TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian police said on Monday they had arrested and charged two men with plotting to derail a Toronto-area passenger train in an operation they say was backed by al Qaeda elements in Iran.
“Had this plot been carried out, it would have resulted in innocent people being killed or seriously injured,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police official James Malizia told reporters in Toronto.
The RCMP said it had arrested Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal, and Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto in connection with the plot, which authorities said was not linked to the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured more than 200 people last week.
Neither is a Canadian citizen, but the police did not reveal their nationalities.
A spokeswoman for the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique near Montreal confirmed that Esseghaier was a doctoral student at the research institute and that he had been arrested.
Julie Martineau, the school’s director of communications, said Esseghaier arrived at the school in 2010 and was about midway through his degree.
“He is doing a PhD in the field of energy and materials sciences,” she told Reuters.
A bail hearing for the two will take place in Toronto on Tuesday morning.
Malizia said there was no indication that the planned attacks, which police described as the first known al Qaeda- backed plot on Canadian soil, were state-sponsored.
U.S. officials said the attack would have targeted a rail line between New York and Toronto, a route that travels along the Hudson Valley into New York wine country and enters Canada near Niagara Falls.
Canadian police said only that the plot involved a VIA train route in the Toronto area.
VIA is Canada’s equivalent of Amtrak and operates passenger rail services on track owned primarily by Canadian National Railway Co.
Malizia said that the RCMP believed the two had the capacity and intent to carry out the attack, but there was no imminent threat to the public, passengers, or infrastructure.
The arrests come as Bostonians are still recovering from last Monday’s bombings, and is one of a handful of terrorism-related investigations involving Canadians or Canadian residents.
Police said earlier this year that Canadians took part in an attack by militants on a gas plant in Algeria in January, while Canadian and Somalia authorities are investigating whether a former University of Toronto student participated in a bomb attack on Mogadishu last week.
And in 2006, police arrested and charged nearly 20 Toronto-area men accused of planning to plant bombs at various Canadian targets. Eleven were eventually convicted.
RCMP Superintendent Doug Best said a tip from the Canadian Muslim community had helped the investigation. The timing of the arrests was due to “logistics.”
“Today’s arrests demonstrate that terrorism continues to be a real threat to Canada,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told reporters in Ottawa.
“Canada will not tolerate terrorist activity and we will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those who support terrorist activities.”
The Canadian authorities linked the two to al Qaeda factions in Iran, to the surprise of some security experts.
“The individuals were receiving support from al Qaeda elements located in Iran,” Malizia said.
Iran did host some senior al Qaeda figures under a form of house arrest in the years following the September 11, 2001 attacks, but there has been little to no evidence to date of joint attempts to execute violence against the West.
However, a U.S. government source said Iran is home to a little-known network of alleged al Qaeda fixers and “facilitators” based in the Iranian city of Zahedan, very close to Iran’s borders with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The source said the operatives serve as go-betweens, travel agents and financial intermediaries for al Qaeda operatives and cells operating in Pakistan and moving through the area.
They do not operate under the protection of the Iranian government, which has a generally hostile attitude towards Sunni al Qaeda militants, and which periodically launches crackdowns on the al Qaeda elements, though at other times appears to turn a blind eye to them.
Reporting by Mark Hosenball, Louise Egan, David Ljunggren and Alastair Sharp, writing by Cameron French; Editing by Janet Guttsman, Philip Barbara and Eric Walsh