8/28/2005

PBS - frontline: trail of a terrorist: the millennium plot: ahmed ressam's millennium plot

Growing up in Algeria

Ahmed Ressam was born on May 19, 1967, the eldest of seven children. He grew up in a small, poor town west of Algiers. His brother Kamel Ressam told Newsweek (May 8, 2000) that Ahmed was the first in the family to get a "modern" education. By his teenage years, according to Kamel, he had become somewhat of a "dandy," wearing American clothes like Levi's and Stan Smith sneakers. In 1984, Ressam developed an ulcer and was sent to Paris for treatment. In France, he read books -- banned in Algeria -- about how military dictators ruined Algeria's hopes of democracy after it gained independence from France. On his return, his brother says, Ressam was very bitter about his country. He believed that the government was corrupt and began to take up the cause of militant Islamic rebels, to his father's dismay.

Ressam failed the exam which would have allowed him to continue on to college after graduating from high school in 1988. He applied for jobs with the Algerian police and security forces, but was turned down. He worked for a few years in the coffee shop owned by his father. In 1992, he left Algeria and headed for France in an attempt, he testified, to find work.

1992 + Ressam leaves Algeria for France

In 1992, civil war broke out in Algeria when an Islamic fundamentalist party won national elections but was prevented from taking power by the military government. Many of the Islamic militants left Algeria in 1992, including Ressam. He moved to France, where he lived illegally until 1994, mostly on the island of Corsica. He says that during his time there he worked picking grapes and oranges and at a tourist resort.

February 1994 + Ressam travels to Canada

Using a doctored French passport with his picture crudely glued in, the 27-year-old Ressam flew from France to Montreal. At the airport, he was stopped by immigration officials who suspected that his passport was false. Ressam requested political asylum, claiming in a sworn statement that he had been tortured in Algeria and that he was falsely accused of arms trading and other terrorist activities. Apparently without checking with Algeria, France, or Interpol, Canadian immigration agents accepted his story and released him pending a hearing on his refugee status. Canada's Immigration Minister, Elinor Caplan, later said it was not a serious offense to present a false passport to gain entry to Canada, noting that many legitimate refugees resort to doing so.

Ressam lived in Montreal for four years. He took up residence in an apartment building later identified by Canadian and international police as the Montreal headquarters of a terrorist cell connected to the Osama bin Laden network, and, more specifically, to an Algerian terrorist organization called the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA. (See the Links and Readings section for more about GIA's origins and activities.)

According to Ressam's trial testimony, during the time he lived in Montreal he worked only a week, delivering advertising leaflets. The remainder of the time, he says, he supported himself on welfare payments and by robbing tourists. Although Ressam estimates that he performed this kind of theft between 30 and 40 times during his stay in Montreal, he says he was arrested for these thefts only four times, and convicted only once. He served no jail time for that conviction, but paid a fine. Despite his arrests, he continued to draw welfare benefits of $500 per month, which he was entitled to as a potential refugee.

During this time, Ressam says that he and an associate, Mokhtar Haouari, another Algerian refugee claimant, engaged in the trafficking of stolen driver's license numbers, bank cards, and Social Security cards. They also provided Canadian passports and other identity documents to terrorist associates around the world.

PBS - frontline: trail of a terrorist: the millennium plot: ahmed ressam's millennium plot

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