Chiheb Esseghaier, the native Tunisian arrested in Montreal for allegedly conspiring to attack a passenger train, has been described by many who knew him as a diligent student whose behavior had grown erratic since moving to Canada for graduate study.
Esseghaier, 30, was apprehended by authorities Monday.
From 2001 to 2008, Essaghaier, studied at the National Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology (INSAT) in Tunis, where he received a bachelor’s in industrial biology and a master’s degree in industrial biotechnology. Faculty there described him as a respectful student and diligent worker to Canadian newspaper La Presse.
A former teacher, Mohammed Boussaid, told the newspaper that he did not believe Esseghaier had any friends at the school and had no contact with girls. Another teacher, Adnene Abdelghani, said he was shy and respectful of his teachers’ authority. La Presse reported that he received good grades and had no documented behavioral problems at INSAT.
But while living and studying in Canada, where he moved in 2008 for graduate work in biotechnology, his colleagues and neighbors perceived him much differently. The National Post interviewed a colleague who said Esseghaier had torn down posters of women, which he found offensive, and that he “was very religiously strict.”
Reports from neighbors in Canada highlight erratic behavior and a religiously devout life. La Presse reports that Esseghaier was evicted from his apartment in December after complaints from neighbors about his actions, including making loud noises late at night and an instance in which he allegedly lit a charcoal grill indoors. Authorities became increasingly concerned last spring after Esseghaier behaved erratically on a plane to Mexico.
Esseghaier was arrested Monday in Montreal, according to the Toronto Star, for plotting to destroy a passenger train by blowing up a railroad bridge.
He allegedly made contact with a member of Al Qaeda before moving from Tunisia to Canada in 2008, and met his alleged accomplice, a Palestinian with U.A.E. citizenship, at a mosque in Canada in 2009, according to the Toronto Star. Canadian officials say that the plot was assisted by elements of Al Qaeda.
“We know that this Criminal Code is not a holy book,” the Toronto Star reports him as saying yesterday in a hearing before the court. “It’s just written by set of creations and the creations they’re not perfect because only the creator is perfect.”
Members of Esseghaier’s family in Tunis were interviewed yesterday by the Montreal paper La Presse. His father asserted that his son would never commit murder, and that Islam was “a moral support” for him. According to the article, Esseghaier had been in close contact with the family, calling and emailing them regularly, and they noticed no change in his speech or behavior recently. The family believed that he was the subject of racial and religious profiling, according to the article.
“I have known him since he was born. I am convinced they went after him just because of his appearance, because he is Tunisian, because he is a Muslim and because he wears a beard. And that is not a sufficient reason in a democracy like Canada,” the Toronto Star quoted his aunt as saying.