- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Benni Antoine Noris was driving the last car in line off the last ferry of the day, the M.V. Coho from Victoria, British Columbia, when he pulled into a Customs Service inspection lane in this port city of 19,000.

Now shrouded in darkness under the mid-December sky in 1999, Inspector Diana Dean approached the green Chrysler 300M as she had done to thousands of vehicles before during a 22-year career, looking for something, anything, out of the ordinary.

Was he a U.S. citizen? Where was he going? Where had he been? What was the purpose of his visit?

The heavily accented man had a Canadian passport, a matching Quebec driver’s license, eight credit cards and even a Benni Noris photo identification from Costco, but something wasn’t right. Mrs. Dean, acting on what customs inspectors call the “sixth sense,” told him to pull his vehicle into a secondary inspection area, open the trunk and step outside.

Her instincts were right. He was not Benni Antoine Noris, but Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian national trained as a terrorist in Afghanistan. His destination was not Seattle, as he had claimed, but Los Angeles, where in 17 days, authorities said, he planned to blow up Los Angeles International Airport during the millennium celebrations.

His Dec. 14, 1999, arrest had foiled a scheme aimed at killing hundreds of people. It was the biggest arrest to date in America’s war on terrorism. It is something Mrs. Dean thinks about every day.

“I’ve done this a thousand times, maybe more, and couldn’t tell you exactly what I was looking for that day,” Mrs. Dean said. “At first, I was very surprised at all the attention we received, since what we did that day was what we do every day.

“But considering the lives that could have been lost, I still get very emotional about it,” she said.

Robert C. Bonner, who heads the newly formed Bureau of Customs and Border Protection for whom Mrs. Dean now works as a part of the Department of Homeland Security, said the veteran agent not only caught an al Qaeda terrorist, dismantled a terrorist cell and prevented the bombing of Los Angeles International Airport, but “saved hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives.

“What she did served as a wake-up call for all Americans, reminding us in the most vivid of terms that terrorism is not just an external threat,” Mr. Bonner said. “She is a true American hero.”

Mrs. Dean’s boss, Port Director Gerald J. Slaminski, said her instinctive decision to further question Ressam had a “dramatic impact on all of us.”

“We’re part of a very good team here, one that works long and hard,” Mr. Slaminski said. “Occasionally, they’re rewarded by finding something. What Diana Dean did that night made all that time and effort worthwhile.”

It was after 6 p.m. when Ressam pulled the rented Chrysler under a nearby carport. Other inspectors, already through for the day, came over to assist. Mark Johnson escorted Ressam to a nearby table and told him to empty his pockets. Mike Chapman searched through suitcases in the vehicle. Carmon “Dan” Clem opened up the spare-tire compartment.

“Look at this,” Mr. Clem called out. No tire, but there were other items: 10 plastic bags containing 120 pounds of a finely ground white powder, two bags with 14 pounds of a crystalline powder, two 22-ounce jars each about three-quarters filled with a yellowish liquid and four black boxes.

Whatever plan Ressam had, it had just unraveled — and he knew it. The 28-year-old man bolted, running across a parking lot into Port Angeles, where he attempted — unsuccessfully — to commandeer a car stopped at a intersection. The chase was short-lived, just six blocks.

“That day, like everyday, we worked well as a team,” Mrs. Dean said.


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