IF ONE MAN'S terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, Ahmed Ressam is now both. From interviews last week with FBI agents at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, to recent confessions and court testimony used to convict two fellow travelers, the bomb plotter-turned-informant has provided the Justice Department with background details and possible clues in the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorists and their underground support system.
According to court documents and interviews, Ressam, 34, has divulged the names of a dozen international terrorists, some who aided his failed attempt to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's 2000, and some who may have backed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. U.S. Attorney spokesman Lawrence Lincoln this week said he's "not in a position to comment" on the FBI talks with Ressam. But, says federal public defender Mike Filipovic, his client "has been cooperating all along."
Ressam's fortuitous 1999 arrest by a suspicious U.S. Customs officer in Port Angeles is considered one of the government's anti-terrorism triumphs.
But as we continue to learn more about the Sept. 11 terrorism, the 19 hijackers, their supporters, and their methods, the Ressam success story also serves up the shortcomings of U.S. and Canadian security preparedness.
Like the hijackers, Ressam kept it simple, relying on routine criminal techniques to avoid detection and exploit lapses in security. He sought asylum and entered Canada with a fake passport, assumed several false identities, slipped away for terror training in Afghanistan and returned unfettered to his home in Montreal, freely gathered bomb-making materials and partially assembled them in a Vancouver motel, then used false papers to enter the United States.
He failed ostensibly because he gave himself away. His furtive look and cold sweats led to a recheck of his car and discovery of 130 pounds of bomb-making equipment earlier overlooked (when inspectors began handling the components, Ressam ducked).
While the Sept. 11 terrorists were willing to die for the greater evil, Ressam has found merit in living on—perhaps with a lesser prison sentence or a better grade of prison.
Convicted in April of nine counts of terrorism, he began talking freely to the feds about his training and the terrorist underground; the September attacks raised his fortunes further. His scheduled sentencing last week for conspiring with three other terrorists to set off a suitcase bomb at LAX has now been delayed until next year.
Ressam has first-hand knowledge of the Afghan commando camps and infiltration tactics. He has been tied to bin Laden through a money trail and the bomb components found in his trunk (a Casio watch and explosives similar to components of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing blamed on Osama bin Laden).
A fellow Algerian, Abdelghani Meskini, who admitted helping Ressam in the New Year's bomb plot, is reported to be talking with the FBI in Boston, as well. According to press reports, a handful of convicted terrorists may also be opening up to lighten their sentences.
At the July New York trial of co-conspirator Mokhtar Haouari—money man for the Montreal sleeper cell comprised mostly of Algerians—Meskini and Ressam both testified as government witnesses. Ressam said that during six months in 1998 at an Afghanistan camp, he was schooled in sabotage and learned how to blow up infrastructure—"Electric plants, gas plants, airports, railroads, large corporations."
Civilian targets, Ressam said, offered the chance to hit "the biggest enemy." He recalled witnessing cyanide-attack demonstrations in camp that used live animals (the poison gas, he was told, should be set loose next to the air intake of a building in hopes of killing the largest amount of people because "that is how gas is [best] used in killing").
His training, he said two months ago, was aided by weapons and equipment bought from the Taliban—Afghanistan's military rulers who now can't seem to find bin Laden. Ressam was instructed to blend in and maintain a low profile in his new land as he prepared for urban attacks on the United States. He and other terrorists-in-waiting "were all to meet in Canada and we were all to carry out bank robberies and then get the money to carry out an operation in America," he testified.
Sound familiar? A Canadian official told the CBC last week that Ressam's story "really opens up the most ghastly avenues of understanding what these people are really about." It's unclear how much of his info was or might have been useful prior to Sept. 11. Either way, the United States is eagerly listening today.