Trail of a Terrorist
Original Airdate: October 25, 2001
Written and directed by
ANNOUNCER: On September 14th, just three days after the terrorist attacks on America, federal agents came here, to the Sea-Tac federal detention center near Seattle. They were looking for help from this man, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian-born terrorist who had trained in Usama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. Ressam had planned to blow up the Los Angeles International Airport during the 2000 millennial celebration, until he was arrested crossing the Canadian border into the U.S.
Ressam, who began talking to authorities after his conviction, is now a key source in the investigation of the September 11th hijackings and in America's new war on terror.
Tonight on FRONTLINE, the inside story of Ahmed Ressam, a story that stretches from the political passions of Algeria to Europe, Canada, Afghanistan, and finally to the United States, a story of secret cells, underground identities, terror training camps and a deadly plot against America.
Correspondent Terence McKenna of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation investigates The Trail of a Terrorist.
TERENCE McKENNA, Correspondent: [voice-over] On the evening of December 14th, 1999, the ferry Coho, flagship of the Black Ball Shipping Line, pulled up to the wharf in the small coastal town of Port Angeles, Washington, the end of a 90-minute crossing from Victoria, British Columbia. There were over 100 people and 35 vehicles on board. And the very last vehicle to leave the ship was a 1999 Chrysler 300M registered to the Thrifty Car Rental company in Vancouver. The car approached the U.S. Customs terminal just before 6:00 PM.
Agent Deanna Dean was unsatisfied with the hesitant answers to her questions and asked the driver for identification. He handed over a Quebec driver's license which identified him as Benni Antoine Noris of Montreal, but in fact, he was a 32 year-old Algerian named Ahmed Ressam.
Still suspicious, agents opened the trunk for inspection. They removed the panel covering the spare tire and discovered garbage bags filled with white powder and olive jars containing liquid which resembled honey. Thinking it was drugs, they called to the agent who was searching Ahmed Ressam. Alarmed, Ressam bolted away. A U.S. Customs officer chased him out into the street and drew his gun.
Agent Mike Chapman.
MIKE CHAPMAN, Former U.S. Customs Agent: I was looking right at him, had my weapon pointed in his direction. Most people will stop, put their hands up. He quickly darted into traffic, bounced off a car, continued to run hard. And that was what really triggered me, caused me to get very nervous, when he came up to a passenger vehicle and tried to commandeer it or open the car door. I thought, "This guy really wants to get away, and he's dangerous."
TERENCE McKENNA: Ressam was finally apprehended and returned to the Customs station. What the agents thought were narcotics were, in fact, powerful bomb-making materials. The olive jars contained a nitroglycerin-type explosive. The pill bottles contained primary explosives that could have easily have gone off if dropped.
MIKE CHAPMAN: As other inspectors were inspecting the car, and I was standing next to the individual in the back of the police cruiser, he would look up, kind of poke his head up above the bottom of the window, and he would look at his car being inspected, and he would duck back down. Oftentimes, he would go all the way down to the floor. And he would repeat that over the course of the two hours periodically.
I probably didn't give much thought to it at the time, although I did think it was odd behavior. Later on, when the evidence, the merchandise, was identified as explosives, it tended to make me think that he probably knew exactly what he had in the back of his car and he was worried for his safety.
TERENCE McKENNA: The FBI later made this videotape, demonstrating the effect of just 5 pounds of the explosives. Ressam was carrying 100 pounds.
For almost two years, since his arrest in Port Angeles, Ahmed Ressam has remained a shadowy figure. News cameras were allowed only fleeting glimpses of him while entering the courthouse. During his four-week trial in Los Angeles, he sat impassively and refused to testify in his own defense. It was only after he was found guilty on nine charges, including conspiracy to commit terrorism, and was facing up to 130 years in prison, that he finally agreed to cooperate with the authorities in hopes of a lighter sentence.
Federal investigators began a long and intensive interrogation of Ressam. They learned he was a key figure in a network of terrorists that spanned the globe, from North Africa to Canada, from small towns in France to the mountains of Afghanistan. The ultimate target was the United States. Ressam revealed that he had been to Usama bin Laden's terrorist training camps, where he received instruction in explosives and heavy weapons, assassination and poison gas.
Ressam confirmed that he and his accomplices were plotting a major attack on the Los Angeles International Airport to occur just before New Year's Eve. He was known as the "Millennium Bomber."
Just two months before the September 11th attack, in a federal courthouse in New York City, for the first time Ressam publicly confessed to his crimes. He appeared as a witness for the prosecution at the trial of one of his co-conspirators.
In this program, actors read excerpts from Ressam's testimony, testimony that is a chilling record of exactly how a terrorist cell operates
To begin with, how did an Algerian extremist get into North America?
PROSECUTOR: What type of travel document did you use to get into Canada?
AHMED RESSAM: A fake French passport.
PROSECUTOR: What city did you go to?
AHMED RESSAM: To the city of Montreal.
PROSECUTOR: What happened when you arrived in Montreal?
AHMED RESSAM: Immigration stopped me at the airport. At that time, I requested asylum.
PROSECUTOR: And how did you request asylum?
AHMED RESSAM: I provided them with a false story about- to request political asylum. They kept me at the center there, and then they let me go.
TERENCE McKENNA: In his sworn statement to Canadian Immigration, Ressam claimed that he had been tortured in his home country of Algeria, that he was falsely accused of arms trading and other terrorist activities, but said that he was completely innocent. Apparently without checking with Algeria or with France or with Interpol, Immigration Canada accepted his story and released him pending a hearing on his refugee status.
Reid Morden is the former head of CSIS, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service.
REID MORDEN, Canada Sec. & Intell. Svce. Head, '87-'91: Sure, alarm bells should have gone all over the place. Anybody who steps up to an Immigration counter and says, "By the way, I've been arrested for this, and they called me a that, even though I'm not, and I'm innocent," and so on, I would have thought there'd be- the alarm bells in whoever's head it was should have been loud enough that you could hear them outside.
TERENCE McKENNA: Canada's Immigration Minister, Elinor Caplan, says it was not a serious offense for Ressam to present a false passport to gain entry to Canada.
ELINOR CAPLAN, Minister of Immigration, Canada: We know that many people who are genuine refugees fleeing persecution come with false documents. If you talk with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, they will tell you that, often, genuine people who need protection have to resort to the use of false documents. So that in and of itself is not enough for us to immediately detain that person.
TERENCE McKENNA: [on-camera] The point is, some of the RCMP men involved said, "Clearly, Immigration should have phoned us." When they heard the word "terrorism," "arms trafficking," they should have phoned to investigate this, and that was not done.
ELINOR CAPLAN: Look, I'm not saying that everything that was done was perfect. That's why I think we look at this case and say, "What did we learn from it, and what can we do better in the future?"
TERENCE McKENNA: [voice-over] When he arrived in 1994, Ahmed Ressam was able to move into a large and thriving Islamic community in Montreal. He attended religious services almost every Friday. He moved into this apartment building, 6301 Avenue Malicorne in east Montreal. Canadian and international police have identified this as the Montreal headquarters of a terrorist cell connected to the Usama Bin Laden network and, more specifically, to an Algerian terrorist organization called the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group.
In these hazy photographs, seized by the Canadian police, Ressam is pictured in 1994 with several Algerian men, some identified as GIA members. Almost all of them had claimed refugee status to enter Canada.
PROSECUTOR: Mr. Ressam, where were you born?
AHMED RESSAM: In Algeria.
PROSECUTOR: Did you go to school in Algeria?
AHMED RESSAM: Yes.
PROSECUTOR: How far did you get in school, Mr. Ressam?
AHMED RESSAM: High school.
PROSECUTOR: When did you graduate?
AHMED RESSAM: In 1988.
PROSECUTOR: What were you doing in Algeria between 1988 and the fall of 1992?
AHMED RESSAM: I used to work with my father in a coffee shop.
TERENCE McKENNA: Ahmed Ressam came from the town of Dualdua, Algeria, not far from the capital of Algiers. Many of his terrorist friends in Canada also came from that town. In 1992, a civil war began in Algeria when an Islamic fundamentalist party won national elections but was prevented from taking power by a military government. The civil war quickly deteriorated into civilian massacres.
Ahmed Ressam's father was distressed to see him drifting towards the local Islamic militants that were suspected of carrying out the massacres. By the end of 1992, Ressam became one of a growing number of militants to leave Algeria. He spent the next two years in France.
In Paris, Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, on the right, is an investigating magistrate and one of the world's foremost experts in terrorism. He oversaw the arrest of Carlos the Jackal in 1994 and his subsequent prosecution. In the mid-1990s, he turned his attention to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, the GIA.
Judge JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE, French Terrorism Investigator: [through interpreter] The GIA, as an organization, is the most radical and violent. It began with extortion of foreigners, civilians and the army, and exported violence out of Algeria to France.
TERENCE McKENNA: The first major international terrorist incident involving the GIA was this 1994 hijacking of an air France jet in Marseilles. French commandos successfully stormed the plane and gunned down all the hijackers. One-hundred and fifty-nine hostages were freed, seven were killed. Reportedly, the hijackers wanted to crash the plane, fully loaded with fuel, into the city of Paris, if possible into the Eifel tower.
Judge JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: [through interpreter] It was the first strong sign of violence being exported. As of 1992, 1993, there was more violence. The first was the GIA asking all foreigners to leave Algeria. They were given a deadline, then action would be taken against them.
TERENCE McKENNA: Another GIA attack, against the citizens of Paris, came on a quiet evening in early December, 1996. Canadians Helen V. and Frank S. had been married for only three days and were in Paris to look for an apartment. Frank has just been transferred here by his company. They entered the Paris Metro around 6:00 o'clock in the evening. A 28-pound nail- packed gas canister bomb exploded under the seat adjacent to Helen. She was killed instantly. Frank was severely burned. He could only identify his wife by her new wedding ring.
This was only one of a series of bombing attacks against the Paris Metro in 1995 and '96, attacks which killed 22 and injured over 200. Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, the GIA.
Judge JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: [through interpreter] We'd been working actively on these groups, and by using what we discovered at the bomb sites, technology that carried the signature of the armed Islamic movement, and by questioning, we discovered the network that supported them.
TERENCE McKENNA: The search for Algerian GIA terrorists led investigators to the town of Roubaix in northern France. Almost half of Roubaix's population is of Algerian descent. Police here were surprised when the local supermarket was held up by men carrying rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy arms.
But the key incident took place a few miles away in the city of Lille during the G-7 finance ministers meeting in 1996. Police found a car bomb parked near the Lille police station and exploded it safely. Evidence from the car led investigators to Rue Henri Carette in Roubaix, to number 59. When police closed in, a gun battle began.
The suspected Algerian terrorists inside were well armed. In the ensuing firefight, four of them were killed and the house went up in flames. When this gun battle was over, the order was given to set up roadblocks on all the highways out of town. And a few miles away, across the Belgian border, another gun battle began. A police van was raked with machine-gun fire, and one of the two fleeing GIA terrorists in the car was shot dead.
On his body, police found an electronic organizer with a Montreal telephone number, the first indication of a Canadian connection to the GIA. The telephone number led French investigators to the Place Malicorne apartment in Montreal where Ahmed Ressam lived with his Algerian friends.
Judge JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: [through interpreter] The apartment was the headquarters of a conspiracy. It was a clandestine base, a refuge for people living in Canada illegally. They had entered under false pretenses with false papers. They were helped by other members of the group, who were legal.
TERENCE McKENNA: In 1996, in the days after the Roubaix shootout, French investigators notified CSIS, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, about the evidence of GIA terrorist activity in Montreal.
David Harris was Chief of Strategic Planning at CSIS.
DAVID HARRIS, Former Head, Strategic Planning, CSIS: I think there are a lot of good reasons why the GIA would want to choose Montreal as a headquarters for operations. First of all, you've got the whole idea of French culture. I mean, their lingua franca is clearly French, coming from Algeria. The other side of it is that you've got quite an Algerian community there. Especially with the disruptions we've seen in Algeria, it's been a natural place for them to wind up. So that can add up to a good deal of cover for people who might want to engage in terrorism planning and funding.
TERENCE McKENNA: [on-camera] You interrogated some of the members of the Roubaix gang. Why did they choose Canada as a destination?
Judge JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: [through interpreter] They believed that it is a country that is much more liberal, with policies more favorable, more welcoming to refugees. They also believed that the social legislation there is very progressive and good for them. Considering the way the situation has evolved, that some of these people want to get to the U.S. for operational reasons or even to commit terrorist acts, I believe it is easier to get into the U.S. by way of Canada.
DAVID HARRIS: I think, in terms of Islamic extremists in Canada, they regard the proximity of Canada to the U.S. as making Canada kind of an Islamic extremist aircraft carrier for the launching of major assaults against the U.S. mainland, and that's something we've got to remember.
TERENCE McKENNA: [voice-over] At the federal courthouse in New York City, Ahmed Ressam explained how Canada's liberal refugee policies made it easy for him to operate.
PROSECUTOR: How long did you live in Montreal?
AHMED RESSAM: From 1994 to 1998.
PROSECUTOR: How did you support yourself during that four-year period?
AHMED RESSAM: I lived on welfare and theft.
PROSECUTOR: What do you mean by theft?
AHMED RESSAM: I used to rob tourists. I used to go to hotels and find their suitcases and steal them when they're not paying attention.
PROSECUTOR: What would you do with the contents of those suitcases?
AHMED RESSAM: I used to take the money, and if there are passports, I would sell them. If there are credit cards, I would use them up. And any travelers checks, I would use them or sell them.
PROSECUTOR: Did you ever get arrested for these thefts?
AHMED RESSAM: Four times, I believe.
PROSECUTOR: Did you ever serve any jail time?
AHMED RESSAM: No, but I paid a fine.
TERENCE McKENNA: In Ahmed Ressam's Canadian Immigration file, there are numerous arrest records from the Montreal police. Each time, he was fingerprinted and then released. All the while, he was collecting $500 a month in welfare payments, his right as a potential refugee.
How is it possible that the Immigration and Refugee Board, the IRB, would allow someone to stay in Canada and collect welfare, even though they are committing crimes?
BILL BAUER, Frmr. Member, Can. Immig. & Refugee Brd.: Crimes committed in Canada after making your claim are not considered relevant by the court.
TERENCE McKENNA: Former IRB Member, Bill Bauer, quit in protest over Canada's refugee policy.
BILL BAUER: There have been cases here of people who admitted committing crimes after arriving in Canada and in their country of origin, who said that this was a way of life for them. And they went to the federal court. The federal court said this is not a reason for not providing refugee status. So that what is reasonable is-
TERENCE McKENNA: [on-camera] : So basically, Canadian judges have determined that this is fine.
BILL BAUER: This is OK.
TERENCE McKENNA: [on-camera] This is acceptable behavior?
BILL BAUER: That's no reason not to achieve refugee status. That's right.
[www.pbs.org: More on Canada's refugee policies]
TERENCE McKENNA: [voice-over] It was only after failing to show up for an Immigration hearing in 1995 that Ahmed Ressam's refugee status was finally refused. He easily evaded deportation, though, by simply acquiring a new identity, as a Canadian citizen with a Canadian passport.
He went to this Catholic church in the Montreal suburb of Verdun. With the help of a small-time thief, he obtained a blank certificate of birth and baptism from the parish registry. He just filled in his chosen new name, Benni Antoine Noris, his fictional birth date, 1971, and then forged the signatures of the parish priests. Once he had the baptismal certificate, it was a simple matter to obtain this new Canadian passport in the name of Benni Noris. His new identity was complete.
In Montreal, there are numerous mosques, and the vast majority of Muslims practice their religion without any involvement in extremist politics. However, there is evidence of terrorist recruitment activities around some of the Montreal mosques.
In 1995, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation visited one mosque and recorded fundraisers selling videotapes that glorify the Algerian GIA and implore young men to volunteer to fight in the international jihad. Ressam testified about being recruited by friends at a Montreal mosque to attend terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
PROSECUTOR: Can you describe to the jury how you became interested in going to Afghanistan?
AHMED RESSAM: My friends talked to me about the training that they have received, the learning that they have gotten about jihad, and encouraged me, so I got interested.
PROSECUTOR: Where'd they tell you they gotten that training?
AHMED RESSAM: In the camp of Calden.
PROSECUTOR: Now, did there come a time when you expressed interest in going to that camp yourself?
AHMED RESSAM: Yes.
PROSECUTOR: Did you subsequently go to Afghanistan?
AHMED RESSAM: Yes. I got my business in order, and I went to Afghanistan.
TERENCE McKENNA: In March, 1998, Ahmed Ressam arrived in the northwest frontier province of Pakistan, in the city of Peshawar, near the border with Afghanistan. He was on his way to the famous jihad training camps funded and administered by Usama Bin Laden. Ressam had a rendezvous in Peshawar with a man who goes by the name Abu Zubayda. Zubayda is reportedly one of three top lieutenants of Bin Laden.
PROSECUTOR: Can you explain to the jury what Abu Zubayda really was in connection with the camps?
AHMED RESSAM: He is the person in charge of the camps. He receives young men from all countries. He accepts you or rejects you. And he takes care of the expenses of the camps. He makes arrangements for you when you travel coming in or leaving.
PROSECUTOR: Can you explain in general terms how you got from meeting with Abu Zubayda in Pakistan to the Calden camp in Afghanistan?
AHMED RESSAM: He sent with me a letter in Afghani, with an Afghani person to accompany me along the road. And he gave me Afghani clothes to wear, and I was told to grow a beard. Then you go by car to the border of Afghanistan. And then early in the morning, you go in with other Afghanis. Or you can go by way of the mountain.
TERENCE McKENNA: Ahmed Ressam crossed over the mountains into Afghanistan and entered the Bin Laden training camp in April, 1998. This propaganda film, released by Usama bin Laden last summer, shows the training in his camps.
PROSECUTOR: What type of training did you receive first?
AHMED RESSAM: I received training in light weapons, handguns and small machine-gun and a large one, RPG, a small rocket launcher that is used in fighting in the mountains and in cities against tanks.
PROSECUTOR: Who supplied the weapons and the ammunition that were used in the camp?
AHMED RESSAM: They used to buy it from the Taliban.
PROSECUTOR: What type of training did you receive next?
AHMED RESSAM: I received training in explosives and sabotage.
PROSECUTOR: What did the sabotage part of the training consist of?
AHMED RESSAM: How to blow up the infrastructure of a country.
PROSECUTOR: What types of target were you trained on?
AHMED RESSAM: The enemies' installations, special installations- electric plants, gas plants, airports, railroads, large corporations, and military installations, also.
TERENCE McKENNA: The camps in Afghanistan where Ahmed Ressam trained are often referred to by the recruits as "Jihad University." One of the key courses is called "Urban Warfare."
AHMED RESSAM: We learned how to carry out operations in cities, how to block roads, how to assault buildings and how to assassinate someone in an operation.
PROSECUTOR: What were you taught in connection with explosives?
AHMED RESSAM: First, how to survey a place. When you go to a place, you would wear clothing that would not bring suspicion to yourself. You would wear clothing that tourists wear. You would observe, or you would also take pictures.
PROSECUTOR: Can you tell generally what was taught about security?
AHMED RESSAM: One is to preserve your secrets. And when you work in a group, each person knows only what he is supposed to do, not more, to preserve your secrets. Avoid the places that are suspicious or will bring suspicion upon you, such as mosques. When you speak on the phone, speak in a very natural, normal language or in a foreign language.
TERENCE McKENNA: Among the most chilling techniques Ressam was taught at the Usama bin Laden training camp was the use of poison gas - cyanide.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Why don't you tell the jury about the experiments that you conducted on dogs. You personally. Start with the experiment where you put the dog in a box.
AHMED RESSAM: We were just present there. It was actually our chief that was carrying out the experiment.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Your chief put cyanide in the box. Is that correct?
AHMED RESSAM: Yes.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: He added sulfuric acid to the cyanide, correct?
AHMED RESSAM: Yes.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: And the dog shortly thereafter died from that experiment, correct?
AHMED RESSAM: Correct.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: How long, in general, would you say that you watched these dogs suffer?
AHMED RESSAM: Maybe four minutes because the dog was very small.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: You practiced these techniques on the dogs so that later on, in one of your operations, you'd be able to perform such techniques on human beings. Is that also correct?
AHMED RESSAM: Yes. We wanted to know what is the effect of the gas. Yes.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: One of the examples was to put the cyanide right near the air intake of a building to kill the most amount of people without endangering yourself and without being detected, correct?
AHMED RESSAM: Yes, that's how gas is used in killing.
TERENCE McKENNA: After he completed his jihad training in Afghanistan, Ressam was given $12,000 as seed money for future terrorist attacks. He began his long journey back to Canada, returning through Peshawar, Pakistan, where he once again encountered Abu Zubayda.
PROSECUTOR: Did you discuss anything when you met with Abu Zubayda on your return back to Canada?
AHMED RESSAM: Yes. He asked me to send him some passports, some original passports if I had that he can use to give to other people who had come to carry out operations in U.S.
PROSECUTOR: What type of passports was he looking for?
AHMED RESSAM: Canadian passport, but original.
TERENCE McKENNA: Jean-Louis Bruguiere says providing false passports was a key role of Ressam's terrorist cell in Canada.
Judge JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: [through interpreter] The investigation showed the most important role was trafficking the false documents the clandestine forces needed to travel the world easily. You can't move around if you don't have false papers and passports. For these groups, passports are as important as weapons.
[www.pbs.org: More on fake passports]
TERENCE McKENNA: Ahmed Ressam returned to North America on February 7th, 1999. He flew from Pakistan to Seoul, South Korea, and then on an Asiana Airlines flight which landed at Los Angeles International Airport. He filled in this U.S. Customs declaration, which showed that he was still traveling on his Canadian passport in the name of Benni Noris.
It was this visit to the Los Angeles airport that would later provide him with the inspiration for his bombing target. He would plan to place a bomb in a suitcase in the passenger area. He calculated how long it would be until authorities checked on abandoned luggage. He wondered how long he would have to escape the area before explosion.
Later that same day, he caught a connecting flight from Los Angeles back to Canada. In Montreal, Ressam did not move back in with his old friends. Instead, he took an apartment by himself downtown on Rue Du Fort. He signed this lease in the amount of $460 a month in the name Benni Noris. He also obtained this new driver's license in the same name. By this time, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service had been investigating Ressam for two years, but had now lost track of him.
CSIS agent Dan Lambert.
DAN LAMBERT, CSIS Spokesman: At that point in time, CSIS was actively looking for Mr. Ressam. But at that point in time, it's important to note that he had returned to Canada via Los Angeles, in entering North America, with fraudulently obtained but Canadian documentation, including a passport identifying him as Benni Noris.
TERENCE McKENNA: [on-camera] After he changed his identity to Benni Noris, did CSIS lose him?
DAN LAMBERT: It wasn't a point of losing him. When he had returned to Canada, he had returned to Canada as Benni Noris. We were actively looking for Ahmed Ressam during that time period.
DAVID HARRIS: : I think the situation was complicated by the very failings that have become notorious on our passport system level, that once Ressam was able to go underground as Benni Noris, all bets were off.
TERENCE McKENNA: [voice-over] In Montreal, Ressam frequently visited this store on Boulevard St. Laurent and struck up an important relationship with its owner, another Algerian refugee claimant named Mokhtar Haouari. Haouari was interested in attending jihad training in Afghanistan, and he helped fund Ressam's activities. The two men had many political discussions, especially about the bombings which took place in the Paris Metro and at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Haouari had some misgivings about the innocent civilian victims of these sort of bombings. Ressam did not.
PROSECUTOR: Did you ever discuss the embassy bombings in Africa?
AHMED RESSAM: Yes.
PROSECUTOR: What did you discuss?
AHMED RESSAM: The bombing against America, it was a good thing. However, it would have been preferable to have carried out in the country itself.
PROSECUTOR: In what country?
AHMED RESSAM: Inside America.
TERENCE McKENNA: In the fall of 1999 in Montreal, Ahmed Ressam began preparing his attack on the United States. First he needed electronic components for a timer. He came to this St. Laurent Boulevard store, LAM Imports, on September 1st and bought two Casio watches for $22 apiece. He paid for them with his new Visa card in the name of Benni Noris.
Ressam left a clear trail of evidence as he used his new credit card at bank machines across the city. Almost every bank machine has a security camera which monitors everyone who uses it. Ressam was photographed several times that fall.
While Ressam was acquiring his bomb components, Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere was also in Montreal looking for him. In April, 1999, Bruguiere had sent a formal letter to Canada asking for search warrants to be executed in his investigation of Algerian terrorists, including Ahmed Ressam, who was specifically named. He is still frustrated that it took Canada six months to process the request.
Judge JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: [through interpreter] We had to respect Canadian law. Authorization is given by the country asked, not the one asking. So we had to satisfy certain demands. Canadian law is more demanding. Therefore there was a delay of many months
TERENCE McKENNA: In November, 1999, Ahmed Ressam went to the Handa Travel Agency and bought a ticket for an Air Transat flight to Vancouver, British Columbia. He left Montreal on November 17th. In Vancouver, he met up with a key accomplice, another Algerian refugee named Abdelmajid Dahoumane. The two men needed a place to construct a bomb. They chose this motel on Kingsway Avenue in Vancouver, the Motel 2400. The guest registration forms show that there were two adults paying $425 a week for unit 118 and that they were driving a green Chrysler.
At the motel, the terrorists could drive their car right up beside their room, a major advantage for their bomb-making plan. Both the rental car and the room were reserved in the name of Benni Noris. The evidence shows that in Vancouver, the terrorists methodically assembled the materials they needed for making a powerful bomb. Some of the ingredients were available at the local Safeway supermarket, such as hydrogen peroxide. Other materials were more difficult to obtain.
The evidence suggests that some concentrated acids, such as nitric acid and sulfuric acid, were stolen from the Evergrow Fertilizer Company, where vats of acid and other fertilizer products are left on pallets in the yard behind a wire fence.
All the ingredients were combined in a makeshift bomb factory at the motel, in an elaborate and extremely dangerous process. Key ingredients have to be stirred continuously for three hours and kept under 32 degrees at all times or they might explode. Other ingredients are extremely unstable.
The most powerful explosive was a nitroglycerine equivalent. The active ingredient is added drop by drop. If it is not done with precision, an unwanted chemical chain reaction can be triggered in the mixture, spraying the corrosive acids in all directions. The evidence shows that Ressam was sprayed in such an incident, burning holes right through his pants and causing chemical burns on his legs.
Fumes from the bomb-making caused severe sore throats and violent headaches. Motel staff noticed that the windows were often left open in room 118, even when the temperature was below freezing. Credit card records show that Ressam bought a bottle of throat lozenges and a large bottle of Tylenol at the local Safeway store. The bottles were used as containers for the explosives.
To detonate the explosions, the terrorists assembled timer units using the Casio watches, said to be the signature of the Usama bin Laden bomb-making school. The watch alarm can be set up to 24 hours in advance. When the alarm rings, it allows an electrical charge to pass through from a 9-volt battery to a small lightbulb which has had its glass covering removed, exposing the filament. The bulb would ignite and detonate the other bomb ingredients in a chain reaction. Exactly the same sort of timing device was used to explode the Algerian terrorist bombs in the Paris Metro.
Judge JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: [through interpreter] Lighting the bulb heats the filaments, which sets a fire and creates an explosion. All the attacks in France were committed this way. This system is effective.
TERENCE McKENNA: On the morning of December 14th, 1999, Ahmed Ressam and his accomplice, Dahoumane, drove the Chrysler 300M, with the explosives now hidden in the wheel well of the trunk, onto the ferry heading for Vancouver Island. There were hundreds of cars and over 1,000 people on the ferry, which could have sunk if the car had exploded.
In Victoria, the two men, with their bomb in the trunk, stopped at the famous Empress Hotel to make a reservation for Ressam for that night at a hotel in Seattle. The accomplice, Dahoumane, was nervous about entering the United States, and so he boarded a bus back to Vancouver. Ressam proceeded alone.
At the next ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles, U.S. Immigration pre-clearance agents were mildly suspicious of him. They made him open his trunk but saw nothing. They demanded identification, but he had that all-important Canadian passport. The computer check turned up no previous convictions or warrants in the name of Benni Noris.
Ressam was able to drive his rental car, with its concealed bomb, onto the ferry heading for Washington state. The only thing left to stop him was that very last line of defense, an alert team of Customs agents at the border, and a lot of luck.
The arrest of Ahmed Ressam set off shock waves around the world. U.S. security forces, the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency, were already in a state of high alert because of warnings of terrorist activity to mark the millennium. A counterterrorism working group was meeting every day in the situation room in the basement of the White House. James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser to President Clinton, was a member of that group.
JAMES STEINBERG, U.S. Dpty Nat'l Security Adviser, '96-'00: We were on a very high state of alert in the period going up to the millennium. We had both general concerns, given the fact that there were a number of high-profile events that were going to be taking around the millennium that would inherently be attractive targets to terrorists. But we also had some relatively specific information, not, you know, precise hours or even precise locations, but some pretty good indication that known terrorist groups were thinking very seriously about millennium terrorist-related activities.
And the closer we got, the more specific evidence we began to have, not only concerning terrorism in the United States, but also about potentially U.S.-related targets outside the United States.
TERENCE McKENNA: [on-camera] So how did you react when Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles? And how did the U.S. government respond?
JAMES STEINBERG: The interest shifted to a focus on, who was this person? Who was he connected to? What were the targets? How did it come about that he was there in such a- with such an incredibly dangerous set of materials that threatened our safety?
TERENCE McKENNA: [voice-over] Ahmed Ressam was carrying two Quebec drivers licenses in different names. One was Mario Roy, the other was Benni Noris. It showed his address as 1250 Rue Du Fort in Montreal. The FBI immediately contacted Canadian authorities, and Montreal police descended on the Du Fort street address to prepare for a search. Because they were concerned about the presence of explosives, police first evacuated the building.
In the apartment, they found clothing with acid burns in the fabric and a loaded handgun covered with Ressam's fingerprints. They also found this map, on which Ressam had circled the Los Angeles International Airport. With just days to go before the turn of the millennium, at the White House there were crucial decisions to be made.
JAMES STEINBERG: And so the same group, which consisted of the secretary of state, the national security adviser, the director of the FBI, the director of central intelligence, the attorney general and others, you know, were- met almost immediately thereafter to go over what we knew about this, how we should handle, it in terms of how we should talk to the American people about it, because there was a great question at the time about what kinds of warnings do we provide. Should we encourage or discourage people from attending millennium activities?
This was something that had tremendous consequences in terms of our responsibilities not only to track down the source of this attempt but also what kind of guidance we should give to the American people.
[www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]
TERENCE McKENNA: As American cities began to prepare for the biggest New Year's Eve celebration in history, U.S. and Canadian authorities launched an urgent investigation into Ressam and his accomplices in an attempt to uncover the terrorist network in which he operated.
When arrested, Ressam was carrying this receipt for the 2400 Motel in Vancouver. A crowd of investigators descended on the motel. Police quickly discovered that Ressam's collaborator in the bomb making was Abdelmajid Dahoumane, but he had disappeared.
POLICE SPOKESMAN: Mr. Dahoumane is considered to be a potentially dangerous terrorist and still at large.
TERENCE McKENNA: Dahoumane had already fled the country to Afghanistan. When it was discovered that Ahmed Ressam and his friends were trained in the Usama bin Laden camps in Afghanistan, Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere was not at all surprised.
Judge JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: [through interpreter] Absolutely not. From our work before going to Canada, we knew this group was active internationally, in many countries. We were facing a planetary threat, a global threat.
TERENCE McKENNA: Ressam was carrying a cell phone when he was arrested. Police immediately began tapping all the numbers which had called that cell phone or had been called by it, and hundreds of other numbers, as well. The massive wire-tapping operation quickly led the FBI to Brooklyn, to a largely Islamic neighborhood around Newkirk Avenue, to the third floor residence of an Algerian illegal immigrant named Abdelghani Muskini, whose telephone number had been called by Ressam.
Police placed him under surveillance, and overheard him talking about Ressam in coded telephone conversations. They quickly established that Muskini had recently returned from Seattle, where he had been photographed by the security cameras of a bank machine.
TERENCE McKENNA: After the arrest of Ressam was on television, an urgent call to Muskini came from Ressam's friend, Mokhtar Haouari, in Montreal. Haouari was recorded telling Muskini, "Change your phone number, beeper and cell phone. Throw them away. Leave the place. Leave everything."
Police watched as Muskini ripped up airline receipts and bank machine slips and threw them into a nearby dumpster. The FBI retrieved the evidence. Muskini and Haouari were arrested hours later.
On December 30th, as preparations for huge millennial celebrations were preceding, Abdelghani Muskini was taken to FBI headquarters in New York City and interrogated by four agents for 11 hours. Muskini said that he had never met Ressam but had spoken to him on the telephone. He finally confessed that he was to be Ressam's contact and guide in the United States, although he said he did not know what the bombing target was.
The mayor of Seattle had canceled the scheduled millennium celebrations at the Space Needle for fear of terrorist attack. But in Washington, by New Year's Eve, officials were reasonably sure that the Ressam plot was not part of a much larger conspiracy. Still, New Year's Eve was a tense time in the White House situation room.
[on-camera] Were you on duty New Year's Eve? Was everyone holding their breath?
JAMES STEINBERG: Everyone was on duty on New Year's Eve. And it was- I think that because of the excellent work that was done between the time that Ressam was arrested and tracking down those who we believed involved in it, that I think we had a higher degree of comfort than we had in the first hours and days after we found Ressam. But nonetheless, I don't think anybody took it for granted, and I think people were enormously relieved within about 24 hours afterwards that we had been successful in thwarting all that was there.
TERENCE McKENNA: [voice-over] U.S. officials knew that they had been lucky this time - lucky to catch Ahmed Ressam, lucky to stop a millennium catastrophe.
When America's luck ran out on September 11th, one of the first opportunity investigators turned to was Ahmed Ressam. Just days after the attack, federal authorities were again interrogating Ressam at the Sea-Tac federal detention center near Seattle. Investigators reportedly showed him pictures of the 19 hijackers. He said he knew none of them, but did provide other names of people in so-called "sleeper cells" in North America. Ressam has also added significant new information about al-Qaeda interest in chemical and biological weapons.
Ahmed Ressam is now scheduled to be sentenced in February. In exchange for his cooperation, his maximum sentence of 130 years could be reduced to as little as 27.
Trail of a Terrorist
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