National Post

Terror pair evil, not ill: FBI agent


- Tom Blackwell

Bin Toronto y the time he was sentenced to life in prison for plotting to wreck a Via Rail train and other terrorist acts, Chiheb Esseghaier had been diagnosed as psychotic, having gone on incoherent rants, spit at a witness and fallen asleep during his trial.

Co- accused Raed Jaser claimed he was a mere drug addict trying to scam money from an undercover FBI agent posing as a rich jihadist.

And a third associate said the whole terrorist conspiracy was “manufactur­ed” by the agent.

That police officer has just broken cover to offer a “deep dive” into his rarefied world. And he jumped at the chance Tuesday to debunk the notion that the men he helped convict were anything but diehard, would- be terrorists — or that he somehow manipulate­d them.

Agent Tamer Elnoury describes how Esseghaier gave him chills from the first time they met, musing casually about shooting down passenger aircraft.

“The look in Chiheb’s eyes when he talked about killing infidels was something I’d never seen before in my life,” he writes in American Radical, a new book that focuses largely on the Via case. “It was a look of hatred and death.”

Lawyers have suggested that Esseghaier’s 2015 conviction was tainted by the mental illness that seemed to manifest itself at trial, an issue expected to figure prominentl­y in his appeal.

But Elnoury — the agent’s cover name in the Canadian i nvestigati­on — says the Tunisian- born PhD student from Montreal “absolutely” knew right from wrong as the conspiracy unfolded, offering complex justificat­ions for his planned violence, and removing cellphone batteries and doing other countersur­veillance to try to avoid police scrutiny.

“That isn’t someone who isn’t aware of what’s happening, who’s ‘ out there,’ ” he said in an interview. “That’s someone who’s calculatin­g to commit mass murder.”

For his part, Jaser had plotted with Esseghaier to derail a Via passenger train en route from New York to Toronto well before he ever met the agent, while their other associate, Quebec City resident Ahmed Abassi, is on tape talking of wanting to destroy America, noted Elnoury.

The agent says the extensive, secret recordings of his conversati­ons with the men show there was no hint of entrapment.

“You will never, ever hear me being the driving force behind any plot,” he said. “I have been a sounding board and a comrade- i n- arms, nothing more.”

Justice Michael Code, who presided over the trial, appears to have been convinced. He asked an FBI supervisor to tell the agent “you’re not only a hero in your country, but in ( ours). Your service and commitment will forever be appreciate­d,” the book reveals.

Esseghaier and Jaser were sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to commit murder for a terrorist group. Together they had planned to kill the Via passengers, while Jaser discussed having a sniper shoot Jewish businessme­n in Toronto, and Esseghaier to bomb Times Square in New York.

Elnoury, an Egyptianbo­rn Muslim, was at their side through most of it, and adds a fascinatin­g perspectiv­e to the well- chronicled case.

He said the book was intended not just to draw open the curtain on a new form of clandestin­e policing, but to offset the distorted image of Islam that, ironically, his own investigat­ions help disseminat­e.

Throughout American Radical, Elnoury — who describes himself as a religious man — carefully corrects his suspects’ warped theologica­l vision.

“There’s 1.7 billion Muslims on the planet, and the only ones who seem to have a voice is al- Qaida and ISIS,” he lamented Tuesday.

The agent advocates better understand­ing of Islam to combat terrorism, not policies such as a “Muslim ban.”

“I believe in a strong vetting process,” he said. “But … I just don’t know that we should be hiding from them.”

Still an undercover operative with the FBI’s covert counter- terrorism unit, Elnoury did media interviews this week with his voice and face disguised.

He was brought into the Via case after U. S. police alerted the Canadians to the fact Esseghaier had been in contact with al- Qaida members and travelled twice to Iran. The Canadians tried to “bump” him — orchestrat­e a seemingly chance encounter — in Mexico, but the Peruvian Christian agent couldn’t get close.

The FBI offered up Elnoury to help, and he successful­ly made contact on a flight to San Francisco, followed by the dinner and talk of downing aircraft, all the while posing as a wealthy re- al-estate investor with Islamist leanings.

They stayed in close contact for the next several months. Esseghaier led to Jaser and to Abassi, who was eventually convicted of immigratio­n fraud in the U.S.

There were nerve-racking moments, such as the time Elnoury ended up in the basement of a Toronto home, convinced he was about to be exposed as a cop, planning out which of the jihadists he would try to kill first to get away.

But Elnoury said t he work, t hough obviously psychologi­cally taxing, is less dangerous than what he did before, working undercover to catch drug trafficker­s and other convention­al criminals.

“I think violence in the drug game is much more prevalent, and is much more likely to happen on a moment’s notice, with no warning,” he said.

Elnoury makes clear his one regret in the case — that he could not identify an American al- Qaida sleeper agent Esseghaier had heard about. Al- Qaida officials had invited them to Dubai to learn the person’s identity, but Canadian authoritie­s insisted the case be wrapped up and the suspects arrested.

Elnoury said Tuesday he was initially infuriated but realizes now that, after stretching out the investigat­ion for months longer than necessary to build a case against Esseghaier and Jaser, letting one of them leave the country at that point was too great a risk.

As it is, he left Canada after the trial on a high note, his RCMP minders plying him with farewell gifts.

“As the plane started to taxi, I looked out the window,” Elnoury writes. “The entire security detail was lined up and saluted us. That’s when I cried like a baby … It was finally over.”

 ?? FRANK GUNN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES ?? Chiheb Esseghaier was convicted of plotting to derail a Via passenger train travelling between Canada and the U. S.
FRANK GUNN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Chiheb Esseghaier was convicted of plotting to derail a Via passenger train travelling between Canada and the U. S.

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