TORONTO — One of two men accused of plotting with al-Qaida members in Iran to derail a train in Canada became radicalized to the point that his father reached out to a Muslim support group for help and advice, a local religious leader said Wednesday.
Muhammad Robert Heft, president of the Paradise Forever Support Group Inc., a non-profit organization that provides support to Muslims in Canada, said Mohammad Jaser came to him several times citing concerns about the radicalization of his son.
"He came to me about his son saying he how concerned he was getting about the rigidness of his son and his interpretation of Islam. He was becoming self-righteous, becoming pushy, pushing his views on how much they (his family) should be practicing as a Muslim," said Heft.
Jaser's son Raed, 35 has been charged along with Chiheb Esseghaier, 30 with conspiring to carry out an attack and murder people in association with a terrorist group in their plot to derail a train that runs between New York City and Montreal.
Canadian investigators say the men received guidance from members of al-Qaida in Iran. Iranian government officials have said the government had nothing to do with the plot.
"His son was becoming overzealous and intolerant in his understanding of the religion," Heft. "Those are the telltale signs that can lead into the radicalization process."
The discussions took place between 2010 and 2011, while the father was renting a basement apartment in Heft's home in Markham, Ontario.
On Wednesday, the other suspect appeared briefly in court where he made a statement suggesting he did not recognize the court's jurisdiction.
"This criminal code is not a holy book," Esseghaier said at the hearing. "We cannot rely on the conclusions taken out from these judgments."
At the hearing Esseghaier rejected the allegations against him and declined to be represented by a court-appointed lawyer.
Jaser had appeared in court Tuesday and did not enter a plea. The court granted a request by his lawyer, John Norris, for a publication ban on future evidence and testimony.
Both men were ordered to return to court on May 23.
"We are waiting for the disclosure and we will be defending against the charges," Norris said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Norris declined to comment when asked if he wanted his client's case separated from Esseghaier, who has spoken out twice in court despite being advised not to.
Police — tipped off by an imam worried by the behavior of one of the suspects — said it was the first known attack planned by al-Qaida in Canada. The two could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
The case has raised questions about the extent of Shiite-led Iran's relationship with al-Qaida, a predominantly Sunni Arab terrorist network. It also renewed attention on Iran's complicated history with the terror group, which ranges from outright hostility to alliances of convenience and even overtures by Tehran to assist Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Canadian police said this week they didn't think it was a case of state sponsored terrorism.
Law officials in New York with knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press the attack was to take place on the Canadian side of the border. They are not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Norris has questioned the timing of the arrests, pointing to ongoing debates in the Canadian Parliament over a new anti-terrorism law that would expand the powers of police and intelligence agencies.
Norris has noted Jaser was a permanent resident of Canada who has lived there for 20 years. Norris refused to say where Jaser was from, saying that revealing his nationality in the current climate amounted to demonizing him.
Canadian police have declined to release the men's nationalities, saying only they had been in Canada a "significant amount of time." But a London-based newspaper Al Arab reported Wednesday, citing unnamed sources in the Gulf, that Jaser is a Jordanian passport holder with full name Raed Jaser Ibrahim Amouri, who had visited the UAE several times and most recently in September 2011. The newspaper reported that the suspect also visited other Gulf countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It was not possible to independently confirm the report.
Esseghaier, in a profile on a university department website — which has since been removed — says he was born in Tunis, Tunisia.
The investigation surrounding the planned attack was part of a cross-border operation involving Canadian law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Canadian police said the men never got close to carrying out the attack.
The warning first came from an imam in Toronto, who in turn was tipped off by suspicious behavior on the part of one of the suspect.
Associated Press writers Benjamin Shingler in Montreal, Tom Hays in New York, Kimberly Dozier in Washington and Brian Murphy in the United Arab Emirates contributed to this story.