While U.S. authorities (and media) continue their investigation into the origins of last week’s bombings in Boston, police officials north of the border announced Monday that they had arrested two foreign nationals planning an attack with alleged al-Qaeda support. Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Alleged Plot
Two men, Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, were arrested in Montreal and Toronto respectively yesterday. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), they had been surveying trains in the Greater Toronto Area and allegedly plotting to derail or bomb a Via passenger train potentially destined to the U.S. (Train attacks are considered to be a hallmark of al-Qaeda strategy, including a brutal series of bombings in Madrid in 2004.) The RCMP alleges that the duo received “direction and guidance” from al-Qaeda elements in Iran, but has so far offered no evidence to substantiate those claims, which Tehran has already dismissed.
Not much is known of the suspects. It is believed that Esseghaier is a Tunisian and Jaser is from the United Arab Emirates. Before his arrest, Esseghaier was a doctoral student at the University of Quebec, studying nanosensors, which are used in medical treatments and can also be found inside microchips. Fellow students have reportedly spoken to the Canadian press of their disquiet over his extremist religious views. The RCMP began tracking the pair after an apparent tip-off from within the Canadian Muslim community. At a hearing on Tuesday, the two were charged with “conspiracy to commit murder, participating in a terrorist organization, conspiracy to interfere with transportation facilities,” according to the Globe and Mail. In addition, Esseghaier was charged with one count of “having directed a person to carry out a terrorist activity.”
2. Al-Qaeda and Iran
The links between al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran are tenuous. Though both are viewed with animosity by many in Washington, they are hardly ideological bedfellows. Under the Ayatollahs, Iran styles itself as the worldwide champion of Islam, which is reviled by the Sunni extremists of al-Qaeda. For years, Iran worked against the Taliban in Afghanistan, who gave Osama bin Laden and other key al-Qaeda figures sanctuary and support. There is scant evidence of operational dealings between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards or Hizballah — the Lebanese Shi‘ite organization largely seen as an Iranian proxy — on one hand, and al-Qaeda, on the other. In the past, the U.S. has accused the Iranians of allowing al-Qaeda agents to move freely through Iranian territory. But the Iranians have also played a key role in arresting and detaining various al-Qaeda figures, including members of the bin Laden family, as well as Arab fighters fleeing the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. It seems Tehran attempted to use them as bargaining chips with the U.S. and Arab governments in their neighborhood. Here’s former CIA official and intelligence analyst Bruce Riedel, speaking to al-Monitor last year:
Rather than being secretly in bed with each other as some have argued, al-Qaeda had a fairly hostile relationship with the Iranian regime. To get members of his family out of Iran, for example, bin Laden had an Iranian diplomat kidnapped and then traded. The Iranians released some of his family members in the deal but then double-crossed al-Qaeda by not letting one of his daughters, Fatima, free.
This is hardly the basis for a working relationship. It’s up to the RCMP to elaborate what comprises “al-Qaeda elements” in Iran and what their relationship to the state, if any, is.
3. Iran and Canada
Canada’s fraught relationship with Iran was illustrated in the Oscar-winning film, Argo, when the Canadian embassy in 1979 helped six Americans flee the recently installed revolutionary regime. Tensions flared in 2003 when a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, died after being detained and brutally beaten in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. She was allegedly arrested for taking pictures of political protesters. Another Canadian-Iranian journalist, Maziar Bahari, was held at Evin Prison in 2007, but he was eventually freed after a 118-day ordeal.
Under the Conservative Administration of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, relations have hit rock bottom. Last year, Canada unilaterally closed its embassy in Tehran and expelled Iranian officials from Ottawa. Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird labeled the government in Iran “the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.” Harper’s government has also been conspicuously outspoken in its backing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the latter’s hawkish stance on the threat of Iran’s nuclear program.
The Iranians, of course, are rarely circumspect themselves. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi described yesterday’s RCMP allegations as “the most ridiculous fake words.”
4. Canada and Terrorism.
After an al-Qaeda-affiliated militia stormed an Algerian natural-gas plant earlier this year, sparking a hostage crisis that left dozens dead, it emerged that two Canadians — high school buddies Ali Medlej and Xris Katsiroubas — were among the assailants slain by Algerian troops. Canadian nationals have been known to venture abroad and join jihadist movements, ranging from Somalia to Afghanistan. But the country’s history of dealing with terrorist activity on its soil does not begin with Islamist extremists. Canada experienced its worst terror attack and aviation disaster in 1985 when Sikh separatists bombed an Air India flight en route from Montreal to London, killing over 300. In recent years, Canadian authorities have arrested and tried ethnic Tamils believed to be agents of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, an insurgent group deemed terrorist by the U.S. State Department that has been largely quashed by the Sri Lankan government. Canada has also sought to break up suspected front organizations and charities connected to militancy elsewhere — a more comprehensive list of Ottawa’s recent antiterrorism activities can be found here. Last year, Canada brought back Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen and the last Western detainee at Guantánamo Bay, to serve out the remainder of his sentence; Khadr, whose father was an al-Qaeda operative, wound up in Guantánamo as a 15-year-old and became a cause célèbre for human-rights group irate with the murky legalities of the U.S.’s war on terror.