Two prominent members of the Montreal Assuna Mosque had links with al-Qaeda
Author: Andrew Duffy
Original title: Algerian connection rooted in savage civil war
The arrest in Ottawa of an Algerian refugee with suspected terrorist links has once again turned a spotlight on Canada’s Algerian connection. It’s one that has already produced a handful of high-profile arrests in the international war on terrorism.
Terrorism experts say Algerian extremists — and those from other French-speaking North African countries — have always regarded Canada as an ideal staging area.
“Here you have everything they could want: a cosmopolitan French- speaking centre, Montreal, on the very doorway of the United States and major U.S. target cities,” David Harris, former director of strategic planning at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said in an interview yesterday.
In addition, Mr. Harris said, Canada’s overburdened refugee system has ensured that newcomers go through only a rudimentary security screening process. “Canada has been notorious for being relaxed in terms of its refugee acceptance and generous in terms of its settlement assistance,” he said.
Convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam remains the most notorious member of Canada’s Algerian connection.
Mr. Ressam, a failed Algerian refugee claimant based in Montreal, was convicted last April in the United States on a series of terrorism-related charges for his involvement in a plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.
He has since proved to be a valuable source of intelligence about his own Montreal-based terrorist cell and the al-Qaeda network to which it was linked.
The members of Mr. Ressam’s terrorist cell were drawn largely from that city’s Algerian community. They were men such as Fateh Kamel, Mustapha Labsi, Adel Boumezbeur, Mokhtar Haouari and Abdelmajid Dahoumane, all of whom are now in custody or wanted in relation to terrorist activity.
Why does Algeria figure so prominently in Canada’s terrorist story? The answer to that question touches on history, religion, politics and the failings of Canada’s refugee system.
More than 11,000 Algerians have emigrated to Canada since the early 1990s when Algeria, which was once considered a beacon of hope in Africa, fell into turmoil. Oil revenues collapsed in the mid- 1980s, crippling the country’s fragile economy. At the same time, Algeria was absorbing thousands of battle-hardened young Muslim Algerians, men who had proven themselves in the jihad against the Russian occupiers of Afghanistan.
Those forces combined to create powerful opposition to the ruling government. In 1988, more than 500 rioters, many of them young Muslims, were shot by the Algerian military in the capital, Algiers. That incident led to the formation of the Islamic Front for Salvation, a political party that wanted Algeria to become an Islamic state ruled by Sharia, the law based on a strict interpretation of the Koran.
Drawing on widespread discontent within the country, the Islamic Front won the first round of national elections in December 1991. It was poised to win a second and decisive round of elections when military leaders declared a state of emergency, cancelled elections and assumed control of the country.
The Islamic Front was outlawed and its military wing, the Armed Islamic Group, launched a bloody guerrilla war against the army and its supporters. Government forces responded to the group’s subsequent bomb campaign with arrests, torture and executions.
Many thousands of Algerians fled their increasingly violent homeland for France, its former colonial ruler, and Canada.
Canada has accepted thousands of Algerians as legitimate refugees. Government figures show that between 1996 and 2001, 3,529 Algerians applied for refugee status in Canada.
Many were able to convince the Immigration and Refugee Board that they were fleeing government persecution in Algeria as former members of the banned Islamic Front or its military wing.
Mr. Ressam, for instance, said he had been beaten and tortured by Algerian police while his future accomplice, Mokhtar Haouari, told the refugee board that he helped to smuggle weapons into Algeria for the GIA, something that made him a target for persecution.
Both men had their refugee claims denied, but federal authorities did not carry out their deportations. Canada at the time did not send people back to Algeria.
Montreal became the most popular destination for Algerian refugee claimants. It was a place where they could find familiar restaurants, mosques and some 15,000 of their countrymen.
But in the mid-1990s, Montreal was also home to at least two men with links to al-Qaeda. Abderraouf Hannachi, a Tunisian who had trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan, recruited young men for jihad against the West; and Fateh Kamel, who emigrated to Canada in 1987, headed a terrorist cell in Montreal with links to Mr. bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.
A handful of young Algeria refugee claimants, including Mr. Ressam, Mr. Haouari, Mustafa Labsi and Adel Boumezbeur, came under the influence of the two men, who were prominent members of the Assuna Mosque.
They all became active in the Kamel cell that planned to blow up the L.A. International Airport as part of a millennium bomb campaign orchestrated by al-Qaeda.
That plan, however, was thwarted when Mr. Ressam was arrested as he attempted to cross the U.S. border with a trunk full of high explosives in December 1999.
Mr. Ressam, who trained in an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, has been extremely co-operative with U.S. officials after prosecutors offered to reduce his sentence to 24 years from 130. He has supplied extensive information about the operations of the Kamel cell and the Afghanistan camps.
Fateh Kamel himself is now serving eight years in a French prison. Mokhtar Haouari was sentenced in January to 24 years in a U.S. prison for his role in the millennium bomb plot.