What the analysts are saying about alleged train plot

Since the arrest Monday of two men accused in a plot to derail a passenger train in the Toronto area, experts have been analyzing whether the accused received support from outside Canada, the timing of the arrests and the involvement of the Muslim community.

Terror plot timeline

9 years ago
Duration 7:10
Greg Weston with the investigation timeline into the foiled Via terror plot

Since the arrest Monday of two men accused in a plot to derail a passenger train in the Toronto area, experts have been analyzing whether the accused received support from outside Canada, the timing of the arrests and the involvement of the Muslim community.

Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal, and Raed Jaser, 35, from Toronto, have been charged with conspiracy to carry out a terrorist attack and "conspiring to murder persons unknown for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a terrorist group."

U.S. law enforcement and Canadian security sources said the alleged plot targeted a rail line between Toronto and New York City. Via Rail and Amtrak jointly run routes between Canada and the U.S. Both companies say they're working with authorities.

RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia said the two accused were getting "direction and guidance" from al-Qaeda  in Iran. There was no information to suggest the attacks were state-sponsored, he said.

"I think it is an important distinction to make, as the RCMP said themselves and the Assistant Commissioner said several times, this is not state-sponsored," said Ray Boisvert, former assistant director of intelligence for CSIS. "And state-sponsored would be when the mullahs of Iran say to the head of intelligence in Iran, 'Go out there and strike.'"


Seth Jones, a security expert with the RAND Corp. think-tank's International Security and Defence Policy Centre in Washington, says Al-Qaeda members arrived in Iran when the 2001 war forced them from their Taliban-sponsored base in Afghanistan. But while there has been co-operation between Iran and al-Qaeda, "the organization is no Iranian puppet."

"I cannot imagine the Iranian government would be happy with al-Qaeda plotting from its soil," he told CBC News.

"The vast majority of their work over the past several years appears to have been a transit of weapons, fighters and money and other kinds of material, but not actually operations, so this would be a marked departure from al-Qaeda operations in Iran," if the RCMP-FBI probe is correct, Jones said.

Eric Margolis, a foreign affairs analyst, told CBC News he felt it was unlikely that the Iranian leadership would be working with al-Qaeda.

"We've seen no evidence of this fact. Anti-Iranian sources in the Middle East and other places keep churning the story around that the Iranians are involved with al-Qaeda. It doesn't add up to me."

Wesley Wark, one of Canada's foremost experts on international and domestic terrorism, and a visiting professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, agrees it's unlikely that the Iranian government is involved in the alleged Canadian plot.

"There is al-Qaeda in Iran, but most of the al-Qaeda figures in Iran that we know of are under arrest, or at least house arrest, by the Iranian authorities. And some of them have been for quite a long time," he said. 

"The Iranian regime, whatever we might think of it, is not sympathetic to al-Qaeda and never has been, and the law enforcement people at the press conference [announcing the arrests] were at pains to say that they didn't believe this was a state-sponsored terrorist plot. So they're alleging something quite peculiar, that al-Qaeda is on the loose in Iran and communicating with overseas agents in Canada and planning this slightly bizarre attack on a soft target in Canada, a train running out of Toronto and perhaps to the United States. A lot of the pieces of this just don't add up very well at the moment."

Asked whether an attempted attack from al-Qaeda in Iran on Canada would be a significant departure for the organization, Margolis said he found the news "surprising."

"The al-Qaeda objective is not to attack the West per se. It is to drive its influence out of the Muslim world. And Canada's a peripheral player in this, though it has been inserting itself more vigorously in the Middle East conflict of late, but I frankly don't see why al-Qaeda — what's left of it — in Iran would be involved in an attack on Canada."

Even though Canada broke off diplomatic ties with Iran last year, Margolis said it's possible Iran could even offer help with the investigation.

"Iran does not want to be accused and doesn't like being accused of being in cahoots with al-Qaeda … because they dislike al-Qaeda so much. They may help. There has been discreet cooperation between Iran and other western intelligence agencies."


Asked whether this seemed like a plot to attack Canada or a way to get at a U.S. target, Boisvert was non-committal.

"Hard to say. If this was, for example, an Amtrak train traveling between Toronto and New York, in that case you have a really nice set-up. You have an attack on Canadian soil, because Canada is one of the last countries in the West that has been on the top 10 list that al-Qaeda has, and not yet suffered a terrorist event."

He said the goal also could have been to stage an attack on both the U.S. and Canada simultaneously.

"This combination, if that's the case and they were going to strike in Canada and get a U.S.-bound train or U.S.-flagged train, that would be significant. So we have to wait and see what emerges on this particular operation."

Muslim community

Toronto Imam Yusuf Badat spoke to CBC's Power and Politics about a meeting the RCMP had with Muslim community concerning the foiled plot.

Outlining how the Canadian Muslim community has been working with authorities, Badat said: "Ever since 9/11, we have been building these types of relationships with the government agencies and we've been inviting them to our mosques. And we've been informing and educating our communities that if you see any form of suspicious activities, always cooperate with the authorities and work together for the safety of the general Canadian public."

Asked whether CSIS puts agents in the mosques to monitor people, he said he wasn't personally aware of any such activity, but there have been some suggestions that this might be happening.

He added that mosques are open to the public, and his community would not be averse to the presence of agents. 

"We welcome these type of initiations from the government because we are equally affected by a terrorist plot if anything does occur or happen."

Asked whether the community was wary of public backlash over the alleged train plot, he said, "In this specific case, we have not experienced any backlash as yet. That is always the thought in the mind that — from our community members — that here we go again, it might be possible that there will be some racism or some stereotyping or Islamophobia. But at the end of the day, I am very confident that Canadians in general would not put the blame on the general Muslim  public."

Badat also told CBC's Metro Morning that Muslim leaders are taking steps to help prevent radicalization among members of their community.

"We tell them, 'be part of the broader mainstream community. Get involved. Be part of the civic engagement. Learn Islam from the right sources, rather than being radicalized through these internet videos.'"

The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN), a national Muslim civil liberties organization, reiterated its call Tuesday for Canadian Muslims to immediately notify police whenever they have knowledge of criminal activities taking place.

"We categorically denounce this alleged terror plot," said Ihsaan Gardee, CAIR-CAN's executive director, in a statement. 

"Like all Canadians, we want to feel safe and protected in our own country. We trust that our fellow citizens will see this for what it is: the alleged criminal and misguided actions of a few who do not reflect or represent Canadian Muslim communities."

Coincidental timing

Critics have noted that the arrests came the same day as the government brought forward new legislation to combat terrorism, Bill S-7.

Jack Harris, NDP MP for St. John's East, told CBC he hesitated to read anything into the timing of the arrests.

"I don't know whether the timing has any influence on the events, it’s pretty hard to make that accusation — it would be pure speculation for me to do that."

But, he added, "It is a little bit odd that we're having it the same day we're dealing with new legislation in the House of Commons, legislation that was put into effect 10 years ago and frankly never used, and sunsetted five years ago and now being brought back again today. That's certainly suspicious. Whether the timing of the Mounties is predicated by that, that I don't know. I would certainly hope that the minister of public safety wouldn't seek an announcement of this kind, but I wouldn't want to impugn the motives of the RCMP in this."

Security and intelligence expert Wesley Wark said the timing of the arrests and the Bill S-7 debate were likely coincidental.

"There'll be a lot of smoke blowing around that issue. The government is advancing, rather rapidly and to the consternation of some opposition parties in parliament, their Bill S-7, which is to resurrect essentially certain powers that were sunsetted in the anti-terrorism act, so that's suddenly been put before Parliament for a quick two-day debate," Wark told CBC News. 

He said the government might be trying to "take advantage of the shock effect from the Boston Marathon bombing," but adds that he believes the RCMP "would not be foolish enough to play a political game with an arrest. And the government, I would hope, would not be foolish enough. Nor does it have the constitutional power to tell the RCMP when to make an arrest. So we'll always be curious about the timing, but I think the timing has to be considered purely coincidental."