U.S. Border Security: Looking North

Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
14 MINS READMay 4, 2006 | 04:49 GMT

Immigration to the United States has re-emerged as a hot topic and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future. Divides are deepening on both sides of the issue: Thousands of immigrants this week took to the streets or skipped work to protest proposed changes in U.S. immigration law, while groups opposed to illegal immigration, such as Minuteman Project, have begun private-citizen patrols along the U.S. border with Mexico, and even have built fences on private property in efforts to help the U.S. government improve border security. For the time being, attention within the United States appears to be trained directly on the U.S.-Mexican border. Certainly, there are many concerns in that region that merit serious consideration — including alien- and narcotics-smuggling, Latin American criminal syndicates, violence and the migration of criminal aliens.

However, cross-border terrorist threats to the United States — both historically and currently — are of much greater concern thousands of miles to the north. Last week, the U.S. State Department released the 2005 edition of its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" document, and the chapter dealing with the Western Hemisphere provides some interesting insights when the entry on Canada is compared to that for Mexico. For example, the report states: "Terrorists have capitalized on liberal Canadian immigration and asylum policies to enjoy safe haven, raise funds, arrange logistical support, and plan terrorist attacks." There is nothing even vaguely resembling such an indictment in the section on Mexico, which notes: "The Mexican government worked closely with the United States on all aspects of counterterrorism security and prevention."

Certainly, Canada has a long history of harboring political dissidents from a number of different ethnic militant groups (perhaps as many as 50 organizations). This is an outgrowth of the liberal refugee policies and generous social welfare programs for which Canada is known around the world. In fact, the Canadian government receives some 20,000 to 30,000 applications for refugee status each year, and reportedly accepts more than half of the applicants. Many of these refugees arrive in Canada without documentation, or with forged or counterfeit documents, making it nearly impossible to verify a person's true identity. Prior to November 2001, none of these people were screened for criminal, terrorism or other concerns unless they requested permanent residency in Canada. After the 9/11 attacks, the policy was reformed: Canadian immigration officials are now free to deny asylum to suspected terrorists, and database checks are now run on all asylum applicants. But problems remain in dealing with undocumented arrivals or those whose identities cannot be found in government databases. Though U.S. policies are identical for visitors or immigrants passing through either the northern or southern borders, they are much more stringently enforced — with a denser concentration of border checkpoints and agents — along the border with Mexico. In many places, it is possible to cross the Canadian border by walking, jogging, swimming or boating — or entering through national parks, as has sometimes been the case with would-be terrorists.

A History of Plots

Refugees who have sought and received sanctuary in Canada have included members of ethnic militant groups, such as Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, various Palestinian factions (including Hamas), Hezbollah, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh group. Many of these groups use Canada as a place of refuge, and most use it as a base for fundraising and political activity. However, some of those granted asylum have gone on to commit terrorist attacks. Perhaps the most notorious of the cases (and certainly the most controversial) involving Canada were the twin bombings of Air India Flights 182 and 301, carried out by Babbar Khalsa in 1985. The bomb on Flight 182 exploded over the Atlantic Ocean and killed all 329 people aboard; the bomb placed on Flight 301 exploded on the ground at Narita Airport in Japan, killing two baggage handlers. There were several arrests in each case but only one man, Inderjit Singh Reyat, was ever convicted. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges related to the Narita bombing in 1991; in 2001, he was charged and pleaded guilty to his role in the Flight 182 bombing, for which he received an additional five-year sentence. As part of the plea agreement, Reyat was expected to testify in the trial of two other Flight 182 suspects. However, he later claimed he could not remember anything, and the suspects were acquitted in March 2005.

The Canadian government was widely criticized for its handling of the case. There were allegations that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had conducted physical and electronic surveillance of group leaders prior to the attacks, and employed an informant who might have played a direct part in the attack. Later, following the acquittals of Sikh separatists Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri in the Flight 182 case, outrage from relatives of the victims prompted the government to establish a commission of inquiry — exploring issues related to Canada's counterterrorism preparedness. This step could have serious implications for Canadian policy, as the work of the 9/11 Commission did in the United States. However, the Canadian panel literally has only just begun; it commenced its work on May 1.

Threats to the United States

On several occasions, Canada has been a point of entry for people who posed specific threats to the United States. Some may recall the case of Ghazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, a Palestinian who was convicted of plotting a suicide bombing against the New York subway system in 1997. Mezer, who had been granted political asylum by Canada, reportedly was stopped by U.S. authorities twice while trying to enter the country illegally. His first two attempts to cross the border were made only days apart, in June 1996 (Mezer was jogging across the border when he was stopped the second time). His third attempt came in January 1997, when he was stopped at a Greyhound bus station in Bellingham, Wash., along with two other Arabs, after a successful border crossing. At that point, Mezer was detained and, though he agreed to return voluntarily to Canada, the country refused to accept him upon release from U.S. custody, since he was not a citizen. What happened next involves a maze of legal technicalities: Abu Mezer was eventually released on bond and applied for political asylum in the United States. While that request was pending, he moved to Brooklyn. He later agreed to depart the United States voluntarily, in August 1997. His plans for a suicide attack against the New York subway system, however, were to have been carried out in July — a month before he was required to leave the country — had it not been for a roommate who got cold feet and tipped off police to the plot the night before it was to have occurred. Mezer and a co-conspirator, Lafi Khalil, were arrested in an early-morning raid at their apartment, where police found bombs assembled and ready for deployment.

The Millennium Bomb Plot

The best-known terrorism cases involving movement across the Canadian border are, naturally, related to al Qaeda. Most prominent among these is the so-called "millennium bomb" plot, for which Ahmed Ressam was arrested. Ressam is a textbook example of someone who, in the words of the recent State Department report, "capitalized on liberal Canadian immigration and asylum policies to enjoy safe haven, raise funds, arrange logistical support, and plan terrorist attacks." In 1994, Ressam entered Canada under false pretenses, using a poorly altered French passport to fly from France to Montreal. When Canadian immigration officials confronted him about the document, Ressam admitted that the passport photo had been altered and then immediately claimed political asylum, saying that he had been tortured in Algeria because he had been accused of arms trafficking and other terrorist activities. Immigration officials released Ressam while a hearing on his asylum claim was pending — but he never showed up for the hearing, and his asylum claim was later denied. Ressam later testified, at his trial in the millennium bombing case, that he supported himself from 1994 to 1998 with petty theft and welfare payments he received from the Canadian government, as a potential refugee. By his own account, he was arrested four times for theft; other criminal activities involved credit card, financial and document fraud.

During those years, Ressam also acquired an authentic blank baptismal certificate, which he completed and used to obtain an authentic Canadian passport. In early 1998, Ressam flew to Pakistan and then was taken across the border into Afghanistan, where he trained at al Qaeda's Khaldan facility. There, he learned a range of skills, including training in small arms and urban warfare as well as surveillance techniques, document fraud and bomb-making. In 1999, after nearly a year of training, Ressam returned to Canada and began making preparations to carry out an attack against the United States. In fact, his return flight to Canada stopped over in Los Angeles; while waiting in the airport there, he hit upon the idea of targeting LAX.

Although several of the men who reportedly had planned to assist Ressam in the millennium plot were not able to gain entry to the United States or Canada, Ressam managed to cobble together a team of acquaintances — many of whom were seeking refugee status while living in Canada — to aid his project. Mokhtar Haouari, a friend and fellow Algerian asylum-seeker living in Montreal, provided financing and agreed to be a communications link with Ressam's partner in the United States, Abdelghani Meskini. In November 1999, Ressam flew to Vancouver, where another Algerian asylum-seeker, Abdelmajid Dahoumane, helped him rent a hotel room. There, the two men brewed the explosives that Ressam later attempted to smuggle into the United States via ferry — traveling from Victoria, British Columbia, to Port Angeles, Wash. Ressam was cleared by U.S. immigration in Victoria but was arrested by a U.S. Customs inspector as he was preparing to exit the ferry, and the plot was eventually outed.

Jihadist Connections

The post-9/11 annals of terrorism history contain several other mentions of Canadian citizens who have been arrested by the United States or allied countries. These include:

  • Abdurahman Khadr, a member of a fairly notorious family who was captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned for a time at Guantanamo Bay. He is now living in Toronto. Khadr's father, Ahmed Said Khadr, allegedly served as a finance and logistics operative for al Qaeda and, before his death in a Pakistani counterterrorism operation in 2003, reportedly had close ties to Osama bin Laden. Some of Ahmed Said Khadr's other sons also are embroiled in criminal cases: Omar Khadr remains imprisoned at Guantanamo for killing a U.S. medic in a grenade attack in Afghanistan; Abdullah Khadr — who is in Canadian custody while an extradition request is pending — has been indicted in the United States for conspiring to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, and conspiracy to possess a destructive device to commit violent crimes.
  • Mohamed Mansour Jabarah, who was born in Kuwait but raised in St. Catherine's, Ontario. Jabarah has pleaded guilty to several charges in connection with a foiled plot to bomb U.S. embassies in Singapore and Manila. The plans had been hatched prior to the 9/11 attacks but were not discovered until after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Jabarah reportedly was a key link between al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) operatives in southeast Asia; he is said to have delivered cash from al Qaeda to JI leader Hambali, who is believed to have planned the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings. Jabarah initially was arrested in Oman in 2002 and sent to Canada. He then was sent to the United States and reportedly is cooperating with American officials.
  • Mohammed Momin Khawaja, who was born in Canada to Kuwaiti parents and has lived in Ottawa. Momin Khawaja is believed to have been an important link between New York-based Mohammed Junaid Babar and a group of co-conspirators in London, who were planning a string of attacks there. Babar was identified as a potential problem following the 9/11 attacks, when he made threats against the United States on a Canadian television program. Momin Khawaja is the first person ever charged under Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act — which is in itself significant, since the attacks he allegedly was planning would not have been carried out on Canadian soil.

The recent State Department report labels several more people who are living in Canada as known or suspected terrorists. These include Mohammed Mahjoub of the Vanguards of Conquest, a radical wing of Egyptian Islamic Jihad; Mahmoud Jaballah, a senior member of the Egyptian Islamist organization al-Jihad and al Qaeda; and three suspected al Qaeda members. In a very recent case, former Canadian resident Ehsanul Islam Sadequee has been accused of conspiring with a Georgia Tech student, Syed Haris Ahmed, to attend a militant training camp in Pakistan and planning terrorist attacks against targets in the United States. Ahmed was indicted in April on charges of conspiring to provide material support for terrorism. Sadequee was interviewed at JFK International Airport in August 2005 before boarding a flight bound for Bangladesh and thus far, it is believed, has not returned to the United States. Federal authorities since have filed an affidavit supporting an arrest warrant for Sadequee that provides great detail about the allegations in the case. The affidavit claims that Sadequee — a U.S. citizen who attended high school in Ontario — made false statements to FBI agents when he was interviewed about a March 2005 trip to Canada. Sadequee told the bureau he had traveled alone, but the FBI had evidence that he and Ahmed had been traveling together. The purpose of the trip, according to the affidavit, was to meet with Islamist "extremists" in Canada.

Ahmed reportedly said during his interview that they discussed possible targets for a terrorist strike in the United States, such as oil refineries, military installations and the global positioning system, and made plans to attend a military training camp in Pakistan. The affidavit also notes that three people Ahmed and Sadequee met with in Toronto are subjects of an FBI international terrorism investigation (and thus, presumably, were under the scrutiny of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and CSIS.) Also, Ahmed and Sadequee reportedly traveled from Georgia to Toronto and back via bus. Though they still had to pass through immigration and customs inspection points, the security procedures applied to bus passengers are far less intensive than those used by the airline industry.


In the grand scheme of things, suspects like Ahmed and Sadequee can be viewed as examples of grassroots jihadists — part of the evolution of al Qaeda from a focused organization to a looser ideological movement. Such jihadists are not likely to be major players in the international terrorism scene — but as illustrated by cases such as "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid, London rail attacks cell leader Mohammed Sidique Khan or Ahmed Ressam, they still are capable of causing significant, though localized, damage. Jihadist sympathizers who attend training camps like those in Pakistan or Afghanistan often become further radicalized, and — history has shown — frequently become involved in the planning or execution of a terrorist attack upon leaving such institutions. This is why the FBI sought an arrest warrant for Sadequee; charges of making false statements are not very significant, but federal authorities clearly believe Sadequee has gone overseas for training and they want to have a reason to detain him if he returns to the United States. Though the affidavit filed in Sadequee's case contains many interesting details, there also are several significant omissions. For example, it gives no indication as to the current location or activities of the Toronto men who were the subject of the FBI terrorism investigation. It is not clear whether federal authorities believe any of them have traveled overseas with Sadequee to seek training, or whether they have remained in Toronto to "capitalize on liberal Canadian immigration and asylum policies" while fleshing out plans for potential attacks.

That, at its core, is likely the best explanation of why the Canadian border is so frequently overlooked in discussions of immigration and U.S. border security. American concerns about the southern border with Mexico are deeply rooted in geography, history and culture and are, at bottom, sovereignty issues — whereas the threats that have emerged from Canada are embedded in a more liberal political system. Stated differently, the security risks to the United States arising from Canada are not so much products of fundamental, structural issues as they are the outgrowth of political attitudes and preferences. As a result, these security concerns tend to command less emotion and attention — but they are, for all of that, no less real.

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