Canada’s borders come under attack Chrétien defends immigration policies

By Stewart Bell, Marina Jiménez, Jan Cienksi and Joël-Denis Bellavance National PostDecember 21, 1999

Canada’s immigration system was attacked yesterday from both sides of the border following the recent arrest of an Algerian caught trying to enter the United States with powerful explosives. But Jean Chrétien, the Prime Minister, defended the federal government’s policies.

Speaking to reporters after a day-long cabinet meeting in Ottawa, Mr. Chrétien said he is concerned about terrorism but has confidence in the national security system and the country’s “adequate system” to counter terrorism.

“When you are receiving 250,000 [immigrants] a year, there might be some people who come that don’t have the best intention in the world,” Mr. Chrétien said, noting that Canada and the United States share the largest unprotected border in the world.

Mr. Chrétien’s comments came as U.S. officials prepared to indict Ahmed Ressam, a suspected member of the Armed Islamic Group, on charges of smuggling and making a false statement.

Mr. Ressam, a 32-year-old carrying a Canadian passport, was arrested last week in Port Angeles, Wa., after driving off a ferry from Victoria with a trunk-load of nitroglycerin and other bomb-making materials.

The man, who faces charges of using false identification and illegally importing explosives, could have links with various Islamic terrorist groups, including the powerful organization run by Afghanistan-based Osamah bin Laden, according the CIA.

Critics blame Canada’s generous immigration policies for turning the country into a haven for terrorist organizations, enabling them to fund overseas conflicts and plan attacks on the U.S.

“It’s disgusting,” said Leon Benoit, the Reform party’s immigration critic. “Our system is a sieve and it is allowing terrorists and others into the country.”

Lamar Smith, head of the House of Representatives Immigration Subcommittee, called the arrest “the best wake-up call that either Canada or the U.S. are going to get about our porous shared border.

“We have twice arrested individuals who entered the U.S. from Canada with the apparent intent to commit acts of terrorism,” said Mr. Smith, a Texas Republican and frequent critic of Canada’s border control and immigration policies.

He was referring to the 1998 case of Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer who was convicted of an attempt to blow up the New York City subway. “How many near misses can we tolerate?” he said, urging Ottawa to work closely with his committee to stop terrorist infiltration.

Police and intelligence agencies have warned Ottawa for years that terrorists were taking advantage of the immigration system to slip into the country. Ward Elcock, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service director, says almost every global terrorist group is active in Canada.

“Terrorist groups are present here whose origins lie in virtually every significant regional, ethnic and nationalist conflict there is,” he told the Senate security and intelligence committee last year. “The nature of our society and the related policies concerning refugees and immigrants make us particularly vulnerable to terrorist influence and activities.”

Terrorists in Canada have play-ed a role in the World Trade Center bombing, suicide bombings in Israel, assassinations in India, the murder of tourists in Egypt, the Al Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia and the bombing campaign of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, CSIS says.

“For six years since we have been in Ottawa … bringing this up again and again and again to government,” said Mr. Benoit. “National security should be the number one concern of government when dealing with our refugee system and our immigration system … They have ignored that. They seem to want to be viewed as being compassionate and kind. Well I think compassion and kindness should extend to Canadian citizens and I think that’s been forgotten.”

Reform wants those who arrive in Canada illegally seeking refugee status to be detained. It also wants the refugee system speeded up and has suggested electronic monitoring for refugee claimants who arrive illicitly. Mr. Benoit fears that if Canada continues to harbour terrorists the U.S. may impose damaging trade sanctions.

Canada is a favoured destination for terrorists also because of its long, undefended border with the U.S., the primary target of many terrorists. Canada has varied and large ethnic communities, allowing terrorists to hide and giving them a pool from which to recruit and raise funds.

“Canada is a fantastic place to live but there are people who come here because they know they can circumvent the rules,” said Alan Bell, president of Globe Risk Holdings and a former member of the SAS, the elite British special force.

“They know they won’t get probed or investigated or harassed by intelligence services. In the U.S. they’d be all over terrorists like a cheap suit. Here we have a judicial process that prevents us from deporting people without due process, that due process is where they disappear underground and you can’t find them.”

The exploitation of Canada is not new. During the Cold War, the KGB established several border-crossing points for sending agents to the U.S. — near Lake of the Woods and International Falls in Minnesota, and Glacier National Park, Mont., which borders British Columbia and Alberta.

Security analysts said Canada has become an attractive resting place for terrorist groups because they are allowed to raise funds here as long as the money isn’t used for violent purposes. Such groups are not allowed to raise any money in the U.S.

The U.S. government did not share Mr. Smith’s concern that Canada needs to toughen its border regime. Officials said co-operation between the two countries helped catch Mr. Ressam in Washington state.

“We have a lot of confidence in the ability of our Canadian friends to undertake effective counterterrorist work and effective law enforcement work,” said James Foley, a U.S. State Department spokesman.

“There is no problem with Canadian law enforcement,” said Joseph Dassaro, spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the border guards’ union. “If you want a problem, look at the Mexican law enforcement authorities. I was shocked when I read that he came from Canada and not Mexico.”

Mr. Ressam’s capture has strengthened the argument of those who have been calling for the U.S. Border Patrol to be beefed up. The patrol has about 8,200 officers, only 500 of whom work the U.S.-Canadian border. Many officers assigned to the northern border spend much of their time on emergency assignments patrolling the U.S.-Mexican frontier, which is the main entry point for illegal drugs and illegal immigrants.

Congress has allocated enough money to hire 1,000 additional officers a year, but last year only 400 joined up, mainly due to the strength of the economy and the ease of finding other jobs, said Allan Key, a spokesman for Mr. Smith.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials were back-tracking on some of the doom-and-gloom warnings of the dangers of a Y2K terrorist attack that were issued over the weekend. Sandy Berger, the national security advisor, said: “We are not aware of other specific threats against particular targets in the United States.”