The Jihadists of Suburbia
Raed Jaser, a school bus driver with a long record of petty crime, and Chiheb Esseghaier, a doctoral student in nanotechnology, met at a Markham mosque, bonded over a shared contempt for the West and allegedly plotted to derail a Via train. The entire time, they were being watched
aed Jaser was 15 years old when he and his family arrived in Toronto in 1993. During the Gulf War, his Palestinian parents, Mohammed and Sabah, had been forced to leave the United Arab Emirates. Mohammed worked as an ad sales rep at a newspaper and had refused to give in to Emirati government agents’ demands that he spy on other Palestinians. To avoid persecution, the Jasers headed to Czechoslovakia, then to Germany and finally to Canada. With them were Raed’s younger brothers, 11-year-old Nabil and 10-year-old Shadi. And Sabah Jaser was some five months’ pregnant with another boy. The immigration officer who interviewed the family noted in their file that their refugee case should be sorted out as soon as possible, before the baby was born.
The Immigration and Refugee Board didn’t believe the family’s story and rejected their claim, but four years later they were accepted under a now-defunct program that allowed refugee claimants to stay if they were stateless and therefore had no country to be deported to. Raed, however, didn’t qualify: while his parents were navigating the refugee system, he’d earned a criminal record. In 1997, he was convicted of fraud offences totalling more than $15,000, for various big-ticket items, including a gas oven and sound equipment. He ignored the order to leave the country. Two years later, still living in the GTA, he was arrested again, this time for uttering a death threat to a manager of a Richmond Hill pub. He was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined $1,000.
His continued run-ins with the law eventually caught the attention of immigration authorities, and in 2004 a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was detained at the Toronto West Detention Centre, but, again, there was no obvious place to deport him to. A court official decided he should be released until immigration authorities could figure out where to send him. His uncle, Mahmoud Jaser, paid a $3,000 cash bond.
Jaser straightened out his life and, five years later, was issued a pardon from the Parole Board of Canada, which allowed him to pursue permanent resident status. He received that in 2012. He was 32 years old.
Jaser founded a limousine company and got married. His wife is a practising Muslim, like him. She is strict about covering and wears a niqab. They lived in an apartment in a house on Cherokee Boulevard in North York and kept to themselves. She would accompany Jaser to pray at mosques but rarely interacted with anyone.
In 2011, the limo business failed, and Jaser got a job driving a minivan part-time for a private transportation company in Markham, ferrying special-ed students to and from Unionville High School. He also worked as a customer service rep for a North York moving company.
He spent most of his spare time at suburban mosques, including the Jam’e Masjid in Markham, which is colloquially known as Middlefield for the road it sits on. The mosque is large and white, with arched windows and traditional domes and minarets. The people who attend it are mostly middle-class South Asian–Canadians who live nearby.
At Middlefield, Jaser would often spend his free time proselytizing to other Muslims. It seems an odd thing—preaching to those already praying—but it’s not uncommon among devout Muslims. You may already be an observant Muslim, but you can always use a boost to stay on the right track. When he wasn’t proselytizing, he’d watch YouTube lectures given by celebrity scholars and preachers like Abdur Raheem Green, Bilal Philips and Farhat Hashmi. Their lectures are not unlike the kinds of sermons a conservative Christian might hear at a megachurch—a mix of scripture and motivational talk about how to live a moral life by applying religious principles to everyday problems. Part history lesson, part advice, part fear of God’s wrath, all wrapped up in a slick production.
In 2010, Jaser met a man at Middlefield who shared his obsessions. Chiheb Esseghaier, then a 28-year-old Tunisian doctoral student at the Université du Québec, specialized in nanotechnology and biosensors. He had a full beard, an intense gaze behind metal-rimmed glasses and the withdrawn personality of a bookworm. Even though they came from very different backgrounds, they fell into long conversations about religion, politics and Esseghaier’s studies.
Esseghaier began visiting Jaser in Toronto, often crashing at his home. He never spoke to Jaser’s wife even though she was in the apartment. (Which isn’t that unusual: in Jaser and Esseghaier’s strict interpretation of the Muslim faith, men and women who are unrelated simply do not interact.) The men talked about how they believed Muslims were oppressed by the West. They talked about how wrong it was that Canada had troops in Afghanistan with the NATO mission. NATO, in Esseghaier’s view, was intent on colonizing the country and forcing secularism upon Muslims.
He wanted to send Canadians a message.
f you like to debate the ethics of Canada fighting a war in Afghanistan or bombing Libya or, most recently, participating in the fight in Iraq, you’d better not do it at a mosque. Since the attacks of 9/11, mosques in the GTA have been routinely monitored by the RCMP and CSIS. Imams and mosque managers are expected and encouraged to monitor for extremist behaviour, and it’s no secret that informants regularly attend mosques. Some mosque boards are so concerned about even a whiff of extremism that they are quick to cut off any and all political discussion on the premises.
The management in at least two mosques, including Jam’e Masjid, asked Jaser to stop proselytizing and suggested that he should find somewhere else to worship. His zealousness made people uncomfortable.
Several sources told me that Said Rageah, then the imam at the Abu Huraira mosque in North York, tipped off the RCMP about Jaser. Abu Huraira is the same mosque that was in the news in 2009, cited as the place where five young Somali-Canadian men prayed before disappearing and allegedly joining al Shabab, the al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia.
When I called Rageah, who now runs the Sakinah Center (which provides social services and helps at-risk youth), I asked if he tipped off the RCMP, but he refused to comment. When I pressed him, he lost his cool and hung up.
Mohammed Jaser asked Muhammad Robert Heft, another prominent community leader, to provide counsel to Raed, who had become morally rigid. Heft is tall and solidly built, with a full red beard. He was born into a Lutheran family and raised in Milton, and converted to Islam in 1998. He collaborates with the RCMP and CSIS to deradicalize Muslim youth. He also runs an organization called P4E—Paradise Forever—which provides social services in Scarborough to new Muslims. He’s known for having served as a court-appointed counsellor to Steven Chand, a member of the Toronto 18 who was convicted in 2010 of trying to raise funds for the group. In 2010, Mohammed Jaser happened to be renting an apartment in Heft’s house in Markham. He knew Heft was the go-to guy on extremism and asked him to speak to Raed, who had grown intolerant and self-righteous, even criticizing the length of Mohammed’s beard. But Mohammed Jaser never followed through, and Heft soon forgot about the request.
In early 2012, Chiheb Esseghaier applied for a U.S. visa at the embassy in Ottawa. He was to speak on the use of biosensors in HIV diagnosis at a conference in Santa Clara, California, in June of that year. During his visa interview, he mentioned having travelled twice to Zahedan, a city in Iran close to both the Pakistani and Afghan borders. The Iran trip raised a red flag for the RCMP and the FBI.
He was granted a visa nevertheless, and on the flight to Santa Clara sat next to a man named Tamer El Noury, who introduced himself as an Egyptian-American businessman based in Manhattan and specializing in real estate. El Noury asked about Esseghaier’s studies, and they talked about religion and politics. Before the end of the flight they traded phone numbers, promising to stay in touch. Once Esseghaier was back in Canada, El Noury arranged to visit him in Montreal, where they went for dinner and Esseghaier introduced his new friend to Ahmed Abassi, a 25-year-old fellow PhD student from Tunisia with a short, neatly trimmed beard. In Toronto, Esseghaier later introduced El Noury to Raed Jaser.
Right away, Jaser liked El Noury, who was charming and confident and spoke of his commitment to fighting for God’s cause. He and Esseghaier felt like they could trust him. They told their wealthy new friend that they were sickened by the war in Afghanistan—that they wanted NATO out of all Muslim countries. According to the RCMP, they’d decided to derail a passenger train. Trains are an easy target—there is little if any security along train tracks, and they’re often surrounded by open fields. The way to cause the most damage and draw the most attention to their cause, they figured, was to sabotage the track on a railway bridge. They’d identified one near Jordan Station, just west of St. Catharines. The Maple Leaf, which is run by Via and Amtrak, travels over it en route to Penn Station in New York. After hearing about their plan, El Noury gave Jaser $1,000 to purchase video equipment.
In September 2012, someone spotted Jaser and Esseghaier checking out the tracks, and called the police. After that trip, Jaser decided to return the $1,000 to El Noury. He told Esseghaier he was done—he didn’t want any part of the plan. He wanted to start a business, maybe a restaurant, and have a normal life. Esseghaier was furious. He never spoke to Jaser again.
sseghaier and Jaser didn’t know that Tamer El Noury was an FBI agent. He was taping his conversations with the men, and the FBI was in contact with the RCMP and CSIS. His assignment was to gather evidence that the men were plotting a terror attack.
The FBI frequently plants informants in mosques, and has been criticized by defence lawyers and legal experts for entrapping Muslim men by encouraging them to plot terror acts. Since 9/11, dozens of U.S. terrorism investigations have involved informants, including the arrest of four men in Newburgh, New York, who were convicted of plotting to bomb a synagogue and shoot down military planes. According to their defence lawyer, the informant “proposed, directed, supplied, funded and facilitated every aspect of the ‘terrorist’ plot,” even promising payments of $250,000 and luxury cars, and providing them with the fake bombs that got them arrested.
Similar methods appear to have been used by the FBI in their interactions with Esseghaier and his associates. El Noury was convinced Esseghaier’s Tunisian friend Ahmed Abassi was a partner in the same terror plot, but he needed proof. El Noury decided to lure Abassi and Esseghaier to New York, where he’d talk to them about their plans and record their conversations. Abassi had left Canada for Tunisia in December 2012 to visit family. There, the Canadian government revoked his visa. From the U.S., El Noury kept up a steady stream of phone calls and emails to Abassi, trying to convince him that he should just come to New York. El Noury would take care of a U.S. visa and a place to stay, and help him sort out his Canadian visa problems. Abassi agreed and flew to New York in March 2013 on a visa arranged, unbeknownst to him, by the FBI. Over the next few weeks, Esseghaier visited the two men at a luxurious Manhattan apartment near Wall Street, ostensibly owned by El Noury.
El Noury, Abassi and Esseghaier, talking in Arabic, debated the pros and cons of a variety of terror schemes. They squabbled over the best approach. Abassi had many ideas to share, including contaminating the air or water with bacteria to potentially kill 100,000 people. They talked about Esseghaier’s visits to Iran, where he claimed to have met al Qaeda point men who advised him to recruit people but lie low until he was needed.
At one point, alone with El Noury, Esseghaier complained that Abassi wasn’t fully committed to their cause and argued that they needed to cut him out of their plans. Esseghaier compared him to Jaser, who wasn’t initially afraid but “got afraid later.” He claimed that Jaser only participated so he could get some money from El Noury to start a restaurant.
he U.S. and Canadian investigators had the evidence they needed to bring charges. On April 22, Ahmed Abassi was arrested in New York and charged with fraudulently applying for a U.S. visa to facilitate an act of international terrorism. That same day, the RCMP held a press conference at its facility near Pearson airport. To a room of TV cameras, James Malizia, an RCMP assistant commissioner, announced that Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier had been arrested and charged with conspiring to carry out a terrorist act against a Via passenger train. Jaser had been apprehended by 15 officers while at work at a North York moving company, and Esseghaier was picked up while working on a laptop at a McDonald’s in Montreal’s central train station. Malizia said the two had received direction from al Qaeda operatives in Iran. The charges were sensational, especially coming only a week after the bombing of the Boston Marathon.
The RCMP invited 23 leaders and imams from the GTA’s Muslim community to the facility, and asked them to be available to the media after the press conference. Muhammad Robert Heft was one of those in attendance. He told me he was not at all surprised by the charges against Jaser and Esseghaier. “With the right propaganda, the right kind of circumstances, loose cannons are easily radicalized,” he said.
This past March, Heft went to see Jaser in jail. During his visit, Jaser said he was only going along with Esseghaier’s plans in hopes of convincing him not to do it. Jaser claimed he was trying to wean him away from the plan. Heft told Jaser he didn’t buy that excuse. “He shot back and said ‘Well, I don’t have to convince you,’ and I said, ‘If you can’t convince me, you won’t be able to convince a judge.’ ”
“My hope would be Raed owns up to what he says in the taped evidence and pleads guilty,” Heft told me. “Instead of going after him for life in prison, maybe the court will give him a few years in jail, and then he can come out and speak to people and say, look, this is wrong, nobody should think like this.”
Heft told me how someone tried to recruit him just a few years after he converted to Islam. He says he was a good target because even though he’d been Muslim for a handful of years, he was made to feel like an outsider by the community. His newfound mentor, someone he would only describe as an older Egyptian man, convinced him that everyone in the Muslim community was wrong, and that he, Heft, was among the chosen few who really understood what Islam was. Young men are easily radicalized, he says, if you convince them they’re destined for extraordinary things.
have my own indirect connection to Raed Jaser. My husband’s friend Umar, whom he’s known since their elementary school days in Karachi, had met Jaser in 2007 at Middlefield. He was surprised by Jaser’s arrest.
When Umar, who doesn’t want his last name used, first came to Canada, he wasn’t particularly religious. As the years went by, he became more observant; he grew his beard long, and, like Jaser, the only thing he liked to talk about was Islam. Umar initially approached Jaser asking if he’d help him improve his Arabic, and the two would often travel together to mosques, to pray and proselytize. Umar says Jaser would get angry and frustrated when people didn’t pay attention to his impromptu lectures, but Umar would tell him that spreading the message of Islam required patience.
One day, Jaser introduced Umar to Chiheb Esseghaier and asked if he could put Chiheb up in his apartment in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood. Esseghaier stayed overnight but mostly kept to himself.
The day after the arrests of Esseghaier and Jaser, Umar was stopped at a takeout restaurant by two men who identified themselves as CSIS agents. They took him back to the RCMP’s facility near the airport for an interview. The agents told him they had recordings of his conversations with Jaser. “They asked me about my views on jihad and what Raed’s view was,” he said. “I explained that I didn’t know what Raed thought, but in my view jihad is something everyone should be doing: jihad is about helping and struggling. If someone falls, you assist them.”
Umar told me Jaser never spoke to him about terrorism or violent plans. He says the man he knew was very helpful. If someone was unemployed or needed money or advice about paperwork, Jaser would offer his time in any way he could. “The CSIS agents asked me if he ever talked about trains or anything, and I said no.
“We used to talk about our future, and he used to say we’d open a restaurant,” Umar said. “I told him I would be an employee, not a partner, because I don’t know about these things. He said we could use our business as a way to help needy people by making money from it and spending it on others.” Jaser had even scouted a location for the business.
In December of last year, Umar asked my husband for a ride to the airport to catch a flight to Pakistan to see his sick mother. When they got there, Umar was taken aside by security: he was on a U.S. watch list. He could fly, but not through American airspace. They wouldn’t tell him anything more. He later found out it was because of his friendship with Jaser.
he American legal proceedings against Ahmed Abassi moved more swiftly than the Canadian case against Jaser and Esseghaier. As part of a plea deal, the federal prosecutors withdrew the terrorism charges, and Abassi, who admitted to a role in radicalizing Esseghaier, pleaded guilty to immigration fraud. Abassi’s lawyer argued that he had been entrapped by El Noury, who drew him to the U.S. under false pretenses. Abassi was ultimately sentenced to time served—15 months—and deported to Tunisia.
In Toronto, Chiheb Esseghaier has been steadfast in his refusal to participate in his own case. He told the court over and over that he would only accept a lawyer who could defend him using sharia law. He appeared at his hearings in an orange jumpsuit, his long beard and curly hair dishevelled. He explained to the judge that he refused to be tried under Canada’s Criminal Code because man-made laws were inferior to God’s laws as embodied in the Quran. He complained that the Criminal Code protected gay marriage and was therefore an abomination, and he protested when a female court officer moved to handcuff him. “You are not my wife,” he said.
Raed Jaser did his best to distance himself from Esseghaier. He secured a civil liberties criminal lawyer named John Norris, who had represented Omar Khadr and a member of the Toronto 18. Jaser’s family attended his first court appearances and refused to speak to journalists.
The post-9/11 conviction rate for terrorism cases that go to trial is close to 100 per cent. Defence lawyers say that in these types of cases they must overcome the impression that the accused is guilty until proven innocent. Norris declined my requests for an interview, though he stated that his client denies the allegations categorically. I approached Rocco Galati, a Toronto lawyer who represented Abdurahman Khadr, Omar’s older brother, as well as another suspect in the Toronto 18 plot, to ask what it’s like to represent someone facing charges like Jaser’s. He told me such cases are always “loaded against the accused” and that in few other cases would the kind of evidence submitted in these trials pass muster. Galati says the wiretap evidence often consists of sections of audio, and the undercover agent or informant is the one who provides context and explains what came before and after the section in question. In that sense, he says, the evidence is “manufactured.”
John Norris also refused my request for a meeting with Raed Jaser, saying he wasn’t giving interviews. Chiheb Esseghaier, however, agreed to see me. We met at the Toronto West Detention Centre in Etobicoke, in a large room with dozens of booths where inmates and visitors sat across from each other separated by Plexiglas dividers. He had the same dishevelled look I saw in court.
I asked Esseghaier about his split from Jaser. He started lecturing me about colonization and media conspiracies. I stopped taking notes. “Why aren’t you writing this down?” he demanded. I told him I would write only if he answered my question. He tried to pick up where he left off, and I let my pen lie on my notebook. “Okay, okay,” he said. “Raed Jaser turned his back on the Holy Quran. He ran to the Criminal Code to accept the human law. Why did he do that? Before, we were friends, but now I am criticizing that behaviour.” He carried on: “When Muslims see the wrong thing they need to advise Muslims to do the right thing. Raed Jaser did something wrong when he accepted the human law.”
Esseghaier’s core goal—he insisted I write it down—is that “the whole world is united in a single state and ruled under the rules in the Quran.” That’s what he sees as his life’s work. Everything he says and does is in the service of that end. When I pressed him to clarify details of his “plots” and “schemes,” he became agitated. He said he is not the story, and what he did or didn’t do is not the point. “I am just a detail of a detail,” he said. “The fact that I was going to the bridge or going to the railway track by St. Catharines isn’t relevant. And these small plans that I was making are the striving and the struggling to realize the bigger plan.”
The trial is set to begin sometime in early 2015, and the two men face life sentences. The case relies heavily on wiretaps and surveillance spanning nearly a year. The timelines of alleged offences are short—in the case of Raed Jaser, just a few months. Esseghaier still does not have a lawyer and refuses to even recognize the criminal justice system. But he seems undisturbed by his situation. His goal, he says, is a higher one. “Everything I did in Canada, I hope God will see that as a sincere effort to help His cause,” he told me. In my last interview with Esseghaier, I asked him if he is concerned about his future. He wonders about what will happen to him and his case, but he believes the outcome is out of his hands. “God plans everything and then makes it all possible,” he said. “No one will escape his destiny.”