One of the two men accused of plotting a terrorist attack on a Via Rail passenger train used to talk about waging "war" against non-Muslims, the imam of a Toronto mosque told CBC News in an exclusive interview.
RCMP arrested Raed Jaser, 35, in Toronto last month on charges of conspiring to commit murder by derailing a train somewhere between Toronto and New York.
It is believed to be the first time Canada has been directly targeted in an alleged terror plot backed by al-Qaeda operatives in Iran.
- Jason Kenney wants to know why Via terror suspect wasn't deported
- Canada tried to deport terror suspect Raed Jaser
Imam Mohamed Ali told CBC national correspondent Ioanna Roumeliotis that Jaser regularly prayed at a Willowdale mosque last year.
Ali said they would often chat afterward over coffee.
For the most part, he said, Jaser was a "good guy, classy guy."
But it was during one of those conversations over coffee, Ali said, that Jaser first talked about waging jihad.
'We have to war with them'
The imam recalled Jaser saying: "Well, look, the disbelievers are at war with us, so we have to war with them, right?"
Jaser seemed convinced non-believers "are out to get us so we have to, you know, defend ourselves," the imam said.
"So, I said, ‘No, we need to educate ourselves … peace is a better way to go.'
"He said: ‘You are right. But to bring peace, first we have to take care of business and stuff like that.'"
Ali claimed Jaser was kicked out of another mosque for "teaching war and all that stuff" to young Muslims.
In one of the many odd twists of this story, Ali said a main source of Jaser’s anger seemed to be the fact he had not been able to obtain Canadian citizenship.
"He was sort of pissed. He’s been in this country for a long time, and he couldn’t do what he wanted to do, such as have papers," Ali said.
"So I think that’s really what brought on all these issues and anger and all that."
Jaser is lucky he wasn’t kicked out of the country 20 years ago. He was 15 when his family arrived in Canada in 1993 carrying French passports and claiming to be refugees.
Family ordered deported
A year later, Canadian authorities declared their passports and refugee claims were both fake, and ordered them all deported.
The family appealed the decision and, four years later, all but Raed were allowed to stay as permanent residents.
By then, Raed had been convicted of fraud and uttering threats, and was again ordered deported.
But for almost 16 years, Canadian authorities failed to enforce his deportation until finally he was given a pardon from his crimes.
That, in turn, allowed him to finally get permanent residency in Canada last year — even as police and intelligence agencies had him under surveillance as he allegedly plotted a mass killing of train passengers.
Canadian authorities claim Jaser was plotting the alleged terror attack with 30-year-old Montreal academic Chiheb Esseghaier.
Police have so far been tight-lipped about the relationship between the two — Jaser, a Toronto moving van operator; and Esseghaier, a Montreal PhD in bioengineering.
But for the first time, imam Ali placed the two men together in Toronto where police say at least one of them was monitoring the movement of trains.
Jaser brought Esseghaier to Toronto mosque
Ali said one day last December, Jaser brought Esseghaier to the Toronto mosque for prayers.
The imam said the Montreal visitor struck him as a "normal guy — he didn’t seem like he would do anything, or he had any thoughts like that. He looked very innocent, right?"
The imam said he saw Jaser several times in the days and hours leading up to the arrests last month.
Two days before the RCMP busts, Ali and Jaser had coffee together.
The imam recalled: "I asked him, ‘Is there anything up? How are you doing? Is everything OK?’
"He didn’t seem well. It looked like someone who either did something, or is afraid of what will happen…. Nervous, yes.
"He said, 'I'm just tired.'"