U.S. politicians are clamouring for information on the curious relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran, as new allegations emerge about the role of a Sunni-dominated terror network in the plot to derail a Via Rail train.
U.S. law enforcement and national-security officials said on Thursday that Chiheb Esseghaier, one of the two men charged in the alleged derailment plot, travelled to Iran within the past two years.
The trip was directly relevant to the investigation of the alleged plot, the officials said. They did not specify when or how many times Mr. Esseghaier travelled to Iran or who he met while he was there.
On Monday, the Mounties charged Ms. Esseghaier, 30, and his alleged co-conspirator, Raed Jaser, 35, with conspiring to commit murder and terrorism. In announcing the arrests, RCMP officials said the duo received "direction and guidance" from "al-Qaeda elements in Iran" as they scoped out railway targets in Canada in hopes of derailing a New York-bound Via passenger train.
U.S. national-security sources close to the investigation said that was a reference to a network of low- to middle-level al-Qaeda fixers and "facilitators" based in the town of Zahedan, close to Iran's borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, that moves money and fighters through Iran to support its activities in South Asia.
Canadian police say there is no sign of Iranian government involvement with the suspects.
The RCMP's assertion of a link between al-Qaeda and Iran raised alarms on Capitol Hill on Thursday, with congressman Brian Higgins calling it a largely unexplored facet of international terrorism.
"We absolutely need to delve more into al-Qaeda's presence in Iran," he told The Globe and Mail after a House intelligence and terrorism subcommittee meeting, where he demanded a hearing focused on the relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran. "That's not an issue anybody has really dealt with before."
The Republican chairman of the committee, Peter King, reacted favourably to the special-hearing request, especially given "that this was going to be an attack against the American homeland."
Mr. Higgins, who represents the area of New York state where the targeted train would have entered the United States, said the RCMP investigation upends conventional intelligence on the issue.
While Iran is known to be a waystation for al-Qaeda operatives travelling between Pakistan and the Middle East, the terror network's regard within the country has remained murky. Religious difference between the Sunni-extremist al-Qaeda and Shia Iran is thought to fuel a long-standing animosity between the two.
One counter-terrorism expert appearing before the subcommittee – held under the auspices of the House committee on homeland security – admitted the link deserved further investigation.
"It's not news that al-Qaeda has had a presence in Iran," said Richard Daddario, the New York Police Department's deputy commissioner for counter-terrorism. "How hospitable that hosting has been … is something worth thinking about."
U.S. and Canadian agencies are still investigating the possibility of cross-border accomplices in thes alleged plot. One official said there was "another shoe to drop" in the case.