It seems terrorism is going to remain in the headlines for a little while longer — at least in Canada.
On Monday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police made a surprise announcement that they had successfully foiled a potentially deadly plot to blow up a Toronto-area passenger train. Two men with apparent al-Qaeda ties were arrested, making this the first time the fundamentalist terrorist group has directly targeted Canada (or at least the first time we’ve known about it).
According to press reports, the two suspects — both recent Canadian immigrants from the Mideast — planned to kill a bunch of people traveling on a joint Amtrack-VIA Rail line from Manhattan to Toronto once they crossed the Canadian border. It’s not clear when or where exactly the attack was scheduled to occur. The train companies and law enforcement have been at pains to emphasize there was “no immediate threat” to anyone, thanks to the swift work of multiple law enforcement agencies.
This morning, the two men made their first formal court appearances to face charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism and conspiracy to murder. The older of the two, Raed Jaser a Palestinian living in Toronto with United Arab Emirates citizenship, made no plea, nor did Tunisian-born Montrealer Chiheb Esseghaier a few hours later. Both men will remain in custody until their next court appearances, which reporting suggests will come sometime in late May.
Anecdotal biographies of the two suspects are still being pieced together, but in contrast to last week’s Boston bombers, Canada’s terrorist wannabes appear to have been fairly unambiguous in their religious zealotry. Both wore long robes and beards to their hearings; Jaser with similarly conservatively-dressed relatives in tow.
Esseghaier was a foreign student attending Quebec University who classmates have claimed was constantly offended by the decadent liberalism of Canadian society he saw around him. If that’s too subtle for you, he also used the al-Qaeda flag as his profile pic on LinkedIn. Jaser’s background remains more mysterious, but early reporting makes him sound like something of a loner weirdo, who kept his blinds drawn at all hours, had no apparent job, and concealed his wife in a head-to-toe black chador.
In any case, the radicalism of the men was apparently visible enough to worry one of their imams, whose tattling to the RCMP is now considered a crucial break in bringing down their plot. The Mounties actually went out of their way to thank and brief local Muslim leaders prior to their Monday afternoon presser, lest anyone be caught off guard.
It’s the al-Qaeda dimension of the case that’s most fascinating, however. According to RCMP officials, the train bomb suspects received “direction and guidance” from “al-Qaeda elements” in Iran, an accusation that has left some lay observers scratching their heads. Isn’t Shiite Iran supposed to hate Sunni al-Qaeda — and vice-versa?
Maybe in theory, responds Bin Laden expert Peter Bergen at CNN, but in practice the two have a relationship that’s closer to “some kind of a marriage of convenience.” Ironically, Bergen had just written an insightful essay about the complex Iran-al Qaeda connection a few weeks prior, in which he noted that several key Bin Laden allies and relatives have been enjoying safe (if indifferent) haven in Iran for many years, and, in 2003, even organized a string of terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia from the country.
While no one’s yet alleged that the Iranian government played an active role organizing the would-be Canadian train bombings — an accusation the Ahmadinejad regime has already preemptively dismissed as “hilarious” — the fact that Iran did nothing to actively stop it either is likely to only further damage Ottawa-Tehran relations.
The Harper administration (or as the Iranians call it, “the extremist Canadian government”) cut all diplomatic ties with Iran last year, and is considered to be one of the western world’s more warmongery voices against the mullahs. This, coupled with the fact that the Conservative Party was already in the process of passing a bevy of new anti-terrorism laws when the train plot was uncovered has some Canadian observers fretting that this whole episode is just ripe for political exploitation at the hands of a government still anachronistically obsessed with the War on Terror.
Personally, I’m more troubled by some of the exploitations in the other direction, whether it be Justin Trudeau’s ignorant musings on the importance of addressing the “root causes” of terrorism (root causes like “social exclusion” which, as David Frum notes, was coincidentally “one of the social ills against which he was campaigning” in his bid for Liberal boss) or the grotesque tweets of the famously anti-American Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette (or at least her staff), which blamed the Prime Minister’s “Republican policies” for provoking terrorism against Canada.
The Canadian left has too often embraced a sort of blissful denialism when it comes to Canada’s attractiveness as a terrorist target; security experts have even argued the trendy belief that Islamic radicals “only hate America” represents a significant domestic security security liability. The breaking up of an arguably worse domestic terrorist plot in 2006, the so-called Toronto 18 conspiracy to detonate a series of truck bombs at a Canadian military base, CSIS headquarters, and the Toronto Stock exchange, failed to make much of a lasting impact on the Canadian psyche, and one fears this latest plot — hashtag or not — will be much the same.