Immigration & Borders
Mar 15, 2013

On April 22nd, CBC News broke a story about the RCMP arresting “two men accused of conspiring to carry out an ‘al-Qaeda supported’ attack targeting a Via [Rail] passenger train in the Greater Toronto Area.” The two suspects, Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal, and Raed Jaser, 35, from Toronto, were charged with “conspiring to murder persons unknown for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a terrorist group.”

RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia told reporters that the accused had received “direction and guidance” from elements of al-Qaeda in Iran, and noted that intelligence showed the Iranian government was not involved. He added: “Had this plot been carried out, it would have resulted in innocent people being killed or seriously injured.”

Criminal Code Not “Holy”
Esseghaier, an engineer with a master’s degree in industrial biotechnology, was born in Tunisia and studied at Quebec’s Université de Sherbrooke in 2008 and 2009. Prior to his arrest, the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique near Montreal listed him as one of its doctoral students. During his initial court appearance, he refused a lawyer and translator and dismissed the charges against him, telling the judge that the “Criminal Code is not [a] holy book. It’s just written by [a] set of creations and the creations they’re not perfect because only the creator is perfect.”

The Toronto Star reported that Esseghaier had been under “surveillance for a year, and police became increasingly concerned after what was seen as erratic conduct aboard an airliner en route to Mexico last spring. The event resulted in no charges, but worried law enforcement.”

Fake documents, failed deportation, permanent residency
CBC News also reported that “Canada tried nine years ago to deport Raed Jaser, one of the two men accused in the Via Rail terror plot, but authorities didn’t proceed and later granted him permanent residency.” In March 1993, Jaser was a minor when he first arrived in Canada with his parents and two siblings at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on a flight from Germany. The CBC report said they provided “fake French documents”, and his parents “made a claim for refugee protection.” The family was denied refugee status, and appealed the decision. Jaser’s parents later withdrew their refugee claim, an action that resulted in them being added to the “deferred removal order” list. However, “Jaser could not be included in that program because he had criminal ­convictions,” reported the CBC. He was officially “determined not to be a refugee on Oct. 30, 1998”, and more than half a decade later “a warrant was issued for his arrest so he could be deported.”

The “Palestinian by blood” born in the UAE
At his deportation hearing in August 2004, Jaser claimed that he was a stateless Palestinian despite the fact that he had been born in the United Arab Emirates. He told officials that he was not a citizen of that country and “I am a Palestinian by blood, that does not give me any rights whatsoever in my place of birth.”

CBC News reported that Jaser’s “criminal convictions also surfaced at the 2004 [deportation] hearing”, with the government’s lawyer pointing out that Jaser had “five fraud-related convictions and two prior convictions for failure to comply with a recognizance.” Officials concluded that Jaser would be allowed to remain in Canada on bail until the government decided what to do with him. “He later applied for, and was granted a pardon,” the CBC report explained. “It’s not clear if the pardon was for one or all of his charges.”

Significantly, in 2001 Jaser was given two years’ probation, a $1,000 fine, and a five-year weapons ban after a conviction for uttering death threats (he was later ­pardoned on that charge also). Greg Weston, the CBC’s investigative reporter covering national security issues, explained that “with that pardon, [Jaser] was subsequently granted permanent residency status in Canada.”  

On April 23, the National Post reported that Jaser’s father had approached a Toronto Islamic leader, an imam named Mohammed Robert Heft, “with concerns about his son’s hardening views of Islam.” Other imams were informed about the reputedly militant Muslim and one of them was concerned enough to contact his lawyer, who in turn notified authorities about Jaser.

In an interview with the National Post, Canada’s public safety minister, Vic Toews, said that Canadian Muslims played a key role in the RCMP investigation that led to the arrests of Esseghaier and Jaser. “The community involvement in dealing with these kinds of activities is absolutely essential,” Toews commented. “In that context I’d specifically want to point out that the Muslim community was very instrumental in providing crucial information that helped the police in this case.”

Stop Pardoning and Deport Criminal Immigrants
After the initial CBC report about the alleged Via Rail terror plot, FrontLine contacted the immigration department for comment about the situation and received an e-mailed reply from the office of Minister Jason Kenney, with the following:

“I absolutely was disturbed to learn that a foreigner can get a pardon for serious criminal offences and then be allowed to stay in Canada. We also have obligations under the international conventions on the prevention of statelessness. I, in fact, this afternoon [April 26] am having a briefing with officials to see if there was any way to work to still remove someone like this who allegedly is stateless.

“You know, our obligation on the convention for statelessness is not to render someone stateless. We will not have rendered him stateless, for example, to have removed him to the Palestinian authorities’ territories. I’m looking at all aspects of this case to see if we can learn whether anything more could have been done. But I can certainly tell you that I cannot tolerate that serious criminals would be allowed to stay in Canada in perpetuity based on some pardon.”

“Why should a pardon override criminal inadmissibility?” Kenney asked rhetorically. “That’s what I’m looking at with my officials – to see whether we can make a policy change. It seems to me, I don’t care whether you get a pardon or not, if you commit a serious criminal offence in Canada you should be kicked out, period. So we are reviewing the case to see what lessons we can learn, but this is why we are massively improving immigration security screening in Canada.”

The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada pointed to the following initiatives as positive steps taken by the government:

  • the Faster Deportation of Foreign Criminals Act;
  • stripping convicted terrorists of their Canadian citizenship;
  • introducing biometric visa requirements;
  • negotiating an information-sharing treaty with the United States on visa applicants; and
  • implementing new electronic travel authorization.

“It’s why we’re taking all of these steps to massively upgrade immigration security screening, and we use cases like this [the alleged Via Rail terror plot] to learn lessons,” Minister Kenney added.

Accept fewer – Screen them properly
“Canada has the highest rate of immigration per capita of any industrialized country – about one-quarter of a million people annually,” Martin Collacott explained in a telephone interview. “The federal government has not devoted ­adequate resources to properly screen such a large number of individuals, particularly given the fact that thousands of them come from areas with either known terrorist organizations or governments that provide financial and/or other types of support to groups that have advocated using terror to further their ideology or political agenda.”

Martin Collacott is a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute, where he studies immigration policy, treatment of refugees, and related issues involving terrorism. He worked in the Department of External Affairs for three decades, including as Director General for Security Services, a capacity involving international coordination of counter-terrorism policy. He also represented Canada in diplomatic capacities in various Asian nations and served as High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Ambassador to Syria, Lebanon, and Cambodia. His professional experience includes immigration and refugee programs.

This former diplomat also noted that “the government needs to reform the immigration system significantly because of its high cost to Canadian taxpayers: approximately $20 billion annually.” Mr. Collacott’s view is that “lowering immigration to a level commensurate with Ottawa’s allocation of resources to adequately screen individuals coming to this country is the logical approach in terms of addressing the situation in the current environment of tight federal budgets.” He also observed that federal education about the country’s norms and values for foreigners who want to study, work and live in Canada has been lacking. “The government should do more to ensure that immigrants are better informed during their application process of what will be expected of them as immigrants, students, and employees adapting to a social environment that may be very different from the one they are accustomed to,” he said. In his 2008 report, “Immigration Policy and the Terrorist Threat in Canada and the United States”, Collacott and his colleague Alexander Moens go into much detail on this matter.

Controlling just the point of entry is not enough!
Another expert, Dr. Christian Leuprecht, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Economics at the Royal Military College of Canada was approached for comments. He is also appointed to the Department of Political Studies and the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where he is also a fellow of the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy, and the Chair in Defence Management Studies.

Dr. Leuprecht told FrontLine Security that “since 9/11, the historical evidence shows that most terrorists and terror suspects have crossed the Canada/U.S. border legally at ports of entry, which suggests that enforcement resources would be better spent on flows than controls at the actual border. Controlling flows refers to enforcement along the pathways that goods and people travel, rather than at the border itself. It’s a strategy that multiplies points accessed by security officials to engage goods and people – increasing opportunities for the interception of illicit products and individuals who may need to be detained for public safety reasons before entering a country.”

A related report, “Cross-border terror networks: a social network analysis of the Canada/ U.S. Border”, authored by Dr. Leuprecht and two of his Queen’s University colleagues, was published earlier this year in the journal Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression.

Dr. Leuprecht feels that “the recent alleged Via Rail terror plot, which the RCMP reportedly thwarted, in addition to other security operations that have kept attacks from being carried out in Canada, have generated considerable confidence in Canadians that they are adequately protected from individuals or groups intent on doing them harm.”

Since 9/11, Canada’s counter-terrorism laws and actions by police forces have been demonstrably effective. Is this just luck, or due to sound policies and effective screening? Well, the Via Rail plot reveals that there are still gaps at the federal level that need to be closed in order to protect Canadians and assets of economic value. We have heard several suggestions from known experts and the Minister responsible, which merit serious consideration. Canadians deserve to have these aired and the whole immigration system rendered more effective and safe for all.

Blair Watson is a contributing editor at FrontLine Security.
© FrontLine Security 2013