The arrest here of a Saudi dissident allegedly linked to a terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. service personnel threw a spotlight Friday on what Canadian authorities call a supportive “infrastructure” in Canada for the violent Islamist group Hezbollah.
While it is little remarked upon in Canada, authorities have known for years of fund-raising and other activities that go on here in support of Muslim radicals and other violent groups, anti-terrorism experts said Friday. The extent of the support network remains a matter of disagreement because few details of these operations leak out of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS.
“What is surmised is that in the past Canada has been used by some of these groups as a safe house. The premise is that there are no attacks on Canadians or Canadian assets because it’s valuable [to terrorists] because of its proximity to the United States. But where’s the evidence? Nobody knows but CSIS,” said Janice Stein, a professor at the University of Toronto who is a specialist on the Mideast.
In a 19-page summary of evidence released Friday in support of government efforts to deport Hani Abdel Rahim Hussein Sayegh, accused of being a key participant in the June 1996 truck bombing, Canadian authorities reported that “Hezbollah has established an infrastructure in Canada that can assist and support terrorists seeking a safe haven in North America. Hezbollah members in Canada receive and comply with direction from the Hezbollah leadership hierarchy in Lebanon.”
CSIS spokesman Gaetan Blais said Friday that terrorist support would include logistics assistance, fund-raising, provision of safe houses and arms, smuggling people in and out of the United States and providing a place for planning attacks abroad. He declined to elaborate further.
Additional documents released here Friday in the Sayegh case provide few new details on Hezbollah operations in Canada, but they do describe his extensive anti-government activities in Saudi Arabia, which eventually forced him to flee the country.
The court records also suggest that immigration officials were suspicious of Sayegh from the day of his arrival in Canada last August.
His passport was seized at the Ottawa airport after an immigration officer judged it a forgery. The physical description in the passport did not match that of Sayegh, and the plastic cover over the photograph had been separated from the backing.
In his application for permanent residence in Canada as a political refugee from Saudi Arabia, Sayegh, 28, said that as a Shiite Muslim he was a member of an oppressed minority in Saudi Arabia, which is mainly Sunni Muslim.
He said that his brother and a cousin had been tortured and imprisoned for dissident activities, and that his own actions included anti-government writings, organizing and participating in street demonstrations, teaching religion classes and recruiting youths to the cause. He said he stepped up his activities following the arrival of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia for the Persian Gulf War.
The continued presence of American service personnel has angered many religious conservatives in the kingdom who are hostile to Western influences.
Fearful that he would follow his brother and cousin to prison, Sayegh said, he fled to Syria.
In an interview with The Times this week, Sayegh also said he studied religion in Qom, Iran, for four years, but he denied being a member of Hezbollah or any other terrorist group.
Saudi intelligence advised the U.S., however, that while in Syria, Sayegh served as a “spotter” for Hezbollah.
He recruited young zealots, some of whom were sent to Lebanon for guerrilla training, according to American intelligence sources.
Canadian court documents accuse Sayegh of scouting the Saudi bombing site, a military housing complex, before the attack and of giving the go-ahead for delivery of the truck bomb by flashing his headlights.
Joyce Yedid, Sayegh’s Montreal lawyer, said there is no hard evidence of Sayegh’s alleged crimes in the documents released so far, which include more than 500 pages, mainly copies of newspaper and magazine articles.
“We’d like to get more information. At this point, it’s nothing,” she said.
The federal judge who reviewed the case Thursday permitted authorities to withhold sensitive intelligence from the information made public. Sayegh was ordered to remain in custody pending another hearing April 28.
The court file identifies him as a member of Saudi Hezbollah and says that the organization has links with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Lebanese organization is closely allied with Iran.
Proof of Iranian involvement in the bombing could prompt a retaliatory strike by the United States, but a senior U.S. official said the administration still does not have conclusive evidence of that.
Compared with tightly knit Hezbollah cells in Lebanon, the Saudi group is considered poorly organized and until recently was thought to have limited impact or powers, according to Magnus Ranstorp, author of an upcoming book on Hezbollah and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence in Britain.
Iran’s role in the Saudi organization is also unclear.
“There’s no direct evidence yet of Iran pulling strings within this group,” Ranstorp said in a telephone interview.
Some experts were similarly cautious about drawing connections between the bombing and activities in Canada on behalf of Hezbollah.
“Is there a full-blown organization in Canada? I doubt it,” said Larry Johnson, a former senior counter-terrorism official at the U.S. State Department.
But John Thompson, a terrorism expert and director of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto think tank, said Hezbollah regularly raises funds at mosques in Toronto, Montreal and other Canadian cities, ostensibly on behalf of schools, orphanages and nonviolent activities. But there is no way to determine where the funds actually end up, he said.
Canada’s generous immigration law, particularly toward those claiming refugee status, makes it easier for terrorism suspects to move in and out of this country undetected than in most other Western nations. A country of 30 million, Canada admits up to 215,000 immigrants annually.
In recent years, the government has been embarrassed by revelations that suspected Nazi collaborators, accused war criminals from Somalia and Rwanda and gang members from the Caribbean made it past immigration authorities and in many cases were able to resist efforts to deport them.
Turner reported from Ottawa and Wright from Washington.