How Toronto's Muslim Community Uncovered the Would-Be Train Bombers

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Police officers watch a train pass in a subway station in Montreal on May 10, 2012. (Reuters)

After last week's deadly bombing in Boston, news that Toronto foiled its own terrorist attack might have come as a relief.

A plot to blow up a rail line between Canada and the U.S. was thwarted on Monday, and Canadian police have arrested two suspects, Chiheb Esseghaier, of Montreal, and Raed Jaser, of Toronto.

But the most surprising part of the story might be how the suspects were discovered: They were turned in, reports say, by leaders of their own community.

Muhammed Robert Heft, who runs Toronto's Paradise Forever Islamic Center, says that one of the suspects -- he won't say which -- started expressing extremist beliefs to a member of the city's Muslim leadership a year ago.

"They were espousing some views that were starting to ruffle feathers and make people uncomfortable," Heft said. "They focused on demonizing Western society and suggesting that there has to be some kind of retribution or revenge for the perceived grievances of this individual."

The community leader -- Heft declined to give his name -- became concerned, and suggested to Heft that he monitor the suspect.

"It went to a stage where it was a constant topic of conversation. The community leader realized that the person was not changing their views. They worried that something might eventually happen," he explained.

Heft says that when members of the Islamic community there regularly express extremist views, an Imam or other religious leader would call in Heft or another higher-up to try to convince the person of a more moderate point of view. If the person continued to try to gain converts to radical Islam, his name might be passed along to the police.

That's apparently what happened this time, and it worked. Reports show that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police believed the two suspects had the capacity to carry out the attack, but there was no imminent threat to the public, passengers, or infrastructure -- until Monday.

In a week of terrible news and, in some corners, rising Islamophobia, this is a small but promising sign that religious groups can be capable -- and sometimes incredibly deft -- at policing extremists within their own ranks.

Heft shrugged off the idea that some Muslims might oppose the religious leaders' practice of turning in militant members of their own religion.

"The vast majority gets it, they're proud of the fact that we're involved in the front lines," he said. "At the end of the day, they didn't want anything to happen in Canada either."

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.


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