Today authorities in New York, including the NYPD, FBI, and US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the arrest of Tunisian national Ahmed Abassi for links to a terror plot to destroy a passenger train traveling between the United States and Canada. On April 26, press reports had indicated that US authorities were expected to announce the arrest of additional individuals tied to a the plot.
According to today’s Justice Department press release, Abassi fraudulently applied “for a work visa in order to remain in the United States to facilitate an act of international terrorism.” Abassi was arrested on April 22, the same day that authorities in Canada exposed the plot, the release stated. Canadian authorities have alleged that the plot is linked to al Qaeda elements in Iran.
Abassi previously lived in Canada, but in March 2013 he traveled to the US. While in the US, Abassi “was under surveillance by law enforcement agents at all times, maintained regular contact with an FBI undercover officer (the “UC”), and also met with Chiheb Esseghaier in New York City,” the Justice Dept. said.
The press release appears to indicate that Abassi met with Esseghaier on a number of occasions, as it stated that Esseghaier was radicalized by Abassi. While under surveillance, Abassi is said to have “discussed his desire to engage in terrorist acts against targets in the United States and other countries, and his intention to provide support and funding to organizations engaged in terrorist activity — including the al Nusrah Front … and to recruit other individuals for terrorist plots.” One plot suggested by Abassi, but dismissed by Esseghaier, included “contaminating the air or water with bacteria in order to kill up to 100,000 people.”
The indictment against Abassi charges him with two counts of visa fraud, involving making false statements “in an application to the immigration authorities for a green card and work visa.” According to the indictment, Abassi stated “that he intended to remain in the United States for employment, when in fact he sought to remain in the United States to facilitate an act of international terrorism.” Each count has a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.
Canadian media reports indicate that Abassi arrived in Canada in 2010 and spent time as a graduate student at Laval University in Quebec City. He had originally been rejected by the Université de Sherbrooke, according to the National Post.
On April 22, Canadian officials said the plotting of Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser to destroy a passenger train as it traveled between the United States and Canada was linked to al Qaeda’s network inside Iran.
The two suspects had received “support from al Qaeda elements located in Iran” in the form of “direction and guidance,” said Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Assistant Commissioner James Malizia. Iran’s Foreign Minister called Canadian officials’ claims linking the plotters to al Qaeda operatives in Iran “ridiculous.”
Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, was born in Tunisia, and is believed to be the mastermind of the terror plot. Esseghaier, a doctoral student at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) in Montreal, holds a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Biology and a master’s degree in Industrial Biotechnology, according to his LinkedIn page. Esseghaier’s LinkedIn page also displayed an image of al Qaeda’s black flag, which was first used by al Qaeda in Iraq but has been adopted by other al Qaeda affiliates.
During his court appearance on April 23, Esseghaier, who has been in Canada only five years, denounced the court’s authority. “This criminal code is not a holy book,” he said, and declined a court-appointed lawyer. In court documents, Esseghaier was listed as homeless, and he “was granted permanent residency under Quebec’s skilled worker program” in 2012, according to the National Post.
Esseghaier’s behavior has drawn the ire of some in the past, according to Canadian press reports. At some point after 2010, Esseghaier ripped down posters at INRS that included a picture of a woman. In another incident, he reportedly told another Muslim from Tunisia that they should not pay taxes to Canadian authorities. Prior to his eviction in December, neighbors complained that Esseghaier “prayed loudly and at all hours of the day” in his apartment. And last spring, Esseghaier reportedly engaged in erratic behavior during a flight to Mexico, which was monitored by undercover surveillance officers, according to CBC News.
On April 25, US officials revealed to Reuters that Esseghaier had traveled to Iran at least once in the past two years. According to Reuters, Esseghaier’s time in Iran “was directly relevant to the investigation of the alleged plot.” Additionally, sources involved in the investigation told the Toronto Star that prior to arriving in Canada in 2008 on a student visa, Esseghaier had met with an al Qaeda operative.
Raed Jaser, 35, was born in Abu Dhabi but never obtained UAE citizenship, and he reportedly travels on a Jordanian passport. In 1993, the Jaser family arrived in Canada on false passports after claiming they had been “terrorized” by anti-immigration groups in Germany, where they had been living for at least two years. Although his parents were not given refugee status, according to the National Post, through Canada’s “deferred program” they were allowed to stay and eventually obtained Canadian citizenship.
Raed Jaser did not obtain citizenship, however, due to a criminal record that included five counts of fraud, among other charges. In 2004, Canadian authorities tried to deport Jaser, but “as a stateless Palestinian, he could not be sent to any other country,” the National Post reported.
Eight years later, Jaser was granted permanent resident status. Around the same time he was given the new status, a death threat conviction from 2001 against Jaser was pardoned, the National Post stated.
In 2011, according to the Globe and Mail, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) received reports that Jaser “was spreading extremist propaganda to youth in Toronto.” Press reports suggest that Jaser’s father, Mohammed, approached a Muslim leader in the community between 2009 and 2011 over concerns of his son’s “understanding of Islam.”