NEW: One of the suspects was a doctoral student at the University of Quebec
Iran denies allegations that al Qaeda is operating inside its borders
Rep. Peter King tells CNN the targeted train was "going from Canada to the U.S."
The suspects "were receiving support from al Qaeda elements in Iran," police say
Canadian authorities have arrested two men accused of planning to carry out an al Qaeda-supported attack against a passenger train traveling between Canada and the United States, a U.S. congressman told CNN on Monday.
“As I understand it, it was a train going from Canada to the U.S.,” Rep. Peter King, R-New York, chairman of the counterterrorism and intelligence subcommittee, said.
The news follows an announcement earlier in the day by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that they had arrested Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35.
The two men are charged with “receiving support from al Qaeda elements in Iran” to carry out an attack and conspiring to murder people on a VIA railway train in the greater Toronto area, Assistant Police Commissioner James Malizia said.
“When I speak about supported, I mean direction and guidance,” he said.
Despite the allegation of links to al Qaeda in Iran, there was no evidence to suggest the planned attacks were state-sponsored, Malizia said.
Iran vehemently denied the allegations that al Qaeda was operating inside its borders.
“Iran’s position against this group is very clear and well known,” according to a statement released by Iran’s mission to the United Nations.
“Al Qaeda has no possibility to do any activity inside Iran or conduct any operation abroad from Iran’s territory, and we reject strongly and categorically any connection to this story.”
Neither the Canadian authorities nor King identified the exact route of the targeted train.
Essenghaier, of Montreal, and Jaser, of Toronto, will make their first court appearance on Tuesday, police said.
Authorities said the suspects were not Canadian citizens, but declined to identify their nationality or how long they had been in Canada.
Essenghaier has been a doctoral student at the National Institute of Scientific Research at the University of Quebec since 2010, Julie Martineau, the university spokeswoman, said.
He was conducting research on nanosensors, which are primarily used for medical treatments or to build other nanoproducts, such as computer chips, she said.
“I cannot comment on any behavior issues. He seemed like a normal student,” Martineau said.
There was no link between the Canadian investigation and the Boston Marathon bomb attack, an official with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told CNN on condition of anonymity.
Canadian authorities were tight-lipped about the planned time frame of the alleged attack except to say it was in the planning stage and not imminent.
“We are alleging these two individuals took steps and conducted activities to conduct a terrorist attack,” Jennifer Strachan of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told reporters.
“They watched trains and railways in the greater Toronto area.”
The alleged attack included a plan to derail a passenger train, she said.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation quoted “highly placed sources” as saying the suspects were under surveillance for more than a year.
The CBC reported that the investigation was “part of a cross-border operation involving Canadian law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
Al Qaeda has long studied the possibility of attacks on railroad systems – seeing them as cheap, relatively easy to carry out and with potentially devastating results.
The organization and its sympathizers have plotted attacks on railway systems in Spain and Germany. More than 200 people were killed and 1,700 injured in an attack that targeted several commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004.
In a document seized during the raid in Pakistan that left Osama bin Laden dead was evidence of an al Qaeda discussion to target rail lines in the United States, a law enforcement official told CNN in late 2011.
According to the document, al Qaeda members discussed as early as 2010 a plan to derail trains in the United States by placing obstructions on tracks over bridges and in valleys.
The plan, according to the document, was to be executed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, though no specific rail system was identified, the official said.
News of the arrests Monday came the same day Canada’s parliament debated an anti-terrorism bill.
Traditionally, al Qaeda’s membership is seen as Sunni-dominated and not Shiite.
As a result, al Qaeda and Iran have not been viewed as allies.
“We have very little intelligence on al Qaeda in Iran,” King said.
What is known is that bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, fled Afghanistan for Iran after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
According to U.S. documents and officials, in addition to Abu Ghaith, other members of bin Laden’s inner circle ended up in Iran, including the formidable military commander of al Qaeda, Saif al-Adel, and Saad bin Laden, one of the al Qaeda leader’s older sons who has played some kind of leadership role in the group.
Saad bin Laden also helped one of his father’s wives and several of his father’s children to move from Pakistan to Iran, officials said.
CNN’s Catherine Shoichet, Jack Maddox, Tim Lister, Wolf Blitzer, Steve Almasy and Paula Newton contributed to this report.