract U.S. embassy workers from Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979.

Similarities: Today's arrests were the latest in a history of co-operation between American and Canadian authorities, another instance of which was the inspiration for the hit movie Argo (pictured)

Announcement: Authorities gave few details about the plot, but said the public was never in danger

In that instance, six Americans hid out in the Canadian embassy in Tehran for 79 days.

Another similarity between the international episodes is that the two terrorists arrested in Canada today were reportedly tied to al Qaeda operatives based in Iran.

The arrests follow not only the Boston bombings but revelations that Canadians took part in an attack by militants on a gas plant in Algeria in January.

It also recalls the arrests in 2006 of a group of more than a dozen Toronto-area men accused of planning to plant bombs at various Canadian targets. Eleven men were eventually convicted of taking part on the plot.

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