- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 1999

U.S. Justice Department officials yesterday said Canada’s soft laws on political asylum opened a back door through which suspected terrorist Ahmed Ressam was able to enter the United States last week with bomb-making materials.

“We are concerned by the fact that Canada’s laws do facilitate the entry into the United States of individuals who may pose a terrorist threat even the Canadians recognize that,” said a Justice Department official.

“This relates most directly to their refugee and asylum policies and their general policy of not detaining people who ask for refugee status whereas in the United States they might be detained” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Mr. Ressam is being held in Seattle by federal authorities after he was discovered carrying nitroglycerine, timers and other bomb-making materials in the trunk of a rented car he brought into Port Angeles, Wash., near Seattle, on a ferry from Victoria, British Columbia, last week.

Government officials yesterday told Rep. Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat, they are investigating at least one other border crossing involving an apparently fake identification and other “similar circumstances” to the attempted crossing in Port Angeles, said George Behan, Mr. Dicks’ spokesman.

“They briefed [Mr. Dicks] and expressed the concern that the Port Angeles case may not be an isolated incident,” Mr. Behan said.

Border Patrol officials yesterday said an Algerian citizen with a falsified Canadian passport along with a woman of unknown nationality were arrested at the northeastern Vermont border town of Beecher’s Falls.

Mark Henry, assistant chief of the Border Patrol sector covering Vermont, said he knew of no link between the Washington case and the attempted entry in Vermont.

U.S. officials said Mr. Ressam is linked to the Osama bin Laden terror network, and police in Montreal, where he had been staying the past month, link him to the Armed Islamic Group of Algerian terrorists.

Mr. Ressam, an Algerian, entered Canada in 1994 and applied for asylum, said Hugette Shouldice, spokeswoman for the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.

“In 1995, he failed to show up for a hearing and was detained,” she said, speaking by telephone from Ottawa. But without knowledge of any terrorist connection, the court let him go free, requiring only that he report for regular monitoring, she said.

In May 1998, a warrant was issued for his arrest, but “we were unable to locate him,” she said.

Canada’s chief intelligence officer last year said that dozens of international terrorist groups were operating in the country in part because of the nation’s lax immigration policies.

Canada’s asylum system, which has largely allowed applicants to go free on parole during the average 13 months it takes to complete the application process, was criticized by an auditor general’s report in 1997.

“Weaknesses pervade the entire process a lack of coordination, integration, strategic direction and overall follow-up,” the report said.

Ward Elcock, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a parliamentary committee in June 1998 his agency was investigating 50 terrorist groups in Canada. Some had links to bombings at the World Trade Center in New York, in Israel, Egypt, India and Northern Ireland.

Canada’s democratic principles, multiethnic society and policy of welcoming immigrants meant it “can be seen as a haven” for terrorists, Mr. Elcock said.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Russ Bergeron said yesterday that INS officials posted in Victoria were suspicious of Mr. Ressam even before he boarded the ferry and they alerted authorities who tried to detain him when he landed in the United States.

Mr. Ressam fled on foot but was chased down and tackled six blocks from the ferry customs post.

Ever since the bombing of the World Trade Center by Middle Eastern Islamists, some of whom had been granted political asylum when they entered the United States, U.S. authorities have detained asylum seekers and tightened admittance standards, said Elisa Massimino, director of the Washington office of the Lawyers Committee for Refugees.

“Ressam would certainly have been detained in the United States,” she said.

The new rules are “Draconian” at times because airport decisions are made by officials with little training or information about people who may be returned to their country to face persecution, she said.

In comparison “Canadian law has been perceived to be generous on the merits granting asylum they have a higher grant rate than the United States.”

She noted that Mr. Ressam was never granted asylum, but that he was allowed to remain at large.

Media reports say Mr. Ressam could be linked with an Algerian crime gang based in Montreal that committed robberies and sold the goods for money sent to terrorist groups overseas.

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