Securing the Northern Front: Canada and the War on Terror

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 14

This is the first in a two part series on Canada and the war on terror.

Since September 11th, al-Qaeda terrorists have been consistently thwarted in their attempts to “take the battle inside America”. Despite some incidents involving mostly non-U.S. citizens, America’s security perimeter has not been breached, and potential cells have been pre-emptively dismantled. There are fears, however, that America’s southern, and especially northern boundary, perceived as largely undefended, could be the entry point for the next terrorist attack. The 4000 KM border with Canada has been subject to at least one attempted case of cross-border terrorism involving an explosives-laden car targeting the Los Angeles airport in December 1999, the so-called millennium plot. The perpetrator, Ahmed Ressam, was a member of a large North African jihadist network composed of veterans of the Afghan and Bosnian wars. While based in Montreal, the network stretched across Canada and the United States, and had links to Islamist networks operating in Europe, the Balkans and the Caucasus.

The Kamel Network

Since the mid-1990s, France’s leading anti-terrorism judge, Jean-louis Bruguiere had been investigating the cases of Algerians, many with links to the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), living—in many cases illegally–in Canada. Among them, Fateh Kamel, a Montreal businessman; veteran of both the Afghanistan and Bosnian Jihads was believed to be one of the main coordinators of support networks, providing forged documents for the Algerian GIA as well as a number of Salafi Jihadists based in Canada and Europe.

In September 1994 Fateh Kamel, along with two Moroccan-born Canadians, Mohamed Omary and Abdallah Ouzghar, left Montreal to join the war in Bosnia. [1] Stationed in the Bosnian town of Zenica, which at the time was an Islamist stronghold, Fateh Kamel fought within the ranks of the El Muzahid unit, composed exclusively of foreign fighters, under the command of the Algerian Abu El Maali. While in Zenica, Fateh Kamel also met French converts Lionel Dumont and Christophe Caze, the future members of the ultra-violent French Jihadist group known as the “Gang de Roubaix”.

After Bosnia, Fateh Kamel joined Osama bin Laden in Khartoum, where he acted as an interface between the GIA and al-Qaeda. [2] He eventually returned to his Montreal headquarters and participated at the highest levels in the coordination and logistical support to operational cells in Europe, the Balkans and North America. Two other Afghanistan and Bosnia veterans, the Moroccan Karim Said Atmani and Hamid Aich whom Kamel had also met in Zenica clandestinely arrived in Montreal in late 1995 (following the Dayton Accords) and proceeded to join his burgeoning network. Fateh Kamel’s network specialized in the procurement of funds and forged documents, particularly Canadian passports, for international jihadists. Helping them was a group of semi-affiliated local thieves, led by Said Atmani and a young Algerian named Ahmed Ressam.

In 1996 Montreal, Ressam, now part of Fateh Kamel’s logistical support cell, encountered an increasing number of young North African men returning from training in Afghanistan. Among them was a past trainee turned al-Qaeda recruiter, Tunisian Abderraouf Hannachi. Many in Montreal’s Islamist circles had initially been approached by Hannachi, who also doubled as the Muezzin at the Assuna mosque in the mid-1990s. The mosque had been frequented by both Fateh Kamel and Omary, and it is very likely that the first contacts between future cell members were made there, including Abdallah Ouzghar, Mokhtar Haouari and Ahmed Ressam. The Mauritanian Mohamad Walid Salahi, closely liked to bin Laden and suspected of having recruited two of the 9/11 hijackers in Germany, had been an Imam at the Mosque and had met Ressam on several occasions. [3]

In March 1998, a few weeks after Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against America, Ahmed Ressam, having been “recommended” by both Kamel and Hannachi, flew to Pakistan where he met senior al-Qaeda figure Abu Zubayda. The senior al-Qaeda recruiter sent Ressam, along with two of his former Montreal roommates, Said Atmani and Moustafa Labsi, to the Al-Khalden camp. [4]

The Montreal Cell

The operational “Montreal cell” which would be involved in the millennium plot was formed in the Khalden camp. It was there that Ressam and others would plot to conduct suicide bombing operations in the U.S., the Middle-East and Europe. Out of a group of about thirty Algerians (as well as Tunisians and Moroccans), several cells were formed and sent on different missions throughout Europe and North America. The man in charge of coordinating, supervising and facilitating the travel of the different cells was the London-based Algerian Abu Doha. The operational Montreal cell was to be composed of Ahmed Ressam and five other Algerians, including Labsi and Atmani.

Ressam, who came back to Canada in February 1999, would soon learn that the rest of the cell had all been thwarted in their plans to reach Canada. Further complicating things was the arrest of Fateh Kamel and another Montrealer Noureddine Saidi in Jordan in April 1999, at the request of the indefatigable Bruguiere.

The people who would end up helping Ressam were not the jihadists that were originally planned, but all were Montreal Algerians interconnected with the GIA and part of Fateh Kamel’s network; including Abdelmajid Dahoumane, a key player linked to an Islamist cell in Calgary, and Hassan Zemmiri, currently held in Guantanamo after his capture in Afghanistan. [5] Others included Mourad Ikhlef [6] (convicted in absentia of the 1992 terrorist attack on the Algiers airports), Adel Boumezbeur, Samir Ait Mohamed and Moktar Haouari. Each would render financial, logistical, material or technical support, but Ressam would travel alone across the U.S. border to Port Angeles Washington.

Ressam’s plot was ultimately foiled on December 14 by Diana Dean, a U.S. border employee, but his capture would reveal that operatives were also inside America waiting to liaise with their counterparts across the Canadian border. Algerian and Brooklyn resident Abdelghani Meskini was the man supposed to meet Ressam in Seattle and was arrested a few days after the latter’s capture.

On December 19, Canadian Lucia Garofalo was also arrested trying to smuggle an Algerian at a remote border crossing in northeastern Vermont. Garofalo was found to have contacts with Atmani and Meskini as well as high-ranking members of GIA cells in Europe. [7] Another Algerian with links to Meskini, Abdel Hakim Tizegha, was arrested on December 24 in Seattle, accused of being part of Ressam’s group. In the weeks that followed, a number of Algerians were stopped and questioned in major cities and border regions across the United States and Canada.

The Second Circle

Inside the North American theater, the Fateh Network–and by extension Ahmed Ressam’s cell–was linked to a number of cells spread out across Canada. Among these jihadist groups – and because of cultural and ideological similitude – the closest contacts were established with other North African groups; specifically the GICM (Moroccan Islamic Combat Group); the entity believed to be ultimately responsible for the recent suicide attacks in Morocco and the March 11th Madrid train bombings.

Arrested by Canadian security services, Moroccan-born Odil Charkaoui is suspected of being a member of the GICM; he is alleged to have sent money to cell members in Madrid before the train attacks. [8] Noureddine Nafia, the “Emir” of the GICM (currently jailed in Morocco), recognized him as one of the members of a cell implanted in Canada. He also revealed the existence of another cell member in Ottawa known as “Abdeslam the Canadian”. [9]

There seems to be numerous links with the now defunct Montreal cell. Indeed, Odil Charkaoui had had contacts with Tunisian recruiter Hannachi, as well Samir Ait Mohamed, Sait Atmani, Abdallah Ouzghar and Ressam, the latter having identified him as “Zubeir Al-Magrebi” with whom he had trained in Afghanistan in 1998. Ressam’s testimony is supported by Abu Zubayda who said he saw Charkaoui in Afghanistan in 1993, 1997 and 1998. In addition, Charkaoui had links to Abousofian Abdelrazik, a Montrealer from Sudan described as a high-ranking cadre close to Abu Zubayda.

Is Canada a Target?

Once used solely as bases of operations, nations such as France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain have all become targets of jihadists. Could Canada be next on the list? Ressam had admitted that in 1999 he and another cell member, Samir Ait Mohamed, had planned to stage a large bomb attack in a Montreal neighborhood; the Outremont district, because of its large Jewish community, featured prominently in the discussions.

Any wishful thinking that, Canada was not in the crosshairs of Jihadists, were dispelled in a November 2002 audiotape attributed to Osama Bin Ladin, where Canada, along with five other western nations, is specifically threatened because of its involvement in Afghanistan. In March 2004, “Al-Battar military camp” an alleged al-Qaeda manual published on various Islamist websites ranked Canada as the 5th most important “Christian” target.

Conclusion

The dismantling of the Montreal Cell led to the uncovering of a wider network of interconnected Jihadi cells which, while loosely affiliated to al-Qaeda, were not under its direct orders and thus largely independent in both means and targets. It also illustrated that groups like the GIA or the GICM which are seemingly animated by local concerns can be manipulated to strike the “distant enemy”, the United States. More ominously, Canadian security realized that Ahmed Ressam was not an isolated individual and that other cells remained in Canada, not only using the country as a launching pad for an attack on the United States but also viewing it as an eventual, softer target.

Notes

1. Andre Noel, “Terrorisme: le reseau Montreal”, La presse, 14/12/2001.

2. Taïeb Chadi, “Les Aveux d’un Islamiste marocain d’al Qaida” Maroc-Hebdo 24/05/2002

3. Afrique Express, N° 255, 17/09/2002

4. Djemila Benhabib, “Les aveux d’ahmed Ressam”, El-Watan 19/12/2001

5. “Ahmed Ressam aurait eu un complice montréalais”, Radio-Canada, 08/01/2004, http://www.radio-canada.ca/nouvelles/Index/nouvelles/200401/08/009-ressam-complice-MTL.shtml

6. “Qui est Mourad Ikhlef?”, Ibid., 21-12-2001 http://radio-canada.ca/nouvelles/Index/nouvelles/200112/20/004-IKHLEF.asp

7. El-Hadj M.-L. Zouaïmia “Le réseau des faussaires algériens: Fouille dans les fichiers du FBI (II)” La Nouvelle République, 2/10/2003

8. Ridouane Hafiani et Hussein Yazi, “Procès au Canada d’un Marocain suspecté dans les attentats de Casablanca”, As-Sabah, 03/07/2003

9. “Le GICM a une ‘cellule dormante’ au Canada, quatre en Europe”, Jeune Afrique L’intelligent, 16/04/2004, http://www.lintelligent.com/edito.asp?art_cle=AFP21744terrolanruo0