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Trail of a Terrorist

the millenium plot
canada: safe haven?
fake passports

'For these groups, passports are as important as weapons.' -- Judge Jean Louis Bruguiere, expert on terrorism who  investigated Ressam's   terrorist cellOver 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."

Note: For more on the human smuggling business and its links to the terrorists, see "The Terrorists and Crime Bosses Behind the Fake Passport Trade," from Jane's Intelligence Review

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.

The 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 asylum.
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 passports:

Q. What country did you see Abu Zubeida in?
A. In Pakistan.
Q. He was leader of the camps?
A. Yes.
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 for?
A. He gave me some of the names.

Read more of Ressam's testimony.


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 celebrations.

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.


More on the false documentation used by the September 11 suicide hijackers.

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.

Read Ziglar's Testimony (in PDF format)

"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 organization
+ 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 holders
+ 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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