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Train terror plot: Al Qaeda deja vu?

RCMP terror arrest blog
Chiheb Esseghaier, one of two men accused of plotting a terror attack on rail target, is led off a plane by an RCMP officer at Buttonville Airport on Tuesday. (The Canadian Press/Chris Young)

Once upon a time there was a man named Ahmed Chalabi.

You may remember him as the one who told the CIA that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction – and that it was linked with deadly Al Qaeda groups that plotted to destroy the U.S.

In London, Chalabi’s Knightsbridge office (handy to Harrod’s) was busily dispensing such vital information to the British government and media. It represented the Iraqi National Congress, a loose coalition of Shiite Muslim, Kurdish and royalist exiles hoping to garner Western support to topple Saddam Hussein and catapult them to power.

When I met with their local point man, behind an unmarked door, he was eager to tell me of a convoluted plot involving Sept. 11 mastermind Mohamed Atta – whose life I’d researched in Germany. Atta, he said, in ominous tones, had met with an Iraqi agent in the Czech Republic.

“We’re sure that Mohamed Atta, who was one of the main planners of the U.S. attacks, met (Iraqi) Col. Muhammed Khalil al-Ani in Prague,” he said. “Al-Ani is one of the most highly skilled intelligence officers, and his special expertise is terrorism and killing.”

Amazing detective work!

It was especially amazing because Saddam – who used savage methods to crush religious extremism in Iraq, and terminated enemies of his Ba’ath Party with extreme prejudice --  had never been spotted under the covers with the most violent proponents of radical Islam.

The CIA had doubts too. But in spite of internal grousing, the INC allegations became Washington’s official position, and eventually the casus belli that the U.S. Bush administration needed to launch an invasion of Iraq. The rest is history – a scorched chapter for more than 100,000 Iraqis who died since 2003, and at least four million others who were forced to flee their homes. Some who fled to Syria have now been driven back by the murderous conflict there.

Flash forward to Canada, 2013, where the RCMP announced that an alleged “Al Qaeda-supported plot” to blow up a VIA Rail passenger train had ties to Iran. The detective work, we were told, was assisted by the FBI  and Washington's Department of Homeland Security.

But isn’t Iran the place where “apostates” who deviate from Shiite Islam (such as the ultra-Sunni Salafists of Al Qaeda) harshly punished? And which has one of the highest numbers of political prisoners in the world, including two Canadians sentenced to death? Thousands of student protesters have been rounded up, jailed and tortured, opposition leaders put under house arrest and even relatives of suspected dissidents harassed, blackmailed and detained. Ordinary Sunnis have also been seized, their mosques and holy books destroyed.

But like Iraq, Iran is on the political radar of Washington’s far right, which sees a military strike as the answer to its prayers for halting Tehran's ongoing nuclear ambitions. Yet President Barack Obama has not been convinced to fire up the war planes.

So far talk of an Iranian state-sponsored plot against Canada by way of AQ has been dialed back to zero, and perhaps that is where it will stay. Iran, naturally, denies any links with the alleged terrorists and the train plot. But the conjunction of “Iran” and “terrorist” is catnip to the hungry (or agenda driven) denizens of cyberspace. Viral conspiracy theories will proliferate beyond our borders.

And Ahmed Chalabi?  By all accounts he’s very rich. But he has given up his ambition to rule Iraq.  

Olivia Ward was European bureau chief based in London from 1997-2002. She has covered conflict,  politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.    



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