Muslims helped foil an alleged al Qaeda-backed plot to blow up a rail line between the United States and Canada, according to a community leader and police.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Monday that it had arrested Chiheb Esseghaier, of Montreal, and Raed Jaser, of Toronto, over what sources said was a plan to derail a train from the United States after it had crossed the border.
Esseghaier, 30, a doctoral student, and Jaser, 35, were due to appear in court on Tuesday for a bail hearing. They are not Canadian citizens; authorities have not revealed their nationalities.
Several sources told NBCNewYork.com that Amtrak trains out of New York City may have been scouted by the suspects.
Muhammad Robert Heft, a Muslim community leader in the Scarborough area of Canada's biggest city, told the Toronto Sun newspaper that he expected ordinary Muslims would experience problems because of the allegations.
But he said Muslims had helped the security services detain the suspects.
"There is going to be backlash," Heft told the Sun. "But I want to reiterate. Who was the one who tipped the RCMP off? It was our community."
"We have to be on the front lines," he said. "To either nip it in the bud in the very beginning or co-operate with authorities so they can be brought to justice."
"In our community we may look a little different, but in our hearts we love Canada. It's our country. It's our tribe," he added. "We want safety for all Canadians regardless of their religion."
Police also said a tip from the Muslim community had helped their year-long investigation, Reuters reported.
"Had this plot been carried out, it would have resulted in innocent people being killed or seriously injured," Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Assistant Commissioner James Malizia told reporters.
"The individuals were receiving support from al Qaeda elements located in Iran," he said.
Iran denied any involvement in the alleged attack plan. “Iran's position against this group is very clear and well known. Al Qaeda has no possibility to do any activity inside Iran or conduct any operation abroad from Iran territory,” the Iranian Mission to the U.N. said in a statement to NBC News. “We reject strongly and categorically any connection to this story.”
Malizia said the RCMP believed the two had the capacity and intent to carry out the attack, but there was no imminent threat to the public, passengers, or infrastructure, Reuters reported.
U.S. officials said the attack would have targeted a rail line between New York and Toronto, a route that travels along the Hudson Valley into New York wine country and enters Canada near Niagara Falls.
New York-area commuters like Jason Rivers told NBCNewYork.com that they took the threat seriously.
"I'm always concerned," Rivers said at Penn Station. "I live in New Jersey, but every day I come through here. You just never know."
"Unfortunately, the country's a little bit on edge about what's going on, so I think it's natural that everybody be concerned," another commuter Michael Milch said.
Some security experts were surprised by the alleged link to al Qaeda factions in Iran, whose Shiite rulers have a generally hostile attitude toward the Sunni militant movement. Reuters explained:
Iran did host some senior al Qaeda figures under a form of house arrest in the years following the September 11 attacks, but there has been little to no evidence to date of joint attempts to execute violence against the West.
However, a U.S. government source said Iran is home to a little-known network of alleged al Qaeda fixers and "facilitators" based in the Iranian city of Zahedan, very close to Iran's borders with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The source said the operatives serve as go-betweens, travel agents and financial intermediaries for al Qaeda operatives and cells operating in Pakistan and moving through the area.
They do not operate under the protection of the Iranian government, which periodically launches crackdowns on the al Qaeda elements, though at other times appears to turn a blind eye to them.
Reuters contributed to this report.