Canada’s Immigration Policies Face Criticism
The two-story beige-brick row houses on Malicorne Avenue in the middle-class Anjou district of Montreal could not appear more nondescript, more innocuous. Yet in one apartment here, according to court testimony, Arab terrorists who were trained in Afghanistan hatched plots including a planned New Year’s Eve bombing of Los Angeles International Airport.
The attempt by Montreal-based Algerian Ahmed Ressam to blow up LAX on Dec. 31, 1999, was foiled when he was caught Dec. 14 trying to smuggle a car filled with explosives from Vancouver to Port Angeles, Wash.
His testimony against alleged accomplices this summer shed chilling light on at least one of the cells linked to Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden--and led to the indictment by a U.S. grand jury just two weeks ago of an alleged Bin Laden henchman.
So far, Canadian and U.S. authorities have said there is no evidence of any Canadian connection to last week’s attacks in the United States.
Despite initial reports that two of the attackers might have entered from Canada, Foreign Minister John Manley said Sunday, “We’ve received no indication, zero indication, that any of these people entered the United States from Canada.”
Still, the U.S. attacks have prompted demands in Canada to tighten what critics call generous immigration and asylum policies and step up funding for Canada’s intelligence service to ensure that such extremists are tracked down and caught.
Well before the U.S. attacks, a report issued by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in May 2000 acknowledged, “Over the past 15 years, we have witnessed a disturbing trend as terrorists move from significant support roles, such as fund-raising and procurement, to actually planning and preparing terrorist acts from Canadian territory.”
And in 1999, an expert on Islamic groups, Morteda Zabouri of the University of Montreal, said: “Now that the U.S. is a target, Canada is a good place to raise money, create false documents and attack from. It’s just next door.”
In August, complaints by B’nai B’rith prompted Canadian authorities to investigate a Web site where a contributor had posted a call for jihad, or holy war, and for volunteers to receive military training in Afghanistan. The site subsequently moved to the United States, but it renewed fears that an extremist fringe remains active in Canada’s large Muslim community, which is concentrated here in the French-speaking province of Quebec.
Evidence of the Anjou network unfolded after the arrest of Ressam, who came to Montreal as an asylum seeker in 1994 and later lived under a different passport that he obtained fraudulently. A U.S. Customs officer caught him as he tried to smuggle his explosives-filled car into the U.S. en route to a planned rendezvous at LAX on New Year’s Eve 1999.
Ressam was convicted of nine counts of terrorism in Los Angeles in April. Then, in hopes of a lighter sentence, he began revealing details of the terrorist network in Montreal.
At the trial of an alleged accomplice in New York in July, Ressam and another Montreal conspirator, Abdel Ghani Meskini, testified against a onetime comrade, Mokhtar Haouari. Ressam told the court that he went through a six-month training course in Afghanistan in 1998, premised on an Islamic edict to kill Americans.
Ressam testified that he was taught to conduct urban warfare and sabotage, with targets he said could include airports, power plants and big corporations.
When asked if he had been taught to attack civilian targets, he responded: “If one was to carry out an operation, it would be best to hit the biggest enemy.”
On the same day that Ressam was convicted in Los Angeles, a judge in Paris found him guilty in absentia on a terrorism-related charge. Judge Michele Bernard-Requin had brought charges against two dozen suspects in all.
At the start of the Paris trial in February, the judge accused the group of using the apartment in the Anjou district as a base for providing funds, false documents and recruits for terrorist activities. French prosecutors identified the leader of the group as Fateh Kamel, who ran a Montreal store selling North African trinkets.
Kamel was convicted and sentenced in France to eight years in prison.
The Times reported in July that the Montreal cell was part of a global network of North Africans shuttling from Europe to Canada to Afghanistan over the last five years or so to carry forward its jihad. The Montreal cell was identified as one of many “sleeper” cells around the world that scared authorities because they had been trained to attack American targets.
Another name that surfaced then as a key contact was Abu Doha, an Algerian in custody in Britain. Based in part on Ressam’s testimony, a U.S. grand jury in New York indicted Doha on Aug. 29.
The grand jury said Doha had met with Bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 1998 “to discuss cooperation and coordination between Bin Laden’s terrorist network, known as Al Qaeda, or the Base, and a group of Algerian terrorists whose activities Doha coordinated and oversaw.”
The Montreal network was largely made up of Algerian-born Arabs sympathetic to the bloody revolutionary movement trying to transform their homeland into a fundamentalist Muslim state.
For years, some analysts, including members of the Canadian Arab community who oppose such extremism, have warned that the tiny group of militants had links to Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, known by its French initials as the GIA, which in turn has links to Bin Laden. The GIA claimed responsibility for the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (as did several other groups), and it warned in 1999 that additional attacks against U.S. targets were coming.
Ominously, Ressam testified in July that he had intended to join the other four members of his Afghanistan training cell to carry out attacks against the U.S.
But Ressam said that the others were detained by immigration authorities in Europe, and that as time went on he decided on his own to organize the LAX attack.
He is alleged to have received backing directly from Mohambedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who traveled to Canada in 1999 to provide money and false documents to Ressam’s accomplice, Haouari. Published reports have said Slahi is an in-law of one of Bin Laden’s top lieutenants and that he served as a conduit for funds from Bin Laden to terrorist cells.
Stewart Bell, who covers intelligence for the National Post newspaper, wrote in April that Canada’s intelligence service began investigating Ressam in 1996 and later warned U.S. and Canadian authorities that he had gone to Afghanistan for military training.
After the U.S. attacks, Ressam’s sentencing, scheduled for this week in Seattle, was postponed until February.