Toronto Muslims were shocked to discover a terror suspect accused of plotting an attack on a Via Rail train in Canada worshipped at their mosque.
Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser accused of conspiring to derail passenger train and receiving guidance from al-Qaida 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.
Raed Jaser, one of two suspects arrested by the RCMP on Monday, attended a Masjid Al-Faisal in Scarborough five days a week to pray.
"It’s a shock, actually," worshipper Hidayat Gul said. "It’s really a shock because you don’t expect a Muslim, a person from Islam - which means peace -- to be doing those kind of things."
Many said they had little interaction with Jaser but those who did described him as a religious yet quiet man who mostly came to mosque alone.
They never heard him share his religious or political views, said Rana Khan, an employee at the mosque.
"He said 'salaam' to us and we 'salaam' to him," he said. "Nothing more special, nothing more unusual, nothing more abnormal. Absolutely not."
It was a member of the Muslim community, an imam worried about radicalization, who led police to one of the suspects.
That gives other Muslims hope that Canadians will recognize the plot as a perversion of their faith, and nothing to do with Muslims as a whole. "We will continue to denounce this and any other alleged plots by individuals who will take our faith and distort it or pervert it for their own political goals or personal agendas," Ihsaan Gardee, executive director for the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, said on Tuesday.
News of the thwarted terror plot comes in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and the deaths of two London, Ont., men in connection to an al Qaeda-linked attack on a gas plant in Algeria last January.
These more-recent arrests are in no way associated with either of those incidents. Much like the rest of Canada, Muslims wish they could just "wave a magic wand" and make extremists "go away," said Gardee.
"But, unfortunately, that’s just not going to happen." He said the best way to prevent young, disaffected youth from getting radicalized in Canada is by getting to them before they turn to sources on the Internet with "no understanding" of the Islam religion, using a "cut-and-paste approach to the faith," said Gardee.
"The fact that terrorism affects all of us emphasizes the point that we all need to be a part of the solution."
Gardee and other Muslim community leaders "unequivocally" denounced the alleged terror plot at a press conference Tuesday on Parliament Hill.
"We emphasize the sacredness of life, reject any expressed statement or tacit insinuation that anyone should harm innocent people and our message to anyone who espouses this ideological violence is this: You have nothing to do with our faith," Gardee said.
While there have been some concerns raised in the Muslim community about a potential backlash from Canadians, Gardee said they "fully 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 community."
Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan, founder of the Muslim Coordinating Council of the National Capital Region, told reporters that it was important to understand that the alleged intended actions of the accused do not represent the values of mainstream Muslims.
He also underscored the need to "put this situation in perspective." "When a 1,000 planes lands, that is not news, but if one plane has trouble or problems, that becomes news," he said.
Azhar Ali Khan noted, however, that it should still be the Muslim community's responsibility to ensure that "even that one plane doesn’t have any trouble."
Safaa Fouda, a board member on the Ottawa Muslim Women’s Organization, told reporters the Muslim parents should emphasize instilling Canadian values to their children.
"Share celebrations with your neighbours so that the child grows up knowing that he belongs to this society and eliminate the ‘us and them’ vocabulary."