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Disrupted Terror Plot In Canada; News Conference Coverage From Canada

Aired April 22, 2013 - 15:30   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, more breaking news here. Not here where I stand, of course, in Boston, but in Canada, where there has now been a disrupted terror plot.

We're listening in to a news conference under way now in Toronto.

First, I want to go to our correspondent in Ottawa, Paula Newton. Paula, just if you can, for us, and all of our viewers, reset what has happened and what you know.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Canadian police tell us they have made a few arrests regarding an alleged plot to derail trains, whether it is one train or more, we're about to find out.

I want to repeat, Brooke, this has no connection to Boston whatsoever, that these suspects were under surveillance for quite some time and, for whatever reason, Canadian authorities decided to make the arrest earlier today.

There were arrests in at least two Canadian cities now, Brooke, as well. They received extensive intelligence and help from the FBI and from Homeland Security in the United States.

I still have no confirmation on whether or not this derailment would have involved the train crossing the border between Canada and the United States, but we're about to learn of that now and, again, just to underscore this was no connection to the Boston marathon bombings.


BALDWIN: OK, Paula. Do me a favor and stand by. Let me know in my ear if this thing has begun.

We have Tom Fuentes and Fran Townsend both joining us, CNN national security analysts, and Tom used to be the FBI former assistant director.

Tom, first to you and then Fran, same question, what do you make of this?

TOM FUENTES, CNN ANALYST: Well, this is, you know, not uncommon. Back in 2006, the Canadians uncovered a plot later referred to as the Toronto 18, and it was a collaborative investigation in Canada between their intelligence service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the FBI.

And at the time I was still running international operations at the FBI. We provided assistance to them, phone record checks and people traveling around, you know, with connections to the U.S., to make sure there was no related U.S. plot, which there was not.

So this sounds very similar to that, at least with that regard. This is also that case was one I referred to where the individual who was the mastermind took one course in mechanical engineering and figured out on his own how to make a bomb, and, you know, and detonate it remotely by telephone, so showing that complex devices can be done, if a person has training, education, and aptitude to do it.

BALDWIN: Again, let me emphasize, underscore, bold, what we're watching for and waiting for, this has zero to do with Boston. Fran Townsend, your thoughts.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, you know, we know that there has been a history of al Qaeda-related transportation targetings -- Madrid bombings, London 77 and the disrupted subway bombing plot here in New York City.

So we know that al Qaeda, at least, has got a history of targeting trains and other transportation modes.

We don't know yet from Canadian officials who this group was, but it will be very interesting to find out more from the press conference.

BALDWIN: Tom, in terms of potential al Qaeda ties and we don't know, something that Fran just brought up, Canada, are there cells in Canada?

FUENTES: Yes. There have been cells in Canada. We know the millennium plot, you know, 13 years ago, the person came from Canada, on his way to Los Angeles to do disruptions.

There have been other cells identified in various Canadian cities which the Canadians have disrupted, and they have been very effective.

I would like to add the RCMP has a tremendous outreach program in their Muslim communities.

All the plots they had up there have been disrupted by people in the community, cooperating, and contacting the authorities there when someone is going around trying to recruit additional people to be part of the plan.

BALDWIN: Fran, we're, again, waiting to hear the details of this. So fluid and nebulous at this point in time, all we're really hearing is this is an alleged plot to derail trains.

To Paula Newton's point, we don't know if this is derail trains as entering the United States or not.

As we await the news conference ,what kind of questions would you have for these authorities? What will you be listening for?

TOWNSEND: You know, Brooke, I work -- the case that Tom just mentioned, the Ahmed Ressam millennium bombing case, I had worked, and we had a very close relationship, U.S. officials with our Canadian counterparts, the RCMP, the Canadian intelligence service ...

BALDWIN: Forgive me, I need to interrupt you.

It is beginning. Let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Corporal (inaudible) and I will be your moderator today.

(Untranslated French)

Before we start, I would ask that you please turn off or put on silent mode your cell phones.

Today's press conference will last approximately 30 minutes.

The RCMP will be making statements on a national security criminal investigation coordinated by RCMP-led integrated national security enforcement teams in Montreal and Toronto.

The statements will be followed by a short question period.

(Untranslated French)

Upon your arrival, you were provided with press kits. These include further details on the charges of the criminal investigation, photos, as well as information on our various initiatives related to national security.

(Untranslated French)

Before we begin, I would like to highlight the presence of a number of our partners here today from the law enforcement, intelligence and private sectors who brought their collaboration and support to this investigation.

These include (inaudible) police, VRI and our original and provincial police services. Their respective spokespersons will be available for interviews after the press conference.

Also present today is Assistant Commissioner Stephen White, the commanding officer of the RCMP in Ontario.

(Untranslated French)

I will now introduce our spokesperson, starting from the left -- the criminal operations officer for the RCMP in Quebec, Chief Superintendent (inaudible); the officer in charge of the RCMP federal policing operations, Assistant Commissioner James Malizia; the criminal operations officer for the RCMP in Ontario, Chief Superintendent Jennifer Strachan.

Commissioner James Malizia of the RCMP's federal policing operations will open with a brief statement. He will read the statement in English, followed by the identical statement in French.

(Untranslated French)

ASSISTANT COMMISSIONER JAMES MALIZIA, RCMP: Good afternoon, and thank you all for being here.

On April 22nd, after an extensive and complex criminal investigation named Project Smooth, the RCMP arrested and charged two individuals for terrorism-related offenses under various sections of the criminal code.

The RCMP is alleging that Chiheb Esseghaler and Raed Jaser were conspiring to carry out an al Qaeda-supported attack against a passenger train.

Had this plot been carried out, it would have resulted in innocent people being killed or seriously injured.

At all times during the investigation, initiated in August 2012, our primary focus was the safety and protection of the public.

I want to reassure our citizens that, while the RCMP believed the accused had the capacity and intent to carry out these criminal acts, there was no imminent threat to the general public, rail employees, train passengers, or infrastructure.

The RCMP-led integrated national security enforcement teams with the close collaboration of the FBI successfully interdicted this threat, early and effectively.

This is a testament to the strength our relationships with Canadian and American law enforcement and to the ability of Canadian government agencies to work together in furtherance of Canada's counterterrorism strategy.

Today's charges represent the most recent example of the tremendously successful effort and commitment of our national security teams, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their outstanding dedication.

In recent years, our collaborative approach has led to arrests and several convictions including (inaudible) in Ottawa, (inaudible) in Quebec and the 11 individuals in Project Osage in Toronto.

These successful arrests and convictions demonstrate the expertise and the effectiveness of our integrated teams.

We could not have successfully completed this investigation without the collaboration of our partners at the local, national and international levels.

On behalf of the RCMP, I express our appreciation for their tremendous support. I am pleased that some of these partners have been able to join us today.

Even with these successes, it is very important that Canadians remain vigilant. Protecting Canada's national security requires the awareness and active engagement of all of our citizens.

A meaningful response to these threats begins on Canadian streets and in Canadian homes, and the RCMP works with other partners including communities across Canada in the fight against terrorism.

The public is always encouraged to bring any suspicious activities to the RCMP's attention through our national security information network at 1-800-420-5805, or by contacting the police in their community.

Each and every terrorist arrest integrated national security enforcement teams make sends a message and illustrates our strong resolve to root out terrorist threats and keep Canadians and our allies safe. Criminals should note ...


BALDWIN: You've been listening to this Toronto news conference where the key phrase we just heard there as we've been learning about that this thwarted terror attack in the Ottawa area, we have now learned from this official that there were two individuals who are now in custody, who wanted to carry out al Qaeda-supported attacks on passenger trains.

And not only that, this official saying that they had the capacity and the intent to carry out those attacks.

Through the great work from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the FBI, it was stopped before anyone was killed or injured.

Fran Townsend and Tom Fuentes, you both, as we were talking earlier and awaiting this news conference, mentioned possible ties to al Qaeda, and now we're hearing that that is precisely what this was, apparently.

Tom, great work from police and FBI, once again.

FUENTES: Well, I think, yes, but sounds like predominantly it was RCMP, you know, really leading this. It is their country, and probably the source came from them. We don't know that.

But, yes -- but any major investigation in Canada or for that matter in many parts of the U.S. are going to involve cross-border cooperation, which is very intense, actually, and very important.

The FBI has offices in Ottawa, Vancouver, and Toronto, and work very closely through those offices to coordinate leads back for investigation by the FBI, in the U.S., or by the Department of Homeland Security as well, concerning possible travel back and forth across our borders by subjects or acquaintances of the subjects.

So the level of cooperation is, you know, is really, really outstanding.

BALDWIN: And, Fran Townsend, we pulled away from you. You were talking about -- we were talking about these attacks specifically targeting passenger trains.

Want to finish that thought?

TOWNSEND: Sure, I mean, there's just -- al Qaeda has a long history, some successful, some not.

Everyone will remember the 7/7 London train bombings, the Madrid train bombings and then there was a disrupted subway plot here in New York City.

You know, this is -- al Qaeda tends to come back, again and again, to targets they're comfortable with, and this is an instance where, working together with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the FBI could give them the benefit of our experience over many years, targeting al Qaeda, and perhaps more specifically as against these individuals.

BALDWIN: Fran and Tom, thank you so much.

I want to bring in Paul Cruickshank, our CNN terror analyst. I know, Paul, you and I have spoken so many different times on these different plots, disrupted and not.

And when you hear about this, it would have targeted passenger trains and, again, we don't know if these were specifically trains that would have originated in Canada and come into the United States, specifically targeting potentially American passengers. We don't know.

But when you start to hear the details of this al Qaeda plot, supported by al Qaeda, what is your first thought?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, TERRORISM EXPERT (via telephone): Well, you've go to say, al Qaeda has a track record with this, and to add to Fran's examples, we saw, back in 2008, an American al Qaeda recruit, Bryant Neal Vinas, he discussed a plan for al Qaeda to bomb the Long Island Railroad coming into New York.

And, again, in 2011, when they discovered all the documents in bin Laden's compound, he had a specific idea to derail a train in the United States. Al Qaeda have wanted to hit railway lines in the United States for some time.

Now, we're hearing this is an al Qaeda-sponsored plot. The question has to be, did these men receive training perhaps in the tribal areas of Pakistan?

We have seen many plots directed against the West where that's happened before.

BALDWIN: It's a great point.

I want to go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. It's a great question.

What does al Qaeda-sponsored or, their phraseology, al Qaeda-supported attack on these passenger trains -- what does that mean in this case? Do we know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I couldn't agree with Paul more, Brooke. I think that is the absolute key question right now.

When Canadian intelligence services get up there and say there was an al Qaeda-supported attack plot, what is going on here? We don't know the answer.

Is it some kind of al Qaeda element that did get training in the al Qaeda heartland, the traditional heartland of Pakistan and the Afghan border, or is this some type of plot that perhaps had originated somewhere else?

We know that al Qaeda affiliate organizations, if you will, are really gaining strength in Syria, in Iraq, across North Africa.

You'll remember an al Qaeda North African affiliate, sponsored, inspired organization, whatever you want to call it, carried that out that attack against the Algerian gas plant a few months back.

These affiliates, Brooke, are a growing threat ...

BALDWIN: Barbara, let me interrupt you. Let me interrupt you.

We want to go back to this news conference there in Toronto.

CHIEF SUPERINTENDENT JENNIFER STRACHAN, RCMP: ... security enforcement teams, also called "INSETs," executed search warrants at various locations in Toronto and Montreal.

Arrested today were Raed Jaser, age 35, of Toronto, and Chiheb Esseghaler, age 30, of Montreal. They're in custody and will appear at Old City Hall Courthouse tomorrow for bail hearings.

As stated, our investigation and the evidence found indicated that the accused were conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack against a VIA Rail passenger train in the greater Toronto area.

Briefly, these charges include conspiring to interfere with transportation facilities, and murdering persons for the benefit of a terrorist group.

We are alleging that these two individuals took steps and conducted activities to initiate a terrorist attack. They watched trains and railways in the greater Toronto area.

These arrests are the conclusion of a very complex and lengthy investigation which involved multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency cooperation.

Through INSETs, we have formed solid partnerships with police services and government agencies at home and around the world, devoted to fighting terrorism.

The importance of greater integration of resources and intelligence has been heightened by the reality of terrorism for many countries, and that includes Canada.

I would like to personally thank our partners and agencies who assisted greatly in detecting and denying this terrorist threat. They are Toronto police service, York regional police, Peal regional police, the Ontario provincial police, Durham regional police, the Canadian border services agency and the Canadian security intelligence service.

BALDWIN: All right, so, we're going to pull away, but a couple of new details there, and let me just bring back in both Paul Cruickshank and, also, I know we still have Tom Fuentes.

Paul, what I just heard there, two things. First, we heard the ages of these two suspects who are now facing charges here, 35-year-old and a 30-year-old.

The fact that they were specifically targeting these trains in Toronto and that they were watching the trains, they were watching the railways there as they were plotting.

Paul Cruickshank, your thoughts?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, it's not clear at this point whether they wanted to perhaps put bombs inside trains or to put bombs on the tracks themselves.

But before, al Qaeda hitting mass transit like this has really been out of their playbook because they've calculated that you can have a huge economic impact by hitting mass transit. You can really instill fear in the population that way.

So in the training camps in Pakistan, they've been telling Western recruits, that's what we want you to hit, Brooke.

BALDWIN: And, Tom, to you, as a former assistant director of the FBI -- and I know there are so many plots and so many plans that are disrupted by authorities that we the media and those who follow what's going on never, ever know about -- take me behind the scenes how agents and the lead here, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, would have heard about something like this and how they would have disrupted it.

FUENTES: Well, probably they heard about it from somebody in the community coming forward to them and saying that they had become aware of the individuals involved or maybe the leader involved in trying to form this plot. That's one way.

It could have been from a lead from foreign intelligence. It could have been a lead from U.S. authorities, like the FBI, having information.

It could have been through another investigation where they had wiretaps in place and overheard conversations.

There's a wide variety of methods and they may not want to disclose exactly how they were able to identify this group and work on this case.

BALDWIN: Tom Fuentes, Paul Cruikshank, Fran Townsend and Paula Newton for us in Canada, we appreciate all of you.

If you're just now joining us, breaking news at this hour, two people have been apprehended, are now in custody.

We've learned they were plotting -- these were al Qaeda-supported attacks that they were plotting to carry out on passenger trains specifically in Toronto. And they had been watching the trains, watching the railways.

We don't know how they were planning on pulling this off. The good news is that they didn't and they are now in custody.

Much more on this news after this quick break.



BALDWIN: This is Boylston Street, and this is still as far as we can get to where those explosions went off one week ago today. The finish line is just down that direction where those trucks are.

We're seeing some activity right now, the beginnings of eventually opening this area back up. Some of the barricades being removed but still Boylston Street right here shut down.

We've moved just a couple feet away from Boylston Street, and this is the memorial. It has been growing really ever since we've been here last week.

You can see scores of flowers and balloons, three crosses for the three young victims from Monday's explosions, letters written in different languages and running shoes.

The message here, as it says on the sign, "We are not just strong. We are Boston strong."

Looking at the memorial, you're crying. Why is this so emotional for you personally?

CHRISTINE FICHERA, VISITOR TO MEMORIAL NEAR BOMBINGS SITE: I'm just imagining what everybody felt who was down here, what everybody's feeling, you know the people who are trying to heal from this.

I'm actually feeling pretty angry also.

BALDWIN: What does "Boston strong" mean to you?

FICHERA: Nothing's going to beat us.

BALDWIN: Hey, Kellan (ph), can you tell me, what is this jacket?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A fire truck jacket.

BALDWIN: A firefighter jacket? Do you want to be a firefighter? Yeah?


CORY MORRIS, MOTHER: I've had a hard time this week looking them in the eyes just knowing everything that's going on. They have no idea and they're very innocent.

He was so happy to ride the train just now. It's just an exciting day for him, but I was trying to explain why there's so many teddy bears and stuff there right now.

I just thought, you know -- I don't know. It's just sad, and I needed him with me.

BALDWIN: When you look at all of this, the crosses, the flowers, the flags, the teddy bears, what do you think?

HEIDI OLSEN, NORTH DAKOTA: It's just very sad and just to hold your loved ones close.

And I feel awful for the people who were hurt and the families, what they're going through.

But us together, pulling together as a nation -- I'm not from Boston, but I'm from North Dakota. We're pulling together as a nation and we're going to get through it.

BALDWIN: And just steps away from the memorial, something we definitely didn't see last week, traffic.

People here in Boston one week out now from Monday's explosion are heading back to work. And, you know, you walk all around town, you see signs from "Boston strong," but it's not exactly the same.


BALDWIN: Not yet.

But, again, Boston strong, that feeling pervasive through the city here one, week after the tragedy struck. People will heal. People are beginning to move on.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks so much for being with me, live in Boston.

Back here live is Jake Tapper. "The Lead With Jake Tapper" starts right after this quick break.