Via terror plot: Suspect says others may take his place
“I am in jail, I have been neutralized, but tomorrow, maybe four or five Esseghaiers will appear amongst the one million and a half Muslims living in Canada.”
Chiheb Esseghaier is accused of plotting a terror attack on rail target.
By: Wendy Gillis News reporter, Published on Sat Jun 22 2013
Speaking slowly and firmly, his dark eyes staring straight through a thick pane of glass, Chiheb Esseghaier — the alleged mastermind of Canada’s first-known Al Qaeda-sponsored terrorist plot — said his arrest may have “neutralized” him but others could still be out there.
“I am in jail, I have been neutralized, but tomorrow, maybe four or five Esseghaiers will appear amongst the one million and a half Muslims living in Canada,” he said.
During a 45-minute interview at the Toronto West Detention Centre Friday, an alternately polite and demanding Esseghaier did not once proclaim his innocence, but instead obsessively condemned the Canadian government for its involvement in Afghanistan.
“I can enjoy my life in Canada, I could be finishing my PhD, searching for a job to be a professor and be teaching, I can do all of that and close my ears and eyes from the suffering of my brothers and sisters in Afghanistan.
I can do that. But if I do that, I would be a selfish person.”
A devout Muslim who has denounced Canadian law and said he wants to be judged by the Qur’an, Esseghaier also said he believed Islam allows for killing when there is a justification.
“If there is a right to kill, you kill,” he said.
Esseghaier is one of two men charged with several terrorism offences in connection to an alleged plot to derail a New York-Toronto passenger train.
The former Université de Sherbrooke PhD student, who came from his native Tunisia in 2008, was arrested in a Montreal McDonald’s on April 22.
Talking into a telephone and holding nearly unwavering eye contact, Esseghaier was often respectful and even friendly, occasionally flashing a smile that revealed a wide gap where several bottom teeth were missing.
Wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, navy sneakers with no shoelaces and his usual thick black beard, Esseghaier appeared healthy. When asked how he was doing in jail, he replied nonchalantly, almost happily.
“I am fine. I thank God that I don’t feel that I am in a horrible situation.
I have the opportunity to pray. I took food everyday. Sometimes I shower. I don’t feel that there is a problem,” he said.
He said he had not spoken with his mother, father and three brothers since his arrest — there have been problems connecting the call to Tunisia, he claimed — but seemed hopeful he may be able to reach them through Skype.
But Esseghaier became agitated and difficult and when asked about the allegations against him, repeatedly refusing to talk about his case — “Me, I am just a detail in the side of the story” — or even attempting to claim innocence.
“Telling people you are innocent or not will not help to give the picture to the people,” he said, adding the public needs an alternative story.
Esseghaier’s powerful preoccupation was in sending a message to the government of Canada — for which he repeatedly used the shorthand “Mr.
Harper” — that its involvement in Afghanistan was unacceptable, calling it “colonization.”
He accused Canadian soldiers of killing Muslims, whom he called his brothers and sisters, and said it was unfair that he was in jail while they walk free.
“Me, I am arrested because of a plan to attack Canada. . . . The Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, why they are not arrested? . . . This is not an allegation of a plan, this is real killing on the ground.”
In 2011, Canadian troops ended their combat mission in Kandahar but trainers remain to mentor army officers and police until March 2014.
Pressed on whether he was innocent of the charges against him, Esseghaier raised his voice and urgently tapped his hand on the table in front of him, his eyes widening in frustration.
“Why are you asking these questions of me? You are asking these questions to someone who didn’t kill.”
Esseghaier did confirm he knew his co-accused in the plot, Raed Jaser, who was arrested in Toronto the same day. The two met at a Toronto mosque when Esseghaier left Sherbrooke and came to the city to meet other Muslims, he said.
He also confirmed he has travelled to Iran, where he said he went to visit friends.
Esseghaier did not reply when asked about Ahmed Abassi, a third man arrested in New York by counterterrorism authorities, who claim he had come to the U.S. to set up a terrorist cell.
Abassi allegedly told an undercover FBI agent he had radicalized Esseghaier.
Asked why he felt so strongly about the people of Afghanistan, Esseghaier said they were like family.
“They pray fives times a day, as I do. They fast the same month. They pray to the same God of the universe, the one who created us.”
On a few occasions, Esseghaier prefaced his statements about Afghanistan by saying his thoughts would be delivered in lists or sections, indicating he had committed to memory a very specific and detailed message.
“If you stop colonizing Afghanistan, and take the army out of Afghanistan, there will be three gains,” he said, saying Canada would save on money and soldiers, gain the “heart” of Muslim Canadians, and find long-term peace domestically and abroad.
He later spoke a common refrain from his numerous court appearances, saying he wished to follow the laws of the Qur’an, not the laws of humans.
“God is the creator and humans, they are just simple creatures. They are not able to create even a finger.”
At the end of the interview, Esseghaier said thank you, then waved goodbye through the glass.
Both Esseghaier and Jaser return to court to face terrorism charges next week.
Wendy Gillis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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