Former Montreal resident Ahmed Ressam has confessed to plotting to set off three powerful bombs at Los Angeles International Airport and to taking orders from a London-based aide to Osama bin Laden, the National Post has learned.
After refusing for 17 months to co-operate with United States authorities, Ressam, 33, has broken his silence and provided his first details of the plan by Islamic militants to ring in the new millennium with a devastating terrorist attack.
Facing up to 140 years imprisonment after a jury convicted him of terrorism on April 6, Ressam has now agreed to assist prosecutors in the hope of reducing his jail term. A sentencing hearing is scheduled to begin in Seattle on June 28.
A senior U.S. official said Ressam has admitted the chemical explosives and timing devices found in his car at the Washington State-British Columbia border in December, 1999, were destined for the world's third-busiest airport.
Ressam has also disclosed he was taking orders from Abu Doha, a radical Islamic leader based in the United Kingdom, the senior official said. Mr. Doha, who has since been arrested by police in the U.K., is considered close to Mr. bin Laden.
The reported confession amounts to the first admission that the 1999 plot to "punish America" was the work of Mr. bin Laden's network. At Ressam's trial, the judge disallowed testimony by a French judge linking the plot to Mr. bin Laden, the Saudi-born millionaire suspected of orchestrating anti-Western terrorist strikes since the early 1990s.
"Clearly it's a major victory for prosecutors that he has been flipped," Steven Emerson, a Washington, D.C., terrorism expert, said in an interview yesterday.
"Generally," Mr. Emerson said, "diehard Islamic militants, like other terrorists, don't speak."
Details of Ressam's confession were obtained from the U.S. government source by Mr. Emerson, a well-known expert on Islamic militancy who has testified before the U.S. Congress on terrorist issues, including the Ressam case. The death toll of an attack on the Los Angeles airport, known as LAX, could have been severe; an average of 184,000 passengers pass through each day. While Ressam has admitted the airport was to be bombed, it is still unclear whether there may have been other targets as well.
A member of the militant Armed Islamic Group (GIA), Ressam came to Canada from Algeria in 1994 as a refugee claimant. He joined a radical Islamist cell in Montreal and later travelled to Afghanistan, where he trained at one of Mr. bin Laden's paramilitary camps that prepare terrorists for the "jihad," the holy war against the West.
He returned to Canada under a false identity in 1999 and began building a powerful chemical bomb, which he assembled in a Vancouver motel room with Abdelmajid Dahoumane. The plot unravelled, however, when Ressam was caught with the bomb at the Port Angeles, Wash., border crossing.During subsequent searches, RCMP officers found a map in Ressam's Montreal apartment showing three southern California airports encircled in pen, among them LAX, but its significance was never determined. Investigators also found phone numbers for two of Mr. bin Laden's top aides, including Mr. Doha.
The U.S. official said that in his confession, Ressam admitted to "taking orders" from Mr. Doha and mentioned a London mosque. The Finsbury Park mosque has been fingered by British and French intelligence agencies as a hot spot of global Islamic militancy.
The mosque's Imam, Sheik Abou Hamza, known as the Serpent of the Thames, has been accused of issuing a "fatwa" directing attacks against Western countries, according to a report by Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a renowned French anti-terrorism judge.
Judge Bruguiere testified at Ressam's trial that Mr. Doha was "behind a radical Islamic group, which is connected to Osama bin Laden." Mr. Doha lived in London with Moustapha Labsi, who was Ressam's roommate in Montreal and trained with him in Afghanistan.
The Ressam case exposed gaping holes in Canada's national security system. Ressam not only lived freely in Canada for five years, he also collected welfare and convinced the federal government to give him a Canadian passport. Another alleged member of the Montreal Islamic militant ring, Mokhtar Haouari, is scheduled to go to trial in New York on June 26.