To hear his family tell it, Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Maizar was a typical youth, determined to make a better life for himself in America, far from the seething Israeli-Palestinian turmoil in his West Bank home town of Hebron. “He is a normal boy with ambitions for the future,” says his brother Nour, a Hebron tax lawyer. “He wanted to work and get married.” But others who knew the young Palestinian in his homeland tell a far different story. As an adolescent, they recall, he was a car-stereo and automobile thief; he once robbed the safe of his elementary school. As a teen, they say, he may even have been involved in a bank robbery. In total, it was a record that earned Abu Maizar a bad reputation— and a distinctive nickname among the youth of Hebron. ‘We called him,” says one Hebronite who would give his name only as Amer, “the Devil.”
They vary widely, but neither version of Abu Maizar’s character fully explains how the 23-yearold ended up in a squalid Brooklyn apartment where, on July 31, police shot and arrested him and another Palestinian, Lafi Khalil, on suspicion of plotting to bomb a New York City subway station. As lawenforcement officials in the United States and Canada tried to piece together the puzzle of Abu Maizar, who was in a New York hospital last week recovering from two bullet wounds to the right leg, his movements before the arrest remained largely obscure—as did his motives. But one thing was clear: the progress of Abu Maizar, from petty thief to suspected terrorist, led him through Canada.
Citing privacy laws, Canadian officials would not release information about his immigration status. But the patchy details that have emerged since his arrest suggest that Abu Maizar—despite his reputation at home and a series of run-ins with Canadian police—slipped through the cracks of the immigration system. He left the West Bank in 1993 with a Jordanian passport and the equivalent of $8,000, given him by brother Nour, and applied for refugee status in Cana-
da, where he hoped to take a business administration course in Ottawa. Sometime before February, 1994, however, he moved to Toronto, where he worked at odd jobs and lived in a low-rent area downtown. He soon became well known to Toronto police. His most serious brush with the law was in October, 1994, when he was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in an elevator. The
following May, Abu Maizar—who sometimes went by the alias Gazi Apumazan— pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assault, receiving a year’s probation.
Abu Maizar never served a day in a Canadian jail. And although immigration law allows for the deportation of a refugee who can be proven a danger to society, he remained in Canada. By early 1996, he was in the Vancouver area. Over the next year, he repeatedly tried to enter Washington state illegally and was turned back at the border. But last January, when he was arrested in Bellingham, Wash., Canadian immigration officials refused to let him re-enter the country. Then, Abu Maizar applied for political asylum in the United States—claiming he would be persecuted in his homeland because authorities there mistakenly believed he was a member of Hamas, the extremist Islamic group that opposes the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
But in June, Abu Maizar—free on $5,000 bail—dropped his asylum application and, although he was under orders to leave the United States by Aug. 23, headed for New York. It
was there, police say, that he met 22-year-old Khalil, from the remote West Bank village of Ajul. Last November, Khalil entered the United States on a transit visa to Mexico, but stayed in Los Angeles on a stopover. Then, he made his way to New York. “Ever since he was a little boy,” says Khalil’s uncle Saeed Mahmoud Saleh, a grocer in Ajul, “all he talked about was to go to America.”
But whatever dreams of American prosperity Abu Maizar and Khalil may have harbored, they effectively came to an end on July 31. Acting on an anonymous tip, New York police raided the pair’s Brooklyn hovel, shooting Abu Maizar and Khalil and arresting a third, unidentified man. Police seized five crude but potentially deadly pipe bombs, and sources say that more explosive-making material was in the apartment.
Early on, police suggested that the suspects had links to Hamas—and were planning an attack similar to the suicide bombing that killed 15 people in Jerusalem on July 30. (Hamas has not officially claimed or denied responsibility for that blast, which Israeli officials are still investigating.) According to some reports, police in New York found a note among the explosives in Abu Maizar and Khalil’s apartment, which expressed support for those behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and for Hamas. But friends and family in the West Bank scoff at the notion that either Khalil or Abu Maizar had any real political or religious affiliations. Amer, who shared a cell with Abu Maizar in 1990 when the latter was briefly jailed by Israeli authorities for stone-throwing, said that if Abu Maizar “did this, he did it for money. He doesn’t have a nationalist bone in his body.”
The pair’s possible motives are among the many mysteries that officials in the United States and in Canada—including the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service—are attempting to solve. For some critics, however, their efforts amount to too little, too late. Reform party immigration critic John Reynolds, for one, wondered why Abu Maizar was allowed into Canada—and why he was not deported after being convicted of a crime. “Canada,” Reynolds said, “is being made a laughingstock around the world.” Possibly. But beyond national pride, the case raises more disturbing questions about how many potential terrorists are out there—and how many human time bombs are waiting to go off.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.