International media attention has been focused on Canada since the arrest last Friday of 17 Muslims from the Toronto area who had purchased three tons of ammonium nitrate in an anti-terror sting operation, intending to use it to blow up prominent targets inside Canada. This case illustrates the terror threat from up North, both from suspects who enter Canada from abroad, (which has prompted some US intelligence officials to deride Canada, calling it “the aircraft carrier”, due to the ease with which terrorists take off and land in North America), and their own homegrown terrorists, exemplified by the suspects taken into custody last week.
It should be remembered that the border shared by Canada and the United States is 5,522 miles long, including 1,539 miles between Canada and Alaska (which is not manned at any point). It is known as “the world’s longest undefended border,” one that 275,000 individuals cross each day to enter the US.
One Islamic terrorist who tried to cross that border into the US was Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian al-Qaeda operative, who was caught by US Border agents on December 14, 1999 at the Port of Angeles in Washington State with a car loaded with explosives intended for use in bombing the Los Angeles International Airport during the Millennium celebrations.
Fortunately, Ahmed Ressam was caught.
Revisiting the Canadian connection to the Millennium terror plot is instructive to how large the terror problem really is up north. But if Canadians continue to give way to their suicidal immigration policies and their lackadaisical attitude to their own terror problem, the results next time for America may not have quite a happy ending. Ignoring the threat, much like the Canadian authorities did in the case of Ahmed Ressam, will never make it go away.
Reading through the extensive coverage by the Seattle Times of Ressam’s plot to terrorize America and his providential capture just days before the Millennium celebration is like watching a car accident while it happens, except that the Canadians had a number of opportunities along the way to do something to prevent it. Most of the information in this article is taken from those Seattle Times stories.
Ressam’s tale begins when Air Canada Flight 871 landed from France at Mirabel Airport in Montreal on February 20, 1994 carrying Ressam. Except he was carrying a passport bearing the name Tahar Medjadi. When Canadian Inspector Real Genest recognized the fake passport and asked Ressam if it was forged, Ressam truthfully replied that it was. He then spun a wild story for immigration officials about he had been imprisoned and tortured in Algeria for selling firearms to a terrorist and was fleeing for his life.
Ordinarily, you might think that arriving with a forged passport and admitting (falsely) to having been arrested in Algeria for associating with terrorists would give Canadian immigration officials pause, whether he was falsely accused or not. But they didn’t. Instead, they issued him a court date to plead his immigration case and released him, telling him he should hire an attorney to help convince an immigration judge to grant him permanent-resident status.
The first thing that Ressam did was sign up for welfare – an almost automatic occurrence for immigrants arriving in Canada, who are all offered welfare payments, free health care, access to schools and the immediate right to work.
Ressam did hire the attorney that immigration officials suggested that he get. One of the first things his lawyer, Denis Burton, did was call Ressam to inquire why he had missed his scheduled court date. “I forgot,” Burton was told.
He was arrested by Canadian police, fingerprinted, and released once again, even after the immigration judge denied his application request.
The revolving door of immigration in Canada is best demonstrated by the case of Mahmoud Mohammad, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist. Mohammad’s story was told in a September 2003 60 Minutes report, North of the Border, and elaborated upon by Daniel Pipes in his article, Canada’s Immigration Chaos. In 1968 charged an El Al plane at Athens Airport with grenades and an automatic weapon. One of the plane’s passengers was killed. After being sentenced to jail in Greece, he was released in a prisoner exchange. He and his family found their way to Canada in 1987 using fake names. After 40 immigration court hearings, one of which Daniel Pipes testified at on behalf of our Justice Department urging Mohammad’s deportation, and a $3 million cost to Canadian taxpayers for his defense, the terrorist still lives in Brantford, Ontario, where he owns a small grocery store.
But back to Ahmed Ressam. While he was receiving $550 a month welfare payments from the Canadian tax coffers, Ressam decided to supplement his income by doing what anyone looking to impress his host country would do – becoming a criminal.
On January 30, 1995, Ressam and a friend entered the upscale Eaton’s department store in Montreal. Store security watched the men as they attempted to steal several $1,000 Armani suits. They were quickly apprehended. When the pair was brought before the court, the judge hammered them with a $100 fine and six months probation. Ressam was also told he had until July 23, 1995 to leave the country – or else.
With his pricey shoplifting habit exposed, Ressam looked for a new part-time job to supplement his welfare payments – stalking and robbing tourists of their cash, traveler’s checks, IDs, credit cards and passports. This new career brought him into contact with Fateh Kamel, an Algerian store owner who had married a Canadian, and also had ties to the Algerian GIA terrorist organization. He had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, and continued his jihadist career in Bosnia. Now he was buying Ressam’s tourist loot.
But Ressam didn’t fare well in this new career either. In October 1996, he was arrested for pick pocketing. Now he was going to court three months past his last possible departure date and as a repeat offender. Taking this into consideration, the judge threw the book at him: a $500 fine, and another two years probation. Ressam was a free man yet again.
Unbeknownst to Ressam and his circle of friends, French terrorist judge Jean-Louis Bruguière contacted the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) warning them that Fateh Kamel was organizing a terrorist cell in Montreal. At first, CSIS ignored Bruguière’s warning, but began conducting surveillance after Italian intelligence authorities approached the Canadians with the same information. They eventually compiled a 400-page dossier on Kamel, Ressam and their associates (identified in intelligence reports as BOG, “Bunch of Guys”) and recorded hundreds of hours of conversations between the men.
But Canadian intelligence authorities refused to share the information with Canadian law enforcement. Among the things they didn’t share were recorded conversations between Ressam and Abderraouf Hannachi, an al-Qaeda recruiter and close associate of al-Qaeda terror training camp supervisor, Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaeda’s Number 3 man.
Hannachi arranged for Ressam to travel to Afghanistan for training. But before leaving, Ressam obtained a Canadian passport by using a forged baptismal certificate from a local Catholic parish. That and a photograph was all that was needed. In March 1998, Ressam jetted off to ultimate jihadist vacation spot, the Taliban’s Afghanistan. CSIS agents were listening when Ressam’s friends threw him a going-away party – one of over 400 conversations recorded involving Ressam, including recordings of him boasting about his new Canadian identity.
While Ressam was a guest of al-Qaeda, the group pulled off the near-simultaneous bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Once in Afghanistan, he was given extensive training in firearms, explosives, and other terrorist tactics. He was later given a high-level six-week course in bomb construction. His new handler, Abu Doha, an Algerian living in London, told Ressam he would be part of a new cell in Montreal intended to wage war against the Great Satan itself – the United States. Potential targets were identified, and a date was chosen. The jihad would commence to coincide with the Millennium celebrations.
In January 1999, Ressam flew back to Canada. One stop on his trip home was a layover at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
One surprise to greet him upon his return was news that Fateh Kemal had been arrested in Jordan after the French terrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, had tracked him down. Bruguière insisted to Canadian authorities that Kemal’s associates also be rounded up and charged with abetting terrorism. They refused.
Meanwhile, Ressam was deciding how to attack LAX: with one large detonation; or two bombs, the second intended to kill police, fire and rescue workers. He turned to an old roommate, fellow-Algerian Mourad Ikhlef, for advice. Ikhlef had fled their homeland before he had been convicted for planting a bomb at the Algiers airport in 1992 that killed 11 and injured more than 100. The two decided that the LAX attack would be only one bomb, but positioned at the massive security checkpoint that was certain to be filled with New Years travelers.
On October 2, 1999, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police finally paid Ressam a visit, finally responding to Bruguière’s request five months earlier to arrest Fateh Kamel’s associates. Ressam, however, was able to flee out the back door and escape because the RCMP had not positioned any personnel at the back of Ressam’s apartment.
In the weeks that followed, Ressam prepared for the LAX attack. He contacted Abu Jaffar, a close associate of Osama bin Laden, to get the al-Qaeda chief’s blessing for the attack. He learned that other attacks were planned for American and Israeli targets in Jordan at the same time.
At the same time, Canadian intelligence was sifting through the evidence gathered at Ressam’s apartment, which was forwarded to Bruguière back in France, who demanded that Ressam be found and arrested.
On November 17, 1999, Ressam flew from Montreal to Vancouver. In the weeks that followed, he and an associate huddled in a rented bungalow building the bomb to be used in the LAX attack.
As Ressam prepared to leave Vancouver with a trunk full of jihad, his associate flew back to Montreal. On December 14th, Ressam boarded the ferry to cross to Port Angeles, Washington and enter the US. Upon the ferry’s arrival, Ressam’s car was the last off the boat. That’s where he encountered US Border Agent Diane Dean, who asked a few standard questions. When Ressam had trouble answering the questions and began acting nervous, it tipped Dean off. She asked him to open his trunk.
The activity prompted several other Border Patrol inspectors to come over and assist. The agents were concerned that the car may be smuggling drugs. Inspector Mark Johnson asked the driver for some identification. Ressam handed him a Costco card. While Johnson was asking him to empty his pockets, another inspector had opened the spare tire compartment to find the space filled with bags of white powder, black boxes and jars full of liquid. Ressam noticed that the bomb components had been discovered. As he was being patted down, he slipped out of his coat and began running away from the border agents. He was quickly caught.
What two appearances before Canadian criminal courts, missed immigration court dates, countless hours of surveillance, one failed RCMP raid, and constant pressure from Jean-Louis Bruguière and the French and Italian intelligence agencies could not accomplish, US Border Patrol had successfully nabbed Ahmed Ressam in his first ten minutes on American soil.
The morning after Ressam had been apprehended at the US/Canadian border, FBI Agent Fred Humphries of the Seattle Field Office and several other federal officials arrived at Port Angeles to take over the investigation. Working with the RCMP, they were able to identify Ressam within two days. It would take a few more before it was determined that the materials Ressam was transporting were ammonium nitrate and nitroglycerin.
The following week Humphries flew to New York to meet with Jean-Louis Bruguière, who informed the FBI agent that he had informed Canadian authorities about the Montreal cell more than four years earlier.
Fortunately, the New Year passed without incident.
Humphries would fly more than 300,000 miles in the following months following up leads on the case. It wasn’t until he flew to Montreal to meet with CSIS officials in May 2000 – five months after Ressam’s arrest – that the Canadians revealed to the FBI that they had more than 400 hours of recorded conversations involving the would-be terrorist. Even at that, they informed the FBI that most of the recordings had been destroyed, and only summaries of the conversations remained. Humphries also found an important clue in the evidence that the Canadians had overlooked – a map of the Los Angeles area with all three of the local airports circled. They now knew the target of the attack.
When Ressam came to trial in US Federal Court in March 2001, Canadian intelligence authorities were under pressure from politicians in Ottawa for them not to testify. The US Department of Justice intervened and got the Canadian government to back off.
Ahmed Ressam was eventually convicted by a jury of multiple counts of conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism. He was facing to 57 to 130 years in prison when the Department of Justice approached his attorneys with a deal to reduce his sentence to 27 years if he divulged everything he knew about al-Qaeda, their tactics, training and intentions, and testified against other members of the Montreal cell. He took the deal.
It was May 2001 – almost seventeen months after he was detailed at Port Angeles – before the FBI first had the opportunity to interview Ressam. It was also four months before September 11, 2001. It was only after the 9/11 attacks, however, that FBI officials asked Ressam about Zacharias Moussaoui, another Algerian that he recognized as one of his fellow trainees at the al-Qaeda camp at Khalden, Afghanistan in 1998.
Canadian authorities had any number of opportunities to defuse the ticking terrorist time bomb that was Ahmed Ressam:
- In February 1994, when he first entered their country and admitted that he was using a fake passport.
- When Ressam missed his first immigration court hearing, after which he was arrested, fingerprinted, and released.
- In January 1995, when he and a friend were arrested for shoplifting in downtown Montreal, where they were given a stiff sentence of $100 and two years probation, and a warning to leave the country before July 25, 1995.
- In October 1996, when he was arrested again for pick pocketing a tourist and it was discovered that he had in fact not left the country as he was ordered. The judge imposed a draconian penalty of $500 and another two years probation.
- When the CSIS began investigation the Montreal Algerian cell at the urging of French terror judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, who they ignored.
- When Italian intelligence shared with CSIS the same information that the French had several months before.
- As the CSIS recorded hundreds of hours of conversations involving Ressam, where he talked about his criminal activities, his obtaining a Canadian passport with only a forged baptismal certificate, and his plans to travel to Afghanistan to receive terrorist training at an al-Qaeda camp.
- Upon his return to Canada from Afghanistan in January 1999, using the fake Canadian passport he left the country with.
- When they refused Jean-Louis Bruguière’s request to sweep up the rest of Fateh Kamel’s Montreal cell after his arrest in Jordan.
- On October 2, 1999, when the RCMP finally responded to Bruguière’s call and raided the house where Ressam was staying, only to allow him to escape out the back door after they forgot (presumably) to cover all of the exits.
At any point along this twisted path, the Canadians could have dealt decisively with the terror threat they knew existed in their midst. It might be speculative, but it isn’t unreasonable, given the detailed information about al-Qaeda operations and personnel that he was privy to, that Ressam’s interception before December 1999 might well have broken the chain of events that eventually led to 9/11. We will never know.
But it also shouldn’t be forgotten that the complicity of the Canadians in Ressam’s intended attack didn’t end with his capture by our own Border Patrol. The evidence of his intended LAX target had been gathered up in their October 1999 raid, but never picked up on, and it was months before they told the FBI about the 400 hours of conversations they had recorded and later destroyed. It can’t be ignored, either, that their government expressed grave reservations about having their intelligence agents testify at Ressam’s US federal trial, and only relented after our Justice Department leaned heavily on our “friends” and “allies”.
Reviewing these events related to the Canadian connection with the Millennium LAX terrorist plot has prompted me to ask three questions:
- With terrorist havens like Canada rife with external and homegrown terrorist threats on the other side of our northern border, and the Canucks serving as such willing hosts and unwilling partners with the US in fighting terrorism, who needs enemies?
- When President Bush announced just days after 9/11 that the US would no longer tolerate countries that harbored terrorists, could any American have imagined that the new Bush Doctrine would hit so close to home, sandwiched in between Alaska and the Lower 48?
- How soon will it be before the US is no longer able to dodge the terrorist bullets coming rapid-fire from the barrel of the Canadian gun pointed at our northern border, and how high will the toll be from the deadly game of Canadian roulette?
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