WASHINGTON – The suspects in the foiled attempt to attack a train on the route between Toronto and New York planned to carry out their plot in Canada, U.S. officials said Thursday as the two men prepared to defend themselves in court, and Iran denied any connection to the terror plan.
While the FBI provided help in the investigation, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police took the lead because the plot was drawn up in and focused on Canada, U.S. government sources said.
In addition, U.S. law enforcement officials debunked a Reuters news report that cited a Canadian police officer who said the plot would have targeted the Whirlpool Bridge, which carries train traffic across the U.S.-Canadian border at Niagara Falls.
Otherwise, though, few new details on the terror plot emerged a day after the Mounties arrested Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, and Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal.
Jaser appeared in court in Toronto, and afterwards his lawyer, John Norris, told reporters that the defendant would “defend himself vigorously” against the charges, which include conspiring to carry out an attack against, and conspiring to murder, persons unknown for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a terrorist group.
“He’s in a state of shock and disbelief,” Norris said of his client. “He’s anxious to see the evidence that the Crown says it has against him.”
Norris said Jaser is a permanent resident of Canada, where he has lived for 20 years and where his family is “very well settled.”
In the court appearance, Norris asked for a “publication ban” on the release of further details about the case, which the court granted.
Dressed in black and wearing a long beard, Naser arrived in court with his parents and his brother. He did not enter a plea and was told his next court appearance would be May 23.
Meanwhile in a brief court appearance in Montreal, Esseghaier, speaking in French, said the charges against him were unfair.
“The conclusions were made based on facts and words which are only appearances,” said the heavily bearded suspect.
Sources told the Associated Press that Jaser is from the United Arab Emirates and that Esseghaier is Tunisian, although a UAE government source told the news service that it has no records of Jaser being a citizen. Neither is a Canadian citizen.
Jaser was employed by a moving and storage company, the Toronto Star reported.
As for Esseghaier, he was a Ph.D. student studying biosensors at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal, the newspaper reported.
In announcing the arrests Monday, Canadian officials said Jaser and Esseghaier had “direction and guidance” in devising their plot from members of al-Qaida in Iran, though the plot was not state-sponsored.
Nevertheless, Iranian officials lashed out at the Canadian accusations of an al-Qaida presence in their country.
Terror groups such as al-Qaida have “no compatibility with Iran in both political and ideological fields,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, told reporters.
“We oppose any terrorist and violent action that would jeopardize lives of innocent people,” he added.
Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, said that panel will be holding a hearing on the al-Qaida presence in Iran, which had long been thought to be minimal.
Higgins said he was happy to hear the plot would not have involved an attack on U.S. soil but added that there still could have been a serious local impact. “That doesn’t mean people from our region wouldn’t be on that train,” he said.
News wire services contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org