In this bucolic setting along Lake Champlain, a short distance from the popular ski slopes of Mt. Mansfield and Sugarbush, nothing could be further from mind than international terrorism.
Yet two Lebanese-born Canadians are now standing trial here on charges that they tried to smuggle a bomb into the United States. The two men, along with a third Canadian of Lebanese descent who Tuesday pleaded guilty in the case, were all arrested last Oct. 23 in a border town in rural Vermont at a time when Iran was threatening to retaliate against the United States for American military actions in the Persian Gulf.
No evidence has come to light linking the three with these Iranian threats. However, there have been indications that the men had other international connections, and the extraordinary case has renewed official concern about the ease with which violence stemming from the Middle East could spill over into the United States.
According to evidence unveiled over the last few days, one of the defendants, Walid Nicolas Kabbani, 36, made a quick trip from his home in Montreal to the European capitals of Amsterdam and Belgrade last Oct. 8 to 15.
Eight nights later, Kabbani was arrested by a Vermont police officer after he was observed walking after dark along railroad tracks just inside the border, carrying a black duffel bag that contained a bomb, a black glove and a black hooded mask.
In court, the defense lawyers have chosen not to challenge the government’s evidence but instead argued that anything improper they may have done took place outside the United States and is, therefore, not a federal crime.
“Your job is not to decide, ‘Are they good people or bad people?’ ” Kabbani’s local lawyer, Mark Keller of Burlington, told the jury.
And so the intriguing case has become less a whodunit than a whydunit, with a number of curious facets. Who are the three men who were caught at the border and what were they trying to do?
The three men, Kabbani, Walid Majib Mourad and George Fouad Nicolas Younan, were all natives of Lebanon who had moved with their families to Montreal over the last 15 years and obtained Canadian citizenship.
In Textile Business
All three were said to be in the textile business in Montreal. Younan, 45, who has six children in Montreal, runs a textile firm called Jo Ann Confection Co. Mourad, 38, owns a company called Exercise that makes sports clothes. All three are said to be Christians, members of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Neither Kabbani nor Younan will testify at their trial, which is expected to conclude early next week, their lawyers say. Both Keller and Younan’s lawyer, Arthur P. Anderson of Burlington, maintain that Kabbani’s October trip to Europe was a benign one unrelated to the bomb or the subsequent trip to the United States. “He told me he was importing clothes,” Keller said.
“Where Americans tend to go to Florida, these Canadians go to Europe,” Anderson told The Times. “Maybe it’s because they speak French.”
The legal defense for the two is being directed by a Montreal lawyer, Danielle Roy, who arranged for Keller and Anderson to serve as local counsel. Roy declined to say who is paying the legal fees for Kabbani and Younan. When asked about the sources for the defense funds, she replied: “That’s going a bit far, don’t you think?”
Mourad--the defendant who entered a guilty plea last Tuesday--was represented by Richard C. Shadyac, a Washington lawyer who has represented Libyan government interests in the United States for more than a decade. Shadyac told The Times that he was retained by Mourad’s family in Canada. “I’m not getting a nickel from the Libyans or anyone else,” he said.
Federal officials here refuse to discuss the question of where the three men were heading in the United States or what political connections they may have had. “There is no secret that the investigation is continuing,” says U.S. Atty. George Terwilliger III, and one government source suggested that the investigation eventually may lead to subsequent trials involving others besides these three men.
A private Washington newsletter called Counter Terrorism, which is distributed to American police and security officials, last November identified Younan as “an explosives expert with links to the Parti Socialist Nationaliste Syrien (PSNS) . . . a left-wing pro-Syrian organization based in South Lebanon and best known for a number of suicide attacks against Israeli positions in 1984-5.”
The publication said that this Syrian group recently had split with groups sympathetic to the Palestine Liberation Organization. It said that the three men arrested in Vermont “may have been targeting pro-PLO offices or individuals in the U.S.”
Terwilliger and other federal officials declined to comment on this report. Anderson, Younan’s attorney, said: “I’ve heard he (Younan) was associated with a group that was in favor of reuniting Lebanon with Syria. But it was a pacifist group, not a terrorist group.”
Shadyac said that his client, Mourad, had done work in Canada for a charitable group called “Save Lebanon,” which helped to bring injured children to North America for medical treatment.
It was only because of a bit of observant work by a small-town police chief that authorities managed to arrest the three men.
Mourad and Younan drove a silver Chevrolet van across the border checkpoint at Richford, Vt., at about 8:40 p.m. on the night of Oct. 23. Working at the border, Donald Grant of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service questioned the men and searched the car, but he saw nothing unusual and let them pass.
“They said they were going to Boston for the weekend,” Grant said in his trial testimony this week.
Shortly after 10 p.m. that night, Richard Jewett, the newly appointed police chief for Richford (pop. 1,500), was driving through town when he saw someone carrying a black bag and walking along the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks that run from Canada into Vermont. The man was only 20 feet from a silver Chevrolet van parked on private property near the tracks.
Jewett testified that he did not then see any connection between the man on foot and the van. He first told the van’s occupants to move it and then, a few minutes later, decided to return to question the man on foot. When the man, who identified himself as Kabbani, gave what seemed to be confusing and contradictory accounts of what he was doing in the area, the police officer drove him to the border checkpoint for further questioning.
Later that night, Jewett remembered that when he had first seen Kabbani, he was carrying a black bag but that when he returned, the man was empty-handed. When the police chief searched the area alongside the railroad tracks, he found a black bag, and inside were two blue propane cylinders containing more than three pounds of gunpowder and a medicine bottle with wires attached.
The following morning, Younan and Mourad were arrested outside a Richford motel where they had parked the van for the night.
Subsequent investigation by the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found a series of connections linking the three men, including Younan’s fingerprints on the bomb that was in the black bag.
Also, credit card records showed that Kabbani had been in Amsterdam and Belgrade on the October trip, and phone records showed that he had called Mourad’s Montreal residence from a Holiday Inn in Amsterdam.
Kabbani and Younan were charged with transporting explosive devices in interstate commerce and with violating the immigration laws because of what the government claims was Kabbani’s illegal entry into the United States. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 30 years. The defense lawyers are now arguing that the government does not have sufficient evidence for conviction on these charges.
Mourad was permitted to plead guilty Tuesday to a reduced charge of conspiring to transport explosives and to an immigration violation. As a result, he could be imprisoned for up to 10 years. He is not expected to testify at the trial.
“He (Mourad) has not made any statement (to the government),” Shadyac said. He said that Mourad pleaded guilty because “based on the advice of counsel, he was willing to accept a plea-bargain.”
The trial itself is being conducted in a relatively relaxed fashion. The jury is not sequestered, visitors to the courtroom are not searched with a metal detector and the defendants do not wear handcuffs in court. Kabbani wears a gray sweat shirt at the trial, while Younan dresses in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie.
Federal officials acknowledge that the effort to carry the bomb into this country nearly succeeded. “We were within 20 feet of this being another incident,” acknowledged one law-enforcement source. “That’s how close he (Kabbani) was to getting in that van” at the time he was observed by Jewett.
The U.S. Border Patrol has electronic sensors along the Canadian border in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire--sensors that are set off by movement. In fact, authorities say, the sensors went off that night, at approximately the time prosecutors believe Kabbani entered the country. But it was Jewett, not Border Patrol agents, who found Kabbani.
New Meaning to Life
For Jewett--a police chief with no lieutenants, the commander of a force of one, a pudgy, bespectacled man who wears baggy old corduroys to court--the bomb case and the attraction it has brought have given new meaning to life. He has even received a letter of congratulations from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
Police work “does get old fast,” he told a reporter while waiting to testify at the trial. “It’s a thankless job, so something like this makes it worth it.”
Moreover, the arrests and the discovery of the bomb have made his job a little easier. “This woke up people in the town,” Jewett says. “When people see a suspicious vehicle in the village, they call it in to me now.”