Special Report


Although Canada was not directly implicated, experts say it remains a haven

JOHN GEDDES September 24 2001
Special Report


Although Canada was not directly implicated, experts say it remains a haven

JOHN GEDDES September 24 2001


Although Canada was not directly implicated, experts say it remains a haven


The horror of the attacks in New York City and Washington was still fresh when a wave of deep foreboding began spreading in Ottawa. Please, went the unspoken prayer, don’t let it turn out that those terrorists got into the United States through Canada. By the morning after, the worst fears of Canadas police, intelligence and immigration authorities seemed to be coming to pass, as U.S. media reports claimed Nova Scotia and Quebec had been staging grounds. But those stories appeared to be wrong. Two days after the hijacked planes smashed the world’s sense of order, Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay, flanked at a news conference by the heads of the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, categorically denied there was evidence of a so-called Canadian connection.

Any immediate relief, though, did little to ease the pressure that was already building on the federal government to get tougher on terrorism. A number of policies are in play. Canadas refugee system has been labelled lax as often as it has been praised as generous. A proposed new law aimed at denying charitable status to groups that finance terrorism is being slammed by critics as at best a halfmeasure. The way the RCMP, CSIS and immigration officials share information— or fail to—is being cited by outside observers as a serious flaw in Canadas screening of new arrivals. About the only thing not being questioned is that terrorist activ-

ity is close at hand. For if Canadian soil was not part of the path taken by those who levelled the World Trade Center and ripped a strip out of the Pentagon, there can be no doubt that Canada, however unwillingly, harbours other men determined to turn the hate in their hearts into the death of innocents.

CSIS describes a terrorist underworld in Canada that is shocking in its scope. In a re-

port made public last May, the intelligence agency estimated that 50 organizations and 350 “individual targets” with links to terrorism abroad operate in Canada. “Their origins are in Punjab, Israel and the occupied territories, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Turkey, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan,” says the CSIS report. “Groups include Hezbollah, Hamas and Sunni Islamic extremist organizations, as well as the Irish Republican Army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Mujahedeen e-Khalq, and various Sikh terrorist groups.”

If those names seem remote from quiet Canadian life, consider the terrorist actions already launched from Canada. The most horrifying case was the murder of all 329 passengers in the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight originating in Toronto —a strike almost certainly made by Sikh radicals, although those responsible are now awaiting trial. The closest scrape since then was the arrest in 1999 of Ahmed Ressam, a member of an extremist Islamic cell in Montreal, on his way to set off a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport during millennium new year celebrations. The high-profile case of Ressam, and five others in Canada and the U.S. arrested in the conspiracy, led to debate in Washington about whether Canada is a sanctuary for violent groups from around the world.

U.S. officials levelled no charges of that sort last week. Even while the false reports that some of the hijackers had entered the

Special Report

United States through Canada were still circulating, Paul Cellucci, the American ambassador, was careful to not even hint at blaming Canada. But Cellucci did pointedly suggest at a news conference in Ottawa that the time has come for Canada and the United States to work towards harmonizing immigration policies.

He said the way to avoid an excessive clampdown on security along the CanadaU.S. border is to make it harder for terrorists to land anywhere in North America from offshore. “You need to stop them before they get to the border, and that requires resources for intelligence and law enforcement,” he told an Ottawa news conference. “On the whole issue of should our policies, our immigration policies, be more consistent in Canada and the United States, I think that’s one of the serious questions we will have to address as a result of the events of the last few days.”

While Cellucci did not get into specific proposals, few doubted that he had in mind Canada’s famous openness to anyone who lands and claims to be a refugee. These days, the Ahmed Ressam case is frequendy cited as an example of that policy gone awry. “We have an appallingly out-of-control immigration and refugee situation,” says David Harris, former chief of strategic planning for CSIS and now a private security consultant. “We’ve seen the legacy of that in the Ressam case.” Ressam claimed refugee status when he arrived in Canada in 1994. He was rejected but not deported to his native Algeria, apparently under Ottawa’s policy of not sending even fraudulent claimants back to home countries where they could face death.

Having beaten Canada’s system, Ressam was able to assume a shadowy role in a Montreal “jihad cell.” He travelled to Afghanistan in 1998 for six months of training by the notorious Al-Qaeda organization headed by multi-millionaire Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi-born terrorist leader now viewed as the prime suspect in last week’s attacks in the United States. On returning to Canada, Ressam wasted litde time putting the bomb-making skills he had acquired at bin Laden’s terror camp to work. He went to Vancouver in late 1999, where he spent a few December days assembling explosives in a motel room with accomplice Abdelmajid Dahoumane, who was arrested in Algeria a year later. Then he packed what he’d made into a rented Chrysler and caught

the ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles, Wash., where a U.S. Customs officer noticed how nervous he looked and ordered his car searched. The explosives were in the spare-tire compartment. While Washington posted a $5-million (U.S.) reward for information leading to the capture of the fugitive Dahoumane, Ressam was arrested, tried and convicted. He now awaits sentencing; the prison term could be up to 130 years.

While Harris blames Canada’s refugee policies for allowing Ressam to make Canada his home base, others say the real problem lies with CSIS. “The problem is not that we failed to deport a terrorist, it’s that we failed to identify a terrorist,” says Gordon Maynard, a Vancouver immigration lawyer. “We have to be very careful of people who say our immigration and refugee laws are too lax. We have the laws—enforcement and implementation are the challenge.” In fact, why Ressam was not singled out as a bigger risk remains a mystery. Western intelligence agencies had him under intermittent surveillance at least as far back as 1996. And Maynard, along with other defenders of Canada’s refugee system, argue there are ample provisions under Canadian law to detain and deport anyone who can be shown to have links to terrorist groups.

Still, the sheer number of refugees and regular immigrants makes careful investi-

gation of each individual difficult. “We have to start to limit the swell of intake that we have,” says Harris. “It’s just out of all proportion to what we can manage.” There were about 30,000 new refugee claims last year. The main reason for so many: those coming to Canada know they will be allowed to stay, at least while they press their claims through the system.

Sharryn Aiken, a lawyer on the faculty of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies, says that among the many differences between the Canadian and U.S. refugee rules, the key distinction is the treatment of those who arrive with no identity documents. “People who arrive at U.S. points of entry without documents are being summarily excluded from entry,” Aiken explains. “In Canada, if you arrive without documents and say that you are seeking asylum, immigration officers have immediate power to order detention, but they do not have the power to turn you away.”

Cellucci’s proposal that Ottawa and Washington continue to look at harmonizing immigration rules in the wake of last week’s attack on America comes at an awkward time. The Canadian government has just gone through a prolonged reform of its laws, a process stretching back to 1996. A new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was finally introduced by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan in February, and is expected to be passed

into law by the end of the year. Caplan has said that with this legislation she is “closing the back door to those who would abuse our generosity, so we can open the front door wider to the immigrants and refugees who will continue to build our country.” Among the tighter controls under the new law is a requirement for a security screening as soon as an individual applies for refugee status. Under the old rules, that key background check was made only after the claimant was granted refugee status. As well, Caplan is eliminating the right of would-be refugees to appeal the rejection of their claims to the immigration appeal division if they have been identified as criminals or security risks. They will still be allowed to seek a federal court review of their case, but at least one level of delay will be eliminated. Even with these steps to firm up Canadas refugee policy, though, the fact that anyone who arrives here will still automatically be eligible to pursue a refugee claim will remain a glaring policy difference with the U.S.

Another controversial policy area where Canada seems less stringent than the United States is combating fund-raising for terrorism. In 1999, the special Senate committee on security and intelligence found that groups with terrorist affiliations often raise money in Canada behind charitable fronts. A new bill introduced by Solicitor General MacAulay and Revenue

Minister Martin Cauchon in March aims to strip away charitable status from organizations that funnel funds to offshore terrorist groups—essentially eliminating the existing tax subsidy for exporting terror.

But Harris calls it “an international outrage” that Canada stopped short of matching British and U.S. laws that ban the financing of terrorism outright—not merely deny the fund-raisers the privilege of rewarding their supporters with tax receipts. “My understanding,” he said, “is that lobbying by activists, many of whom have sympathies with terrorist supporters, has stalled attempts to bar this kind of financial support.”

Still, even the limited measure drafted by MacAulay and Cauchon has drawn angry opposition from the Canadian Arab Federation, an umbrella group of more than 20 groups, and the Canadian Islamic Congress, which has threatened to mount a constitutional challenge of the act. Both groups charge that their communities are being stereotyped by the legislation. The Canadian Jewish Congress, on the other hand, has urged the government to go further by making raising money for terrorists a criminal offence.

Beyond questions about whether federal laws need to be tougher in areas like refugee claims and terrorist fund-raising, experts point to other, purely technical, problems that need to be addressed. Ben Trister, chair-

man of the Canadian Bar Associations immigration law section, stresses the need to make Canadian documents, which do not carry a picture, harder to forge. “Our immigrant visa is the most often-used fraudulent document in our system,” Trister says, adding that the U.S. green card is harder to fake. Immigration officials said work towards making Canadas documents more of a challenge for forgers is well under way. As well, Trister said Canadas immigration officials badly need to get much better computer access to CSIS and police information when they’re checking the backgrounds of refugee claimants. Federal officials did not respond last week to questions about any plans to improve the way they share information among their computer systems.

Putting better systems in place to try to stop terrorists from getting into Canada is part of the challenge. But how to catch up with those who inevitably will slip through—and how to deal with any supporters they find here—is a much more sensitive subject. There is no doubt that some members of some ethnic communities in Canada support groups branded terrorists by Western intelligence services. Fast year, Finance Minister Paul Martin got caught up in one dispute over the dividing line between what’s legitimate and what’s not. In May, 2000, he attended a dinner held by an association identified by CSIS as active in funnelling money to

the Tamil Tigers, the group that has been waging a violent campaign since 1983 for Tamil independence from Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. The Tigers are considered terrorists by CSIS; their Canadian supporters are known as “Snow Tigers.” Martin said he was attending a cultural event and had done nothing wrong. Perhaps even more troubling to the

RCMP and CSIS than fund-raising for questionable causes abroad are cases where terrorists seem to have found a safe haven in Canada. In one case cited in the CSIS terrorism report, Hani al-Sayegh, a suspect in the deaths of 19 American soldiers in a June, 1996, truck bombing at the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, passed through several countries before arriving in

Canada two months later. CSIS says alSayegh tried to slip quiedy into the Arab community, studying English, and working part time. The Hezbollah member was arrested in March, 1997, deported to the U.S. in June of that year, and finally to Saudi Arabia in October, 1999, to face charges.

In another safe-haven case cited in the report, Aynur Saygili, a member of the Kurdish separatist group PKK, which is fighting to create an independent state within Turkey, entered Canada under a false name in May, 1996, and became involved in the Kurdish Cultural Association of Montreal, before being arrested a few months later. CSIS claims she was the second PKK member sent to Canada to try to gain influence in the Kurdish community. When the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was arrested in Kenya in 1999, the depth of support for him among Kurds in Canada became clear: PKK supporters rioted in Ottawa, clashing with police. One officer lost an eye.

While the Kurdish, Tamil and Sikh separatist movements attract their share of attention in Canada, it’s the even more complex world of Islamic extremism that’s under closest scrutiny now. Experts say the key event in shaping the current generation of violent Islamic radicals was the war to free Afghanistan from Soviet control during the endgame of the Cold War. When that struggle was over, many of those fighters who had rallied to push the Russians out scattered to Muslim communities around the world, from Egypt to Gaza to Algeria, and to cells in the West, from London to Paris to Montreal. The most radical made a new cause, with the financial backing of bin Laden, out of hatred for Israel and the United States.

That movement—if that is the word for such a loosely connected international network—is all the more frightening for having no obvious centre to strike at. As Ottawa prepares to rethink the ways it defends Canada against such a threat, and how it might support Washington in a new North American strategy to keep out terrorism, the challenge will be to do enough without letting the inevitable reaction to last week’s outrage go too far.

Should Canada join the United States in any military action against the perpetrators of the terror attacks?