Undercover FBI agent defends role in drawing 3rd man into Via Rail terror investigation
Lawyer says client was ‘entrapped’ as part of persistent campaign
The FBI undercover agent at the centre of a plot by two men planning to derail a Via Rail train travelling from New York to Toronto stands by a controversial decision to target a third suspect who was living in Quebec City at the time.
Ahmed Abassi, originally from Tunisia, was a student attending Laval University in 2012.
He was drawn into the investigation by the agent, despite terrorism charges against him that were eventually dropped and criticism that he was "entrapped" by the agent.
The undercover agent is being identified as Tamer Elnoury, the pseudonym he used during the Via Rail investigation in Canada. CBC News agreed to protect his true identity because he's still working as an undercover agent.
Elnoury says Abassi is "absolutely a terrorist."
"I will stake my career on it, [he] is a stone-cold terrorist," he told The Fifth Estate in his first Canadian television interview.
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"He's a mass murderer waiting to happen and at the end of the day I told you, we simply ran out of time."
Elnoury defends his role in targeting the third man for the first time in the interview. He's also recently written a book about the case.
'Take his temperature'
Abassi, who did not want to be quoted in an interview, told The Fifth Estate an injustice has been done to him. He feels he has wrongly become a face of terrorism in Canada, having never being convicted of any terror-related charges.
It's unclear why, but Abassi had already been on the radar of Canadian authorities when the undercover FBI agent targeted him as part of an ongoing investigation that involved two men suspected of plotting a terrorist act.
Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser were being watched by Canadian intelligence officers when they were picked up by surveillance discussing the train plot in the spring of 2012. Esseghaier was a Montreal PhD student at the time and Jaser was living in Toronto working as a taxi dispatcher.
Elnoury, who is an undercover agent working with the FBI, was asked by his bosses to get involved in the investigation when one of the men travelled to the United States for a conference.
Posing as a wealthy Egyptian investor, the undercover agent met Esseghaier on a flight to California.
His job was to "take his temperature," he says.
"Is he a guy that just likes to talk? Is he a guy that just has fantastical beliefs and isn't anything, or is he truly a threat to society?" Elnoury told The Fifth Estate. "Is he a radical jihadi?"
His conclusion: "[Esseghaier] was absolutely the real deal. He was motivated beyond belief."
Several months later, agent Elnoury was in Canada as part of the investigation to stop the plan to derail a Via train. He'd become close with both Jaser and Esseghaier.
But Jaser and Esseghaier had a falling out over how to carry out their plot and the group collapsed.
At this point, Elnoury says, there was enough evidence to arrest both men. But the FBI wanted to keep the investigation going because they were getting valuable information from Esseghaier.
"All the intelligence that was in his brain was what I needed," says Elnoury.
Esseghaier was in regular contact with senior al-Qaeda leaders in the Middle East.
During one of his many conversations with the undercover agent, Esseghaier let it slip that he knew of a man in the United States operating under the direction of al-Qaeda. The FBI wanted to know more.
"[Esseghaier] told me that there was an American version of him," says Elnoury. "Obviously at that moment, I lost my mind."
The 3rd man
About the same time, Elnoury and Esseghaier begin to search for someone to replace Jaser in the plot to derail the train.
They turned to a friend of Esseghaier who had already attracted the attention of security authorities in Canada. He was the Tunisian student living in Quebec City, Ahmed Abassi.
In October 2012, the FBI agent met the 26-year-old in Quebec City, where he was attending university.
"I wanted to meet Abassi and I got in front of him and he was absolutely savvy and cunning, deceptive," says Elnoury.
"I felt very strongly about our initial meet, that we needed to continue this relationship so I can truly vet his true intentions, and whether or not he's an actual threat."
But two months later, Abassi travelled to his home country of Tunisia with his Canadian wife to celebrate their recent marriage.
At that point, the Canadian government revoked his visa. It's unclear why.
His wife returned to Canada, but Abassi was forced to stay behind.
The FBI then developed a plan to try to bring him to New York to gather more evidence, keeping the investigation with Esseghaier alive. According to Abasi's lawyer, that's also when the entrapment began.
"Of course my client was entrapped. Everybody knows my client was entrapped," says his lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, a public defender based in New York City.
"Any fool who just hears this story on the street would turn around and say to my client, 'Damn you're a dumb ass for getting caught up in this.' "
'He offered him a job'
According to Shroff, the FBI undercover agent began a persistent campaign to bring Abassi to New York under a false pretence.
"I want you to think of a person with a saline drip in his arm. That's what the undercover was," says Shroff.
"He inserted himself into every part of my client's life. He offered him a job, he offered him a visa. He offered him money. He offered him a ticket. He offered him a way out. He offered him a chance to reunite with his wife."
Abassi initially refused, until Shroff says the undercover agent contacted the man's parents in Tunisia. Shroff says he sent them money to help pay for medical costs for Abassi's brother, who had recently been in a car accident.
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Abassi's mother says Elnoury was relentless each time he called her.
"After he asked me about my injured son, he persistently pleaded with me to convince my son Ahmed to go to America where the two of them would meet," she wrote in documents submitted to a U.S. court. "He assured me that Ahmed would stay with him, would receive his care and assistance and he was being very adamant about that."
Eventually, Abassi agreed to go to New York. Elnoury says that Abassi "was very appreciative of the offer."
But Abassi's lawyer has a different take.
"It should really be beneath any human being to reach out to a pair of grieving parents, give them money to care for one son, so that they can then help you entrap the other," says Shroff.
Once in New York, Elnoury began to question Abassi.
"It takes some doing," the undercover agent says. "After a couple of weeks he was able to settle in and the Abassi that I met in Quebec City the year before was finally back."
Elnoury says Abassi told him that Osama bin Laden "was his idol" and he expressed vague but dangerous ideas about killing Americans.
"He tried to come up with his own ideas," says Elnoury. "I have recordings that back up the fact that he said: 'America needs to be wiped off this planet, it is a cancer.' "
Abassi was initially charged with falsifying a visa for the purposes of committing a terrorism act. But in the end, the terrorism component was dropped. Abassi pleaded guilty in United States District Court in New York to making the false statement on his visa.
He spent 15 months in jail and was deported back to Tunisia.
Still, the undercover agent remains convinced he's a dangerous man who should be behind bars, despite no conviction on terrorism-related charges.
"Without a shadow of a doubt that he was and is to this day, a terrorist," Elnoury says.
"What [Elnoury] ended up doing by acting on his gut is ruining a very nice person's entire life," says Shroff.
"Despite his many efforts, at every step Mr. Abassi has proved his gut wrong," she adds.
"They never turned him into the man they wanted him to be. They never turned him into a terrorist, he didn't do anything. Repeatedly. For months at a time, despite great pressure. Mr. Abassi never did anything."
Esseghaier and Jaser were convicted of terrorism-related charges and sentenced to life in prison. Both men are appealing the verdict.