Over and over again, investigators examining the Al Qaeda terrorist network
point to a common thread -- the ease with which many in the network travel the
world using fake passports or illegally obtained immigration documents.
Ahmed Ressam, the focus of this FRONTLINE report, was somewhat of an expert in
fake passports. He used a counterfeit French passport to enter Canada and apply
for political asylum. While living there, he supplied fake Canadian passports
to other Algerians. And he used a fake Canadian passport under the alias of
Benni Noris in his failed attempt to enter the United States and bomb Los
Angeles International Airport.
Ressam recently testified that he was trained in these and other "security"
techniques at one of Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan.
He also testified that an Al Qaeda representative had recruited him to supply
the group with false Canadian passports.
The picture of Al Qaeda that is emerging through Ressam's case and
ongoing investigations is of a sophisticated terrorist network, able to send
"sleeper" agents like Ressam anywhere in the world. Al Qaeda depends on the ability to travel internationally in order to raise funds, recruit
operatives, train the operatives in Afghanistan and send them out to plan and
conduct terrorist attacks. Key to their international mobility is being
able to circumvent immigration laws and law enforcement "watch lists."
Investigators believe that there may be specialized Al Qaeda
terrorist cells in the U.S., Canada, and Europe whose only job is to supply Al
Qaeda with passports and other documents that can be used by its operatives.
There are various ways they obtain and use passports:
+ The terrorist can physically alter a valid passport -- stolen or purchased from
an accomplice -- by changing the picture or biographical data. "The terrorists
are smart about which passports they use," says David Simcox, director of
migration demographics and chairman of the board of the Center for Immigration
Studies. "At least two of the Sept. 11 attackers used stolen
Saudi Arabian passports. Saudi Arabia is a friend of the United States and so
using their passport makes it easier to get in at the border."
+ In some countries, terrorists may be able to purchase an official passport in
their own name, or an alias, by bribing a corrupt official or obtaining one in
the black market. Stolen passports are readily available for sale in most
countries. The most popular ones on the international black market are those
from countries that enjoy visa-free relationships with the United States, such
as Japan or Sweden.
+ The terrorist can make a counterfeit passport, hoping that the border agent
wouldn't be able to identify the forgery. "The INS has a forensic document
laboratory to train agents to detect these false passports," Simcox says. "But
there are so many countries, that it is difficult to track. And some will get
through because the quality is getting so good. The technology of
counterfeiting is constantly improving." Moreover, according to Simcox,
internet sales of fraudulent documents has blossomed in recent years, despite
efforts by law enforcement to stop the practice.
There's another angle on the trafficking in fake passports. Congressional hearings on Oct. 17, 2001 revealed relationships between the terrorists and organized
criminal syndicates who smuggle humans across borders. It is a huge
international business, with brokers in China, India, Africa, and Central and
South America and other poor countries demanding up to $50,000 per person in
order to smuggle people into the U.S., Canada, and Europe. To avoid detection,
the smugglers are constantly changing their routes and methods. Some also
rely on huge numbers of fake passports, routing people through as many as two
other countries to hide the country of origin. "The terrorists have made common
cause with 'people smugglers' who are very good at supplying false
documentation," says Simcox. "It gives the terrorists a ready source of
altered counterfeit passports and, if needed, the smugglers may assist them in
being smuggled into the United States."
Another aspect of passport fraud is falsifying documents, such as birth
certificates, which are needed to acquire a passport. This practice, used by
Ahmed Ressam, allows terrorists to get legitimate
passports, using an alias, which will be basically foolproof at border
crossings. "The American and Canadian passport system has a major problem
because its 'breeder' document -- the birth certificate -- is such a weak
document for certifying identity," says Simcox. "Despite U.S. State Department
procedures for verifying birth certificates, every state is different. And the
process is not computerized or centralized in any way."
The birth certificate is a "weak" document because it is relatively easy to
forge and has no photo or fingerprint requirement. In the U.S. and Canada,
birth certificates can be provided by a number of sources, such as state
authorities, churches, and hospitals. Each state has different rules about
supplying birth certificates, and acquiring copies of them. Once you have a
valid birth certificate, it is relatively easy to get a driver's license,
passport, and other fake identification.
As was clearly evident in the Sept. 11 attacks, many
terrorists simply enter the U.S. using their own passports and a student or
business visa. INS officials say there are so many visas given out around the
world that it is impossible to check the backgrounds of every person. Two of the
Sept. 11 suicide hijackers entered the U.S. by applying to
take classes at a university or technical school, acquiring a student visa, and
then never showing up for class. Three of the terrorists entered on business
or tourism visas and simply overstayed their visa. (The INS says the number of
foreigners in the U.S. who have overstayed their visas currently stands at more
than 2 million.) Finally, two of the Sept. 11 hijackers who had been put on an
FBI "watch list" while they were in the U.S. on visas were not located.
INS has little or no capacity to track visa holders once they are in the United
States. The issue of entry-exit tracking of visa holders is now being given new
priority. INS officials argue that at present, it is impossible to track all
foreigners in the U.S., and the agency doesn't have the manpower to
physically put people on planes.
When Ahmed Ressam was caught at the Canadian-U.S. border, he was using a false
Canadian passport with the alias Benni Noris. He was carrying fake
identification with another alias. And investigators soon discovered he had
entered Canada using yet another fake passport, from France. He had also
manipulated Canada's asylum system by applying for political asylum at the border,
knowing that the Canadian authorities would refer his case to another agency
and let him stay in Canada while he waited for his asylum hearing.
Here are short excerpts from his trial testimony specifically dealing with
Ressam's use of fake passports and how his terrorist network relied on them:
Q. What type of travel document did you use to get into Canada?
A. A fake French passport.
Q. What city did you go to?
A. To the city of Montreal.
Q. What happened when you arrived to Montreal?
A. Immigration stopped me.
Q. At the airport?
A. Yes. Immigration stopped me at the airport. At that time, I requested
Q. And how did you request -- how did you request asylum?
A. I provided them with a false story about -- to request political asylum.
They kept me at their center there and then they let me go.
Q. When they let you go, what city did you live in?
A. I lived in the city of Montreal.
Q. How long did you live in Montreal?
A. From 1994 to 1998.
Q. How did you support yourself during that four-year period?
A. I lived on welfare and theft.
Q. What do you mean by "theft"?
A. I used to steal tourists, rob tourists. I used to go to hotels and find
their suitcases and steal them when they're not paying attention.
Q. And what would you do with the contents of those suitcases?
A. I used to take the money, keep the money, and if there are passports, I
would sell them, and if there are Visa credit cards, I would use them up, and
if there were any traveler's checks, I would use them or sell them.
Ressam describes how a lieutenant of Osama bin Laden's asked Ressam to provide the group with Canadian
Q. What country did you see Abu Zubeida in?
A. In Pakistan.
Q. He was leader of the camps?
Q. Did you discuss anything when you met with Abu Zubeida on your return
back to Canada?
A. Yes. He asked me to send him some passports, some original passports if
I had that he can use to give other, give to other people who had come to carry
out operations in U.S.
Q. What type of passports was he looking for?
A. Canadian passports, but original.
Q. Did he tell you the names of the people he wanted those passports
A. He gave me some of the names.
As U.S. and Canadian authorities began investigating Ressam, they uncovered
ties between Ressam and a radical Islamic Algerian group called GIA (Groupe
Islamique Arme, or "Armed Islamic Group"). They also found that Ressam was
trained by and working with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization in a
coordinated effort to attack American interests during the millennium
Authorities got enough information from the Ressam investigation to arrest
other GIA operatives in various countries. Many, like Ressam, were expert in
falsifying documents, credit cards, and visas, leading the authorities to
believe that the GIA operatives were helping bin Laden's group by providing
false documents. Some examples:
+ Canada - Ressam associate and fellow Algerian Mokhtar Haouari was skilled in
passport and credit card fraud and was convicted in 2001 for his role as Al
Qaeda's dispatcher in the millennium plot. He had credit card imprinting gear
and the means to counterfeit checks. He would issue stolen identities by the
dozens to terrorist operatives in Canada and Europe.
+ United States - Ressam associate and fellow Algerian Abdelghani Meskini was an
expert in bank fraud and he managed to steal thousands of dollars from U.S. banks
by creating accounts in false names, depositing forged business checks, and then
withdrawing large cash amounts from ATMs. Meskini was arrested for being
Ressam's alleged U.S. contact for the planned millennium bombing in 1999.
Meskini used fake passports and other identity documents to set up false bank
accounts and for travel.
+ England - Ressam associate Haydar Abu Doha was arrested by British authorities
after his name and number were found on Ressam. In testimony, Ressam
identifies Doha as a key source for fake passports and as the England source
who arranges travel for recruits to the bin Laden training camps in
Afghanistan. British authorities found passports, fake identification, and
papers with chemical notations for explosives in Doha's apartment.
+ France - French authorities investigating a series of violent bank robberies
uncovered an Algerian Islamic group that provides false documents to Osama bin
Laden's Al Qaeda network from France, and which was also linked to Ahmed Ressam.
Fateh Kamel, an Algerian mentioned by Ressam several times in testimony, was
the leader of the support network, according to French authorities. In
addition, Said Atmani, who once shared a room with Ressam in Montreal, was also
found to be part of the gang. He was expelled by Canada and moved to Bosnia in
1998, where he fought as part of the Muslim Mujahadeen. The French court
sentenced Kamel to eight years in prison and Atmani to five years in prison for
helping Islamic militants cross the border illegally. The passport supply network
also had links to an Islamic Cultural Center in Milan, Italy, and a humanitarian
organization in Istanbul, Turkey.
+ Spain - Spanish authorities arrested six members of an Algerian radical group
called the Salafist Group for Call and Combat. Authorities believe they are
linked to GIA and the Al Qaeda network. The leader of the Spanish cell was
Mohammed Boualem Khnouni, who was arrested on Sept. 26, 2001, at his home
in Almeria, on the Southern coast. Spanish authorities said the suspects made
fake passports and credit cards for fellow Islamic extremists. The Spanish
police also found computer programs to make phony airline tickets,
instructional videotapes, and night vision goggles.
The Ressam case illustrated how easily terrorists can enter Canada and the U.S.
Ressam got into Canada on a clearly doctored French passport and avoided
detention simply by applying for asylum. Since Sept. 11, at least three other suspected terrorists have been detained in Canada; all had
entered Canada as asylum seekers. And many of the Sept. 11
terrorists entered the U.S. by manipulating its immigration laws.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Canada has decided to spend
hundreds of millions of dollars to beef up internal security and add agents to
the U.S.-Canadian border. They are also changing the asylum process so that
applicants must undergo background checks before they can stay in the country.
The Canadians are also attempting to centralize the terrorist "watch lists" in
order to keep better track of suspects.
In the United States, the Sept. 11 attacks deeply disturbed
the law enforcement community, and shed light on the weaknesses in the
Immigration and Naturalization System. Of the 19 suicide bombers involved in
the Sept. 11 attacks, authorities say that six were using
false names (and false Saudi Arabian passports), three overstayed their visas,
two entered on student visas and never reported to class, and two were on an
FBI watch list for terrorists but were never tracked down.
The INS admits that they are not equipped to track visa holders once they are
inside the United States. Since the U.S. has no exit control, INS doesn't
know if someone has overstayed their visa. INS Commissioner James W. Ziglar
testified to Congress on Oct. 17, 2001, admitting the INS's shortcomings,
and outlining plans to upgrade the system.
"If we are to meet the challenges of the future, we need to make changes at the
INS and we are in the process of making those changes," Ziglar said. "The
structure of the organization and the management systems that we have in place
are outdated and, in many respects, inadequate for the challenges we face."
Immigration expert David Simcox says Congress is now discussing a variety of
proposals that were originally introduced in 1996 legislation, but were tabled
because of privacy concerns. These proposals include:
+ a denial of entry to anyone who has supported or been a member of a terrorist
+ a system for sharing information between the INS and the Departments of
Justice and State who manage international watch lists
+ a computerized system to keep track of student visa holders
+ an entry-exit tracking system to allow INS to track exit dates for visa
+ additional support for State Department officials abroad to allow for
background checks for visa applicants
These proposals were vehemently opposed by free-trade organizations, immigrant
support groups, universities and privacy advocates in the past because they
would add time and paperwork to those attempting to enter the United States
legitimately and could affect foreign trade. After Sept. 11,
however, most of the opposition has been removed and Congress estimates that
new laws governing immigration could pass by the end of the year.
"I don't know whether we would have possibly caught a couple of the terrorists
that were involved in the attack on Sept. 11 or not," INS
Commissioner Ziglar was recently quoted on NBC. "But if we had perhaps
apprehended one or two, we might have been able to unravel the conspiracy."
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