Growing up in Algeria
Ahmed Ressam was born on May 19, 1967, the eldest of seven children. He grew
up in a small, poor town west of Algiers. His brother Kamel Ressam told
Newsweek (May 8, 2000) that Ahmed was the first in the family to get a "modern"
education. By his teenage years, according to Kamel, he had become somewhat of
a "dandy," wearing American clothes like Levi's and Stan Smith sneakers. In
1984, Ressam developed an ulcer and was sent to Paris for treatment. In France,
he read books -- banned in Algeria -- about how military dictators ruined
Algeria's hopes of democracy after it gained independence from France. On his
return, his brother says, Ressam was very bitter about his country. He believed
that the government was corrupt and began to take up the cause of militant
Islamic rebels, to his father's dismay.
Ressam failed the exam which would have allowed him to continue on to college
after graduating from high school in 1988. He applied for jobs with the
Algerian police and security forces, but was turned down. He worked for a few
years in the coffee shop owned by his father. In 1992, he left Algeria and headed
for France in an attempt, he testified, to find work.
1992 + Ressam leaves Algeria for France
In 1992, civil war broke out in Algeria when an Islamic fundamentalist party
won national elections but was prevented from taking power by the military
government. Many of the Islamic militants left Algeria in 1992, including
Ressam. He moved to France, where he lived illegally until 1994, mostly on the
island of Corsica. He says that during his time there he worked picking grapes
and oranges and at a tourist resort.
February 1994 + Ressam travels to Canada
Using a doctored French passport with his picture crudely glued in, the 27-year-old Ressam flew from France to Montreal. At the airport, he was stopped by
immigration officials who suspected that his passport was false. Ressam
requested political asylum, claiming in a sworn statement that he had been
tortured in Algeria and that he was falsely accused of arms trading and other
terrorist activities. Apparently without checking with Algeria, France, or
Interpol, Canadian immigration agents accepted his story and released him
pending a hearing on his refugee status. Canada's Immigration Minister,
Elinor Caplan, later said it was not a serious offense to present a false passport to gain entry to Canada, noting that many legitimate refugees resort to doing so.
Ressam lived in Montreal for four years. He took up residence in an apartment
building later identified by Canadian and international police as the Montreal
headquarters of a terrorist cell connected to the Osama bin Laden network, and,
more specifically, to an Algerian terrorist organization called the
Armed Islamic Group, or GIA. (See the Links and Readings section
for more about GIA's origins and activities.)
According to Ressam's trial testimony, during the time he lived in
Montreal he worked only a week, delivering advertising leaflets. The remainder
of the time, he says, he supported himself on welfare payments and by robbing
tourists. Although Ressam estimates that he performed this kind of theft
between 30 and 40 times during his stay in Montreal, he says he was
arrested for these thefts only four times, and convicted only once. He served
no jail time for that conviction, but paid a fine. Despite his arrests, he
continued to draw welfare benefits of $500 per month, which he was entitled to as a
During this time, Ressam says that he and an associate, Mokhtar Haouari, another
Algerian refugee claimant, engaged in the trafficking of stolen driver's license numbers,
bank cards, and Social Security cards. They also provided Canadian passports
and other identity documents to terrorist associates around the world.
1995 + Application for refugee status denied
After missing a June hearing on his application for political asylum, Ressam's
application was denied and a warrant for his arrest was issued. However, he
evaded immigration authorities and was never deported. He had developed a new
identity for himself by filling in the blanks of a stolen baptismal certificate
form with the alias "Benni Antoine Noris." Using the forged baptismal
certificate, he then obtained a Canadian passport in that name.
1996 + French authorities link Ressam to Algerian terrorist group
The GIA, or Armed Islamic Group, is a violent terrorist organization based in
Algeria. The first major international incident involving the GIA was the 1994
hijacking of an Air France jet in Marseilles, in which hijackers reportedly
attempted to crash the plane, fully loaded with fuel, into the Eiffel Tower.
The GIA also claimed responsibility for a series of bombing attacks against the
Paris Metro in 1995 and 1996. In March 1996, GIA terrorists attempted to
bomb the G-7 ministers' meeting in Lille, Belgium. Evidence from a car bomb,
which the police found and exploded safely, led investigators to the nearby
town of Roubaix in northern France, home to a group of GIA members. When police
closed in on the apartment where the suspected terrorists were, a gun battle
ensued, in which one of the GIA members was shot to death. On his body, police
found an electronic organizer with the Montreal telephone number of the
apartment Ressam was sharing with friends from Algeria. French investigators
notified CSIS, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, about this
evidence of GIA terrorist activity in Montreal.
According to CSIS officials, Ressam was under surveillance as part of a
large investigation into a suspected terrorist ring from 1996 until he left for
Afghanistan in 1998.
March 17, 1998 + Trip to Afghanistan for jihad training
Ressam left Montreal and headed for Afghanistan for terrorist training at the
camps funded and administered by Osama bin Laden. He traveled first to
Peshawar, a city in northwestern Pakistan near the Afghanistan border, and met with Abu
Zubaida, a senior bin Laden lieutenant and gatekeeper in charge of the
camps. According to his testimony, Ressam was approved by Zubaida and sent on
to the camp in April 1998, where he received training in light arms -- including
machine guns and rocket propelled grenades -- the use of explosives and poison gas, methods for
assassination, sabotage, and urban warfare.
It was during this time, Ressam says, that he began to plan an attack on U.S.
targets in 1999. He says that he was assigned to the European-based cell
of the Algerian group in the camp, and that the members of the cell planned to
travel separately and meet in Canada to commence "an operation" in America
before the end of 1999. Before he left for North America, Ressam says that Zubaida requested that Ressam send original Canadian
passports to be supplied to other members of the network.
February 1999 + Return to Canada
Ressam traveled alone -- on the Canadian passport under the name of Benni
Noris -- back to Montreal. He says that he brought with him chemicals and
directions for making explosives. He flew from Pakistan to Seoul, South Korea,
and then on to Los Angeles International Airport. It was this visit to the Los
Angeles airport that provided him with the inspiration for his bombing target.
He thought he could place a bomb, hidden in a suitcase, in the passenger
waiting area. After surveilling the airport and calculating how long it would
take security guards to check abandoned luggage, he caught a flight to Canada.
Back in Montreal, under the name of Benni Noris, he signed a lease on an apartment and obtained a driver's
license. CSIS officials say during this
period they were actively looking for Ahmed Ressam and were unaware of his
In his trial testimony, Ressam said that two members of his cell who were
planning to meet him in Canada were stopped at London Immigration. As a
result, they determined it was unsafe to travel. Ressam decided to
continue with the operation on his own.
April 1999 + French investigators request search warrants
French investigating magistrate Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere sent a formal letter
to Canadian justice authorities asking for search warrants to be executed in
Montreal in his investigation of Algerian terrorists, including Ahmed Ressam,
who was specifically named. It took Canada six months to process the
August 1999 + Plan to bomb airport takes shape
According to his testimony, Ressam began working out the details of his plan to
bomb the Los Angeles airport in the late summer of 1999. By fall, he was
building timing devices for the bomb and gathering other chemical
During this time, he renewed an important relationship with Mokhtar Haouari, another Algerian
refugee claimant living in Montreal. 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 expressed
interest in attending jihad training in Afghanistan, and he helped fund
Ressam's activities. Haouari also connected Ressam with an associate in New
York, Abdelghani Meskini, who was to be his assistant and guide in the U.S.
Ressam maintains, however, that neither Meskini nor Haouari knew of the
specific target of Ressam's plan.
Nov. 17, 1999 + Ressam goes to Vancouver
Ressam flew from Montreal to Vancouver to gather materials and make
explosives in preparation for his operation. In Vancouver, he met up with a key
accomplice, another Algerian refugee named Abdelmajid Dahoumane. The two men
rented a room in a motel and set up a crude bomb-making factory.
Early December 1999 + Ressam returns to Montreal
Ressam returned to Montreal and met with Haouari, instructing Haouari to tell
his friend Meskini to meet Ressam in Seattle in a week's time. Haouari gave
Ressam a driver's license in the name of Mario Riog. On Dec. 6 or Dec. 7, Ressam
returned to Vancouver. For the next week, he and Dahoumane stayed
at the Motel 2400, mixing up explosives and gathering material needed for
Dec. 14, 1999 + Ressam arrested near Seattle
Ressam says that on the morning of Dec. 14, he called Meskini and told him he would be in Seattle that evening. That afternoon, he took a ferry from
Victoria, B.C., to Port Angeles, Wash., with more than 100 pounds of explosives
stashed in the wheelbed of the trunk of his rental car. His accomplice,
Dahoumane, did not travel with him.
At Victoria, U.S. immigration pre-clearance agents were mildly suspicious of
Ressam. They made him open his trunk, but saw nothing. He presented his fake
Canadian passport, and the computer check turned up no previous convictions or
warrants in the name of Benni Noris. Ressam drove his rental car, with its
concealed bomb, onto the ferry heading for Washington state. Upon his arrival
at Port Angeles, a U.S. customs agent became suspicious of his hesitant answers
to her questions, and she asked for identification. Agents began searching
the car. As they discovered the explosive materials -- which they at first took to be drugs -- in the trunk of the car, Ressam tried to run away. He was
caught and arrested.
Aftermath and Sept. 11, 2001
After Ressam's arrest was televised, an urgent call to Meskini came from
Haouari in Montreal. Haouari was recorded telling Meskini to change his phone
number, beeper, and cell phone and to leave immediately. Police watched as
Meskini ripped up airline receipts and bank machine slips and threw them into a
nearby dumpster. The FBI retrieved the evidence, and both men were arrested
hours later. Meskini entered into a plea agreement in which he admitted
conspiring with Ressam and testified against him at trial. Haouari was
extradited to the U.S. from Canada and put on trial in New York.
On April 6, 2001, after a four-week trial in U.S.
District Court in Los Angeles, Ressam was convicted of nine counts, including conspiracy to commit an
international terrorist act, explosives smuggling, and lying to customs
officials. Facing up to 130 years in prison, Ressam agreed to cooperate with
prosecutors, providing information about his activities and those of his
terrorist network. As part of the agreement, he testified against Haouari at trial. His sentencing has been postponed until February 2002. Also on April 6, Ressam
was convicted in absentia in France and sentenced to five years for conspiring
to commit terrorist acts there.
Abdelmajid Dahoumane escaped to Afghanistan. The U.S. State Department issued a
reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest and
conviction. He was later caught by Algerian security forces and
convicted on terrorism-related charges there.
Just days after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001,
investigators interrogated Ressam at the federal detention center near
Seattle. They 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's interest in chemical and biological weapons.
home + introduction + inside the plot + canada: a safe haven? + crossing the border
links & readings + join the discussion + video excerpt
frontline + pbs online + wgbh
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation