Trail of a Terrorist

Ahmed Ressam's Millennium Plot

A chronology of Ressam's years of travel, training and activities leading up to his foiled plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in late December 1999.
the millenium plot
canada: safe haven?
fake passports

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 potential refugee.

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.

Read about terrorists' use of fake passports and other identity documents.

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 alias.

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 request.

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 ingredients.

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 the bomb.

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.

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