Former CIA official says little was learned from Ressam arrest
Seattle Times staff reporters
By luck or good law enforcement, the U.S. dodged a terrorism bullet nearly two years ago when U.S. Customs agents arrested Ahmed Ressam in Port Angeles with a car loaded with explosives and bomb-making materials.
Luck, and law enforcement, gave out yesterday.
Anti-terrorism experts see the Ressam arrest as a significant point in a terrorism continuum that began with the failed attempts to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 to the sickening, fiery collapse of the twin towers yesterday.
"They are learning. With every attempt, with every failure they become more sophisticated," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of counterterrorism for the Central Intelligence Agency. "What we have here is an act several orders of magnitude beyond Ressam."
Ressam's arrest — and contemporaneous arrests in Jordan of terrorists apparently planning similar millennium attacks — jolted the U.S. intelligence community, which was oblivious of the plan.
Cannistraro, speaking yesterday from his home in McLean, Va., said yesterday's devastatingly successful attacks demonstrated that little was learned.
"Just like (Ressam), what we didn't have yesterday was information," he said, joining in a chorus of critics who say the U.S. has relied too much on technology and not enough on "human information."
"This isn't something that can be caught with an eye in the sky," Cannistraro said.
Likewise, U.S. intelligence forces were oblivious to Ressam until the 33-year-old Algerian, nervous and sick with malaria, caught the attention of a U.S. Customs agent as he drove off the ferry from Victoria, B.C., on Dec. 14, 1999.
Agents popped his truck to find bags of white powder and jars and bottles of what turned out to be several powerful explosives. Ressam has since said he planned to turn the materials into a suitcase bomb that he intended to leave at a busy Los Angeles International Airport terminal.
At his trial last spring, prosecutors called the arrest a "law-enforcement success story."
Cannistraro characterized the arrest as a fluke. Ressam and his co-conspirators were sloppy and the plot ill-conceived. Still, it almost worked, he said.
Since his arrest and subsequent conviction on conspiracy charges, Ressam has been cooperating with federal authorities. He was scheduled to be sentenced in Seattle next week, although that date has been postponed, likely into next year, pending an ongoing federal terrorism investigation run out of New York.
Information provided by Ressam already has resulted in the indictment of the alleged mastermind of the plot, Abu Doha, an Algerian doctor arrested in Great Britain on unrelated terrorism changes.
Doha, according to a federal indictment, met with and joined Saudi-born guerrilla leader Osama bin Laden in December 1998, just months after deadly attacks on two U.S. embassies in North Africa, which the U.S. has blamed on bin Laden.
The U.S. government has said bin Laden is a top suspect in yesterday's attack — - a point with which Cannistraro agrees.
"There is no other group out there anybody knows about with the sophistication or wherewithal to carry out an attack of this complexity and magnitude," he said.
A bin Laden associate convicted of bombing the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, which killed 11 people, was scheduled to be sentenced today at the federal courthouse in Manhattan, just blocks from the site of yesterday's attack.
Ressam, meantime, who recently testified against another cohort in New York, remains confined in the special housing unit at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac.
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