Trail of a Terrorist

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photo of Ressam's forged Canadian Passport
On Dec. 14, 1999, a 32-year-old Algerian named Ahmed Ressam -- traveling as Benni Antoine Noris on a false Canadian passport -- was arrested in Port Angeles, Wash., with more than 100 pounds of powerful explosives in the trunk of his car. He had just crossed the U.S.-Canadian border and was headed for Los Angeles International Airport, where he planned to blow up a terminal on New Year's Eve.

In "Trail of a Terrorist," a FRONTLINE co-production with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, correspondent Terence McKenna traces the investigation of Ressam and the global terrorist network in which he operated, following a trail from North Africa to Canada, from small towns in France to the mountains of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden's training camps, and ultimately back to Canada and the United States.

Ahmed Ressam remained silent at his own trial, but he decided to testify in the trial of an accomplice in hopes of having his sentence reduced (he faced up to 130 years in prison). With access to Ressam's revealing testimony, FRONTLINE uncovers troubling questions about the security of the U.S.-Canada border and chilling details about global terrorist cells and Osama bin Laden's recruiting and training network.

This report also underscores some of the significant obstacles facing Canada and the U.S. as they seek to combat terrorism. How was it that Ressam, as an Algerian Islamic extremist, easily entered Canada in 1994 with a crudely falsified French passport, claiming he had been tortured in Algeria and seeking political asylum? Why didn't Canadian immigration officials conduct a basic security check with Algeria, France, or Interpol when Ressam first arrived? And how was it that Ressam escaped deportation once his asylum claim was denied many months later?

In the years he lived in Canada, Ressam drew $500 a month in welfare payments and supplemented this by stealing cash, credit cards, traveller's checks, and passports from hotels and tourists in Montreal. He was arrested four times and convicted once for stealing, but never served any jail time.

The apartment building into which Ressam moved was later identified by international authorities as the Montreal headquarters of a terrorist cell connected to the bin Laden network and, more specifically, to the Algerian terrorist organization called the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA. With the help of a small-time thief who stole blank birth and baptism certificates from a local church registry, Ressam was able to create new identities and obtain Canadian passports -- both for himself and for other members of GIA operating in Canada.

"For these groups, passports are as important as weapons," explains Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a French investigating magistrate who oversaw the arrest and prosecution of "Carlos the Jackal" in 1994 and who is one of the world's foremost authorities on terrorism.

When friends returned to Montreal with stories about Osama bin Laden's "Jihad University" in Afghanistan, Ressam became interested in going to bin Laden's camps for training. In 1998, he went to Afghanistan and trained for eight months in a sophisticated terrorist curriculum, receiving instruction in the use of a range of deadly weapons, including explosives and cyanide gas, and in the covert techniques of assassination and the sabotage of a country's infrastructure.

It all might have worked out for Ressam. By the end of 1999, back in Canada, he had collected the bomb material, perfected the mechanism to set it off, and made it all the way from Montreal to Vancouver and down to the car ferry to get into the U.S. But there was one suspicious U.S. Customs agent at the immigration checkpoint when he exited the ferry at Port Angeles. And in the end it was she, and the officer who chased Ressam down when he fled on foot, who finally foiled Ressam's millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

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