Canada: The Weakest Link in the War on Terror?

When travelling abroad, American backpackers often stitch a maple leaf patch onto their packs, seeking to avoid the world’s general anti-American sentiment. This sad situation, an effect of the US policy of interventionism and its perceived economic hegemony worldwide, illustrates the tough dilemma of assigning blame to Canada. The very same conditions which make it such fertile ground for terrorists are also those which have traditionally made it an unlikely target for terror. Not only Canadian pride and sense of sovereignty have kept the country from just acquiescing to all of Uncle Sam’s directives; there is also the unstated fear that the more Canada takes on America’s defense, the more it will become equated with America as a target. This sentiment was revealed in a poll conducted by a Toronto newspaper shortly after 9/11: “A survey published Saturday by the Globe and Mail found that while 73% support Canada joining the US in a war on terrorism, 43% oppose joining the battle if it would expose civilians to terrorist attacks. The pollster concluded that Canadians are feeling ambivalent about a war on terrorism.” This unallayed fear (along with the sentiment that America’s self-inflicted problems have nothing to do with Canada) has traditionally resulted in less than robust anti-terror action from Canada- another point of sensitivity. This context is important for understanding the somewhat standoffish reaction of the Canadians to a more comprehensive border security package. A harsh new reality for border control after 9/11 was obvious soon after the attacks. While it is a matter of debate whether or not Canada should do more to protect America, there is little question that! up to now, it hasn’t done as much as it could have, and that these failings are endemic to the Canadian political system and British-inherited social philosophy. The case of Ressam illustrates this clearly. SANCTUARY, SANCTUARY! How Akmed Ressam was able to enter Canada, remain in Canada, and run terrorist operations from Canada almost defies belief. PBS Television’s Frontline (“Tale of a Terrorist,” 29 October) chronicled this amazing story. In the following, I make extensive use of the material from the broadcast, some of which is also found on the website. Ressam first entered Canada from France, claiming asylum as the victim of false terrorist accusations in his native Algeria. The Canadian police, not feeling the need to confirm Ressam’s story with either the French or the Algerian authorities, gave him carte blanche to enter Canada. Ressam promptly melted into Montreal’s Algerian community, shacking up in a nondescript apartment complex which French police would later discover to be an Islamic terrorist headquarters (based on phone numbers found on a terrorist killed in a shoot-out in France). Ressam, who was arrested by US authorities on the eve of the Millenium, is now cooperating with authorities in the hopes of lessening his potentially 130-year jail sentence. From Ressam’s own courtroom testimony, Frontline painted a chilling picture of how insidiously Islamic militants had penetrated Canada- and how clueless the authorities were about Ressam’s involvement. To the court, Ressam admitted to living off welfare and “thievery” while in Montreal; he would steal tourists’ luggage from downtown hotels, pocketing the cash, running up the credit cards, and selling the victims’ passports to would-be terrorists back home. Although Ressam was arrested several times for theft, he never aroused serious suspicion, and he didn’t lose his welfare benefits, either. When the Canadian authorities had finally had enough of him (after his fourth arrest), Ressam merely went to a local church and removed a blank baptismal certificate, on which he christened himself as a whole new person- the French-sounding “Beni Noris.” With this piece of paper alone, Ressam was able to get his passport and driver’s license. The slate was wiped clean, and Ressam took full advantage. ENTER BIN LADEN The fact that Ressam had to live off welfare and theft for several years showed that his home militant organization, Algeria’s GIA (Armed Islamic Group), was not providing overly exorbitant funding. All that would change, however, when he made a pilgrimage of sorts to bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan. Entering through the time-honored pathway of Peshawar, Ressam was received by one of bin Laden’s highest lieutenants, Abu Zubeida. This man was responsible for deciding which of the prospective mujaheedin would be trained. Ressam made the cut, and sooon found himself at Osama’s terror theme park, where he received instruction in heavy weapons! , shoulder-fired rocket launchers, sabotage and espionage, as well as chemical weapons and “urban warfare” in general. Among the other “experiments” done for the enlightenment of the students was studying the effects cyanide and sulfuric acid had on a small dog trapped in a box. Ressam apparently did so well at Terrorism 101 that he was given $12,000 by Zubeida to head the Canadian operations, specifically, future acts of spectacular magnitude against the US. Among the ways Ressam returned the favor was by sending more stolen Canadian passports back to Afghanistan, where they could be used by future terrorists seeking “asylum.” Said Jean-Louise Bruguiere, one of France’s foremost terrorism investigators, “for these groups passports are as important as weapons.” THE FRUSTRATIONS OF BUREAOCRACY, AND DISASTER NARROWLY AVERTED Bruguiere had been involved in earlier terrorism investigations, such as the Paris metro explosions of 1996 which had originally tipped off French police to a possible Montreal connection. Although by early 1999 Canadian police were aware that Ressam (but not “Noris”) was a threat, he successfully avoided detection by returning to Canada from Afghanistan via the United States. In April of 1999 Bruguiere sent a letter to the Canadian government officially requesting search warrants for specific addresses in Montreal; claims Frontline, “he is still frustrated that it took six months for Canada to process the request.” Meanwhile, Ressam and his accomplices were busy buying up timing devices and other components for bomb-making. For the final preparations, Ressam waited until he was on the other side of the country, in Vancouver. There authorities believe he and his partner stole fertilizer from outside retail stores, and constructed a homemade bomb factory in a Vancouver hotel. The highly dangerous mixing of the ingredients emitted noxious fumes and spat liquid that burnt holes in Ressam’s skin. And so the windows of the hotel room were constantly left open- something the hotel staff only found mildly “odd,” despite the fact that the wintry temperature outside was below freezing. On 30 December 1999, Ressam boarded a ferry from Victoria, British Columbia, to cross over into Washington State. In the end, it was only a suspicious customs agent that stopped Ressam from unleashing mayhem on his target, Los Angeles International Airport- something which would certainly have seen the new millenium off with a bang. MAKE’S YA FEEL KIND OF STUPID, EH? Even if the Ressam debacle had been the only instance of foreign terrorist activity in Canada, it is sufficiently disturbing to invite serious concerns over Canada’s lax immigration policy. To my mind, the only reason Canada still has any sovereignty at all is the fact that Ressam was foiled. Had he succeeded, there would have quite literally been hell to pay. Bellicose conservative lawmakers would have finally gotten the “Great Wall of Canada” they’ve been yearning for. Yet, as we’ve found out with the too-little too-late US precautions before 9/11, the only real “failures” of intelligence are those in which destruction actually occurs. The facile and blase reaction to Ressam’s terrorism, which could ha! ve happened, but didn’t, helped ensure the eventual success of bin Laden’s crew in New York. The Islamic terrorist presence in Canada, however, is more insidious and more pervasive than just a handful of French-speaking Algerians. Bill Bauer, former member of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board, admitted as much in interview with Frontline: “We (Canadians) 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 naive, and we need to see the political will to take some more control of the situation.” THE ENGLISH INHERITANCE A Commonwealth country which still honors the queen, Canada has long preserved closer ties with England than have the rebellious Yanks. In matters of terrorism, too, Canada seems to have learned something from England’s “civilized” ways of dealing with immigrants. Perhaps because it has been preoccupied with Irish terrorism for the last 30 years, England has cast a blind eye in the direction of other sources for potential terrorism. If one wants to see where the Canadian mindset comes from, check out this report from the San Francisco Chronicle (“Fear, anger put British Muslims on Edge,” 30 October). It details how the British government finally cancelled welfare payments for Sheikh Abu Qatada, “a Palestin! ian-born cleric who was given asylum in Britain after receiving a life sentence by a Jordanian court for alleged involvement in a series of bombings and a plot to kill American tourists.” The article lists others who have been granted government asylum and funds, some of whom have finally been detained: Yasser al-Siri, “┘one of Egypt’s most wanted men for a 1993 assassination attempt against then-Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sedki; Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, who “allegedly made death threats against Gen. Pervez Musharraf”; as well as Egyptian-born Abu Hamza al-Masri, who “┘is wanted by Yemeni authorities for an alleged bomb plot in 1998 that killed three people and a kidnapping attempt that left four hostages dead.” All of these men had been operating out of various Islamic extremist groups (like London’s Islamic Observation Center and Supporters of the Sharia); to show his gratitude to England, al-Masri “┘recently called the nation that gave him political asylum an enemy of Islam.” THE NUMBERS PROBLEM Since the end of the Ressam saga in December 1999, Canada has improved its anti-terrorism activities in several ways. It has increased international co-operation with European nations like France and the UK, and it has developed closer relations with the US as well. Indeed, the terrorist threat was addressed over a year ago in a lengthy report by Canada’s secret service, CSIS. The gist of it can be gleaned from the testimony of David Harris, a former CSIS director, who addressed the US Congress early last year: “Enormous immigration levels continue to guarantee Canada's engagement in international terrorism. Each year, immigration adds about one percent to our 29-million population, a number so large that penetration by terrorism becomes unavoidable - even by terrorists entering Canada from the United States. Immigrants, especially, become the victims of this penetration, as a tiny minority of terror-supporters extorts, intimidates and assassinates members of their Canadian ethno-cultural communities on behalf of foreign causes. Absurd refugee laws commonly see ostensible applicants disappearing underground in Canada and the US, a technique apparently used by some implicated in the recent Algerian cases. Some immigrant community leaders have called for immigration levels and laws to be brought into line. Moreover, Canada's unique policy of multiculturalism complicates matters by encouraging extremists to confuse ! the retaining of cultures with the importing of what Canadian counterterrorist officers call "homelands violence." A particularly ominous aspect of the numbers problem is the utter lack of control over the most dangerous of “refugees”: the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on 3 October that “According to a report in last Friday's National Post, the Canadian government has at least 27,000 deportation warrants issued in the last five years for foreigners whose refugee claims were rejected. Nobody knows where these people are.” ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM, POST- 9/11 Canadian prime minister Chretien, immediately after the attacks, gave strong support to Bush- but stopped short of calling for military action. Bush, in turn, appeared to snub Canada while thanking other nations which had offered help to the US. Despite Chretien’s bluster about national sovereignty, the Canucks were quick to make plans for major changes in the wake of 9/11. A Canadian official whose son almost visited the WTC on September 11th called (on 3 October) for a “joint North American security perimeter”- something which until now would have been unlik! ely. The article continues: “In a survey for CTV Television and the Globe and Mail, released Monday, 85 percent of Canadians favored "making the types of changes that are required to create a joint North American security perimeter." A CBC-Toronto Star poll found 59 percent of those surveyed willing to give up some of Canada's national sovereignty if it increased overall security in North America.” The government has taken some preliminary actions. On 12 October, immigration minister Kaplan released a four-point plan for improving immigration security. Yet critics say these efforts have been too slow. And on 3 November, in the strongest criticism yet, Ontario Premier Mike Harris attacked his government for failing to endorse a unified border plan; the harsh response from opposition leaders indicates the essential dilemna Canada faces: “NDP Leader Howard Hampton denounced what he called a "dangerous proposal," saying that while the free flow of trade is important, Canada should not "become little more than the 51st state." IMPLICATIONS FOR US-CANADIAN RELATIONS In the aftermath of September 11th, the Canadians seem intent on preventing another embarassing gaffe like the Ressam affair. Although tightening immigration laws and cracking down on terrorism risk angering would-be terrorists against Canada (in addition to the US), American pressure will probably prove irresistable. Already, pundits are talking about a gradual loss of Canadian sovereignty resulting from border security cooperation with the US. Especially if another major terrorist attack occurs, Canada will find itself increasingly taking orders from Washington. Even now, all Canadians can do is protest the “self-centered” policy of the US Embassy in Ottawa, which recently inconvenienced the locals by shutting down a nearby lane- even though the heavily-fortified building “could probably take a frontal attack by a tank.” Whether Canada ever regains its old levels of peace and security depends largely on whether its neighbor to the south does; which is sadly ironic, considering how innocuous, innocent Canada did nothing to bring on the chronic anti-Americanism that now constricts its options. This is, unfortunately, just a little more “collateral damage” resulting from America’s dangerous policy of foreign interventionism.

Cris Deliso

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