Trail of a Terrorist

Is Canada a Safe Haven for Terrorists?

Ahmed Ressam's case raised deep concerns in Canada and the United States. This 32-year-old Algerian-born terrorist was able to enter Canada in 1994 with a false passport, claim refugee status, commit numerous crimes, draw welfare benefits, and easily evade deportation by creating a false identity as a Canadian citizen with a Canadian passport.

Although Canada's parliament is currently debating [as of October 2001] new anti-terrorism measures that would give law enforcement broader powers to detain and deport those trying to enter the country illegally, questions remain about how well Canada can protect its borders.

In the following interview excerpts from FRONTLINE's report on the Ressam case, experts evaluate Canada's proposed new immigration and refugee laws, explain how the current laws work, and summarize how things might have been different if Ressam had tried to get into the U.S. as an asylum seeker.

Bill Bauer
former member of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board

... A lot of people are saying that Canada has become a safe haven for terrorists. Do you believe that?

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Yes...I think many countries look upon Canada as being a welcoming country for terrorists, war criminals and so on. I don't think it is a deliberate policy on the part of Canada. I think it is the result of a series of shortcomings in the system that enables people to slip across the border through any port of entry, establish a case -- particularly those who wish to make a refugee claim -- and then more or less disappear forever, in some cases, or in some cases until the hearing, or until they are turned down, or until they are accepted. And while they are doing this, they are paid welfare, they're paid housing, they're looked after legally, medically. ...

Let's go through the details in the case of Ahmed Ressam. He comes in through Mirabel Airport. The immigration officer notices that the picture doesn't cover the passport, and says this is clearly a fake passport. You know, when somebody tries to get into Canada with a fake passport, people would normally think that shouldn't be allowed.

I think the practice there, and in most cases where it's obvious falsification, the person would be kept to one side and questioned. Depending on the story that was told, the case might be pursued further or not. If the person concerned claimed refugee status, at that point it would be almost certain that he or she would be released into the public at large; told to submit a claim for refugee status within 30 days; and then be available for a refugee hearing, which might not take place for nine or ten months or even a year and a half because of the backlog.

So basically, if you are caught with a false document, you can simply say, "I claim refugee status because I was persecuted," or "I am in danger of persecution and the only way I can get out of my country is with a false passport." The passport, of course, might not even be of the country of origin or somewhere else, as was the case here. So there is really ... no constraint against a person using false documents. And of the 30,000 refugee claimants arriving in Canada every year, 60 percent of them arriving have either no documents or claim to have no documents or have false documents, and they all stay and they all proceed with their claim. So that it is not a barrier.

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Bill Bauer is a former member of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. He believes the Canadian system is exploited by asylum claimants, cites troubling statistics on Canada's asylum processing and says the proposed new asylum and immigration policies are inadequate. Bauer is currently writing a book critical of the immigration process. (Interviewed May 2001)

David Harris is former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). He discusses how Canada's liberal refugee policies make it easy for terrorists to operate there and explains what needs to change, including Canadian attitudes on immigration and diversity. (Interviewed May 2001)

Elinor Caplan is Canada's Minister of Immigration. She talks about how the new immigration legislation will improve Canada's system, but defends many aspects of the old policies. (Interviewed May 2001)

U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) was the chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee from 1994 to 2000. In 1996, Smith sponsored extensive immigration reform legislation which increased the powers of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to detain and deport immigrants. He explains how U.S. immigration and refugee procedures and policies are tougher than Canada's. (Interviewed June 2001)

For people who claim a refugee status - a guy like this - you would think we would have a speedy determination on whether he's a real refugee or not. How long does it take?

The average length of time ... the last I checked,was between nine months and a year. Some cases obviously could be run through more quickly. Others might take [longer]. The main reason it is a cumbersome procedure is because the law and jurisprudence demand certain procedures, certain guarantees. There is an outstanding backlog of 30,000 cases right now, and the whole system can only deal with about ... last year it was about 24,000 cases. ...

So obviously, you are always one year behind, on average, and in more difficult cases where the delaying tactics are used -- which are often the case -- it may run on for two, three years. So it's quite possible for someone to stay in Canada on welfare and with shelter provided for at least three years before a final determination. ...

What does the Ahmed Ressam case tell you about the problems with deportation in Canada?

Very, very few people who are turned down for the refugee claims are actually deported. Some may even leave voluntarily, but we have no way of checking it. We don't control departures. We have no record. Some may actually be deported, but these are usually cases where there is something about the person which presents a threat to Canadian security.

Basically, as I understand it, there are not enough personnel or resources to follow up on rejected refugee claimants and make sure that they leave the country, whether by the formal process of deportation or at their own time. So it's very, very easy for people who go through this whole process for a year or two to simply avoid any consequences at all. ...

When Ahmed Ressam comes in and says, "I was accused of terrorism and arms trafficking," and he says he was innocent ... shouldn't that ring some alarm bells?

The first assumption in what we consider to be a fair system is that you take the word of the claimant. If he says, "I was accused of being involved in arms trafficking," that doesn't carry any weight. What carries weight is his statement that "I was innocent and they were persecuting me. They tortured me," or whatever. The weight of evidence is always his side of it, not what he was accused of....

From the point of view of common sense, does this seem like a good system to you?

It isn't a good system if you look at it from the point of view of detecting criminals and terrorists and war criminals, because obviously, very, very few of these people are going to admit to having done these things. On the other hand, if you give credence to what they have been accused of, in effect, you're denying their refugee claim before you're giving the person a chance to be heard.

Once in Canada, Mr. Ressam is arrested time after time for crimes - petty theft, theft over $5,000 in some cases, stealing computers. Would you not expect this to affect his case?

... I always assumed in my experience that anyone who committed a major crimes after arriving in Canada could not possibly be a genuine refugee -- otherwise, why would they take the risk? Why would they engage in this sort of activity? This is not generally accepted by the courts, though. Serious crimes committed before arriving in Canada can be taken into account when arriving at a judgement about whether a person is a genuine refugee or not. Crimes committed in Canada after making your claim are not considered relevant by the court, unless they are crimes which would involve more than ten years of imprisonment in Canada. In practical terms, that means murder, essentially. ...

... Did Ahmed Ressam kind of play Canada as a sucker?

Oh yes, yes. I think there is no doubt about it. He entered under false pretenses, he lied, he broke the law, he used Canada as a base of operations against a neighboring country with whom we have no quarrel. If he had not inadvertently been captured ... he would have killed untold numbers of innocent civilians in the United States, and Canada would have had blood on its hands. ...

...We didn't catch him -- the Americans did. I think it's time that all the agencies, and certainly the government, took this seriously before something truly tragic happens.

The Minister of Immigration is saying she is dealing with the problems in the refugee system. She is noticing that there may be some shortcomings, but the government of Canada is acting forthrightly to close the back door for false refugee claims, so the front door can be opened wider. What do you think?

I don't see anything in the new legislation which would close the door. It makes a few minor changes in the people that might be arrested without a warrant. But I am not sure how strongly that can be enforced against the tremendous opposition on the part of the immigration groups. On the other hand, it introduces another layer of appeal into the system which, in my mind, would simply add delay to it. The idea is in the legislation that this will not permit review by the federal court. I think this is either disingenuous or nave, because under the charter, they have a right to go to the federal court, and I should think that this legislation would be thrown out very quickly. And it will certainly be challenged very quickly by immigration lawyers.

So taken all in all, what I see in the legislation is no change at all in the existing system. To change the existing system requires more than just jiggling a few lines here and a few lines there. The new act says that anyone trafficking...more than ten persons illegally into Canada is subject to a fine of $1 million instead of $500,000. To my knowledge, no judge who has tried a trafficker -- and very few are ever arrested, let alone tried -- has imposed a fine greater than $5,000. So that you raise it to $500,000 to a million, so what? The $500,000 has never been used, nor has even $10,000. These are differences meant for cosmetic purposes. This is designed for a political purpose, which is to say, "Look how tough we are being." In fact, it's not tough at all. ...

David Harris
former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)

So at the end of the day, what was the significance of the Ressam case? What lessons did it have for Canada?

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The lessons of Ressam are many, and many of them are quite scary. ... The passport control and regulation aspect is unbelievable, and the only good thing to come out of this is the continuing level of cooperation on the part of security intelligence communities across the border. This is a warning of things to come, and we should be ready for it. ...

Is Canada generally becoming a safe haven for terrorists?

I think there is a dire risk that is happening. We are already playing a significant role in international terrorism funding. We have 50 terrorist organizations of a variety of descriptions here, and a good number of those are the so-called the world class ones. So I think that we can no longer afford to be naïve, and we need to see the political will to take some more control of the situation.

In your testimony in the United States, you talked about both becoming a safe haven and a number that seem to be funding terrorists operations. What is the justification for saying those things?

...I think there is the reality and there is the perception internationally that we in Canada are simply not meeting our obligations on the level of counterterrorism, in the sense that we are allowing organizations of a terrorist nature to fund terrorism worldwide; that we are seen as a place to come for recruiting and indeed for planning and organizing, as the Ressam case itself demonstrated.

So you put all of this together and you wind up with international perceptions that we are not doing our bit to curb international terrorism. ...

What do you make of how easy it was for Ahmed Ressam to get himself a new passport?

I think that's a shocker, by any description -- the idea that you could have people showing up at a Foreign Affairs office and submitting a passport application on behalf of somebody else, especially someone with the history of Ressam. It's quite an astonishing thing, and what's more astonishing is that at the end of the processing, the same sort of procedure was followed and a complete passport was then handed over to a "cut out," to somebody representing Ressam. It's quite amazing, and goes beyond that ... questions to the documentation that were used to justify the application in the first place. How you can rely on church certificates that may or may not be possible to review credibly? It's not of this world.

What do you think has to change here?

Foreign Affairs has got to develop and enforce credible approaches how you accept, and from whom you accept the passport applications, and to whom you deliver the passport applications, once they are complete. This is an invaluable document to international terrorism, and a very valuable one to Canada and our credibility. So we have got to have requirements that are in proportion to that value. ...

We need a gigantic cultural shift in this country. We are not used to seeing ourselves at the front line of any major struggle. But there is a war on. It's a global, terrorist-based war that we are all going to be facing, and it is increasingly going to become home here to Canada. We have got to get our laws and our attitudes into line to meet the threat before it's too late. We may need to look at legislation changes. But, above all, all of us have got to be more aware that no matter what kind of emphasis we want to place on multiculturalism and the benefits of diversity, some of those issues open us to struggles that are going on around the world, and that we don't want to have to come home. ...

Why do you think these Algerians, the GIA [the Armed Islamic Group], would choose Montreal to come and settle themselves?

There are a lot of good reasons why the GIA would want to choose Montreal as their headquarters for operation. First of all, you have the whole idea of French culture; their lingua franca is clearly French, coming from Algeria. The other side of it is you've got quite an Algerian community there. Especially with the disruptions we have 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 and planning and funding.

I suppose the related thing is that with all of those Algerians there you have a pool of victims, people who can be taken advantage of and intimidated so that the terrorists themselves can fund their operations and activities. So taken together, Montreal is the place you probably want to be if you are an Algerian extremist.

The Minister of Immigration says the system is going to be changing -- that if people commit crimes, their refugee application will be suspended until the resolution of that.

It all depends on what suspended means, doesn't it? If "suspended" means people are going to be on the loose for that much longer without any serious documentation clearance or anything else, then that would seem to expand the threat rather than decrease it.

Do you think that Canada has to change its policy with respect to keeping people in custody?

As a Canadian, I am uncomfortable with the idea. But I can no longer deny that that might be the only appropriate solution as we find more and more lethal people among some of our immigrant stream. In terms of Islamic extremists in Canada [as] they regard the proximity of Canada to the U.S., it's making Canada a kind of Islamic extremist aircraft carrier for the launching of major assaults against the U.S. mainland, and that is something we have got to remember. ...

Elinor Caplan
Canada's Minister of Immigration

In the Ahmed Ressam case, what should have happened when Mr. Ressam came to Canada? He admitted to the immigration official that he had been accused of terrorist activities in Algeria, that he was accused of arms trafficking, although he said he was completely innocent. Should Canadian authorities have investigated this apparent terrorist?

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It's very important that we do upfront security screening immediately upon an application for refugee status. ...So the provision in my new legislation, which will give us the ability upfront to do that security screening, is an improvement of over what exists today. ...

Ahmed Ressam shows up in Canada and he presents a false French passport. The immigration official realizes this picture doesn't fit into this passport, [so he claims] "Oh, I'm a refugee." But just the fact that he presented a false passport -- is that a crime?

We know that many people who are genuine refugees fleeing persecution ... have to resort to the use of false documents. So that, in itself, is not enough for us to immediately detain that person. We need to be able to have the information and the proof, because in a democracy like Canada, we don't lock you up and throw away the key without evidence. Some people say my new legislation is too tough. I'm saying it's well balanced, because it does give us the tools when we find someone who we have concerns about, where we have done the upfront security screening and have evidence, then we can argue to detain that person.

...Clearly, somebody should have checked if his fingerprints would have been on file in France, if he had tried to sneak into other countries with passports and that kind of thing. Somebody should have checked that?

In hindsight, it's a question of lessons learned. But when we know that we are dealing with individuals who are doing everything that they can to evade detection, there are challenges. Can I tell you that it will be perfect in the future even with policy changes? The answer is, of course not. We are living in a world where we value our freedoms and we want as open a border as possible. ... Yes, we have to update our laws and our policies, do everything that we can to secure our borders. We remain vigilant and work internationally. But there is not going to be any guarantees that no one is going to be able to do this. ...

Doesn't it seem kind of outrageous to you that Ahmed Ressam runs around Canada for years collecting welfare and committing numerous crimes and [that] seemed to have no reflection on his refugee claim?

Well, he was denied. He did not succeed in making a refugee claim in Canada; that claim was denied.

Because he didn't show up for a hearing.

And I was as upset as anyone else with the story as it unfolded. I was pleased he was caught. But it is important for people to know that he was denied refugee status in Canada, that he did not convince anyone that he should receive protection from Canada, and that a warrant was issued for his arrest. ...

I am told by somebody in the Immigration and Refugee Board that if you commit crimes like this, that's a separate issue, that it doesn't affect your refugee claim.

Under the new legislation it does and it will. The new legislation gives us the ability to deny access to the refugee determination system of anyone who is criminally inadmissable to Canada -- criminal, terrorist, war crimes, crimes against humanity -- you will not get access to the refugee determination system under the new legislation. Second, if you have committed a crime in Canada, your claim is suspended pending the outcome of your trial. ...

American officials in particular look at the details of the Ahmed Ressam case and his friends who were operating at the same time and say that Canada was clearly becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

I disagree. I disagree completely. While there are those who would like to make that assertion, Canada has taken the steps in concert with the United States and internationally to do everything that we can to be an important partner. But many people come here from the United States. We have a two-way border crossing, and we want to have as open a border as possible. But I can tell you that Canada is not and will not be a safe haven.

Why was Ahmed Ressam not deported?

Bottom line, we couldn't get travel documents. We cannot put somebody on a plane and and out of the country unless we have travel documents, and that's a big challenge ... People who come here and who are evading detection don't cooperate in getting travel documents, so we don't have the identification we need. It's a big challenge for my department.

Does that mean you tried to get Algeria to take him and they wouldn't take him?

We have to provide information to a country that says this is a citizen of your country, we have the evidence and the documentation, and now we request that you give us approval to have that person travel to your country. It's difficult when the country says, "We need more information. We don't have all the information that we require." Travel documents are slow in coming, and we have a number of countries [where] it takes a lot of time to get travel documents unless the information and identity documents are clear.

So that's what was done in the Ahmed Ressam case? We tried to get Algeria to take him back and they wouldn't take him back?

It's my understanding from the department that they had difficulty obtaining travel documents, and that Mr. Ressam was not cooperating in giving us the information that we needed to secure those travel documents. He was in a removal stream. He was hiding out, he was changing addresses, he was making it very difficult.

Are you distressed by apparently how easy it was for Ahmed Ressam to get himself a Canadian passport and a new identity?

...We are very aware of how easy it is to get fraudulent documents. ... Over the last few years, since the Immigration Act was amended to give us the authority to seize documents, over 4,000 documents were being imported into this country, helping exactly those people that you are talking about to get a blank document from overseas. You fill it out, and you can go get a Canadian document that looks pretty good. That's why we have to remain vigilant. ...

...Once your legislation passes, are you confident that the next Ahmed Ressam coming into Canada will be treated in the same way?

I am confident that we will have in place a streamlined procedure that will give us the chance to identify as soon as we can those people that we either want to detain or not give access to Canada; and that we will be able, with our partners, RCMP, CSIS and others, to take action to protect Canada's borders. But if you're saying, can I guarantee that there will never be anyone to get into Canada in the future -- of course not.

Represenative Lamar Smith (R-Texas)
chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee from 1994 to 2000

Do you think Canada has become a safe haven for terrorists?

I certainly think that the Canadian immigration laws [are], in some respects, lax and by the Canadians' own admission allow terrorist organizations to set up shop in Canada.

...In this case [Ahmed Ressam], you have a situation where the U.S. laws regarding refugees and other forms of immigration are tougher than the Canadian laws, which means it is a lot easier for terrorist organizations to establish themselves ... in Canada than in the United States. And we have the additional problem of an open border between the two countries. So whoever gets into Canada can basically get into the United States as well. I think that should be a source of concern to both Canadians and Americans. ...

If he, being a refugee seeker, had been in the United States [commiting] crimes regularly, would that have a negative effect on his refugee claim in the U.S.?

...One assumes that [he] would very shortly be put in jail. And that's the case. We have a large number of convicted -- what we call "criminal aliens" -- individuals who are not U.S. citizens, who are in fact in jail in the United States today. ...

When Ahmed Ressam came to Canada, he claimed refugee status, and he admitted apparently that he had been in jail in Algeria and had been convicted of weapons offenses and accused of terrorism. Nothing apparently happened. What should have happened?

... I know what the United States would have done, and that is conduct a background check to make sure that he was eligible for entering the United States and that he was not going to be a threat to the American citizens. I am not sure he would have even gotten in our front door, to tell you the truth. ...

That Ressam case would have raised red flags to us. At the very least, my guess is that he would have been detained until his case would have been up for review, whereas in Canada, he was released and then failed to show up for a number of hearings that he was told to show up for. So that is one difference between the Canadian system and the U.S. system. Here, if you are claiming asylum and seeking asylum and there are concerns, you are detained. In Canada, you are not.

So in the United States, he would have been in jail -

...Up until 1996, the United States would typically say to someone who was claiming asylum, "Show up for your hearing three months from now or two months from now," and it shouldn't have surprised us that only 6 percent on the average showed up for the hearing. Ninety-four percent disappeared into the country and never showed up for their hearing at all.

As a result of that, we changed our laws in 1996, and detained all the individuals who did not have a plausible reason to be granted asylum. And they are detained until their hearing comes up. That way, we are sure that they actually will be there at the hearing.

In Canada ... the situation is as it was in the United States before 1996. They are told to show up for a hearing, and of course, there is no surprise that this individual did not show up for his hearing.

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