Few resources spent guarding Canada border
Seattle Times staff reporters
While thousands of U.S. soldiers are being shipped halfway across the globe to fight terrorism, little manpower has been focused on a problem much closer to home: Canada.
Experts on both sides of the 4,000-mile border say the nation to the north is a haven for terrorists, and that the U.S.-Canada line is little more barrier than ink on a map.
Until the murderous wake-up call Sept. 11, the U.S. Border Patrol — which polices the vast spaces between the official crossing points — did not even man the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift along Washington state's northern border.
"After midnight, we went to sleep up here and anybody could just walk in," said Border Patrol agent Keith Olson, speaking as president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union for nearly one hundred Patrol employees in the Northwest.
Official crossing stations, such as on Interstate 5 at Blaine, are staffed around the clock by immigration officers. But most of the border is unfenced, unattended and easy to cross.
Though no hard evidence puts a Canadian resident among the 19 people suspected of hijacking the four jets that crashed Sept. 11, two men who lived in Canada have been connected to the hijackers. One of the two was arrested near Chicago last Wednesday.
On Friday, 34 men were charged with immigration violations in connection with the massive federal investigation. At least three of them entered the U.S. through the northern border, including a Syrian who sneaked across three days before the hijacking and a Indian citizen who crossed with false credentials at Blaine.
Since the attacks, critics are questioning both Canada's leniency toward terrorist groups and U.S. laxity on the border.
According to intelligence sources, unpublished government reports and interviews with law-enforcement and counterterrorism experts:
• Canada, with its open door to immigrants, hosts about 50 terrorist groups, more than any other country in the world with the possible exception of the U.S., said Ward Elcock, director of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service.
• The U.S. Border Patrol has barely more than 300 agents to guard the 4,000-mile border, one for every 12.8 miles. Along the nation's southern land border, the rate is more than 50 times greater, with one agent for every 1,300 feet.
"We desperately need help up here," said Olson, who works the Blaine sector.
• U.S. intelligence analysts in a 2000 report said illegal activity was increasing along the northern border and "the specter of international terrorism has become a real and intimidating concern."
• Yet in the Blaine sector, the busiest for illegal activity on the U.S.-Canada border, arrests have dropped by one-third since 1995.
The problem is complex, a tangle of conflicting concerns about diplomacy, allotting public resources, and balancing individual liberties in two of the world's freest countries.
"It's tragic," said retired Border Patrol supervisor Eugene Davis, formerly the No. 2 man in the Blaine sector. In 1999, he testified before Congress about needing more resources along the Canadian border.
"People haven't listened to what we have said: We have terrorists coming into this country," Davis said in an interview last week.
"It wasn't a matter of if, but when."
Canada's hundreds of terrorists
Most of the world's prominent terrorist organizations have cells within Canada's borders.
The Canadian Security Intelligence System has investigated more than 50 different groups and some 350 individuals believed to be terrorists. Some groups, such as the Tamil Tigers, fighting the Sri Lankan government, do not focus their wrath on the United States.
But others — including Islamic extremists with ties to Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Lebanon and Iran — do.
Terrorists who lived or passed through Canada are associated with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, suicide bombings in Israel, assassinations in India, the murder of U.S. tourists in Egypt, a bombing attack on the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia and the foiled plot to bomb the Los Angeles airport at the turn of the millennium.
As recently as Wednesday, the government in Ottawa was insisting there were no Canadian ties to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
But several men with ties to Canada have been questioned, charged or arrested in a Justice Department sweep. Justice officials said some may have information about the attacks.
• Nabil Al-Marabh, 34, a Kuwaiti who lived in different places in Canada over the past seven years, was arrested Wednesday by the FBI near Chicago. Al-Marabh shared a phone number with two of the suspected hijackers, and has been identified as an Osama bin Laden operative.
On June 27, Al-Marabh was caught sneaking into the United States with a forged Canadian passport. He was turned over to Canadian officials, who apparently did not discover his terrorist ties. He was released July 11 and told to return for a deportation hearing.
On Sept. 11, police raided a Detroit house with Al-Marabh's name on the mailbox and arrested three men who had false visas and passports and an airport diagram.
• Anand Shah, 28, of India, but recently of Scarborough, Ontario, came to the FBI's attention because he and suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta both had airline tickets purchased for them from the same Internet address. Atta is believed to have died when he helped to crash an American Airlines jet into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Shah told reporters the FBI questioned him last Wednesday and left: "I have nothing to do with these attacks."
• In Blaine, a native of India was arrested last Saturday and charged with trying to enter the country with someone else's passport.
• A Syrian was charged Friday with illegal entry from "an unknown point on the U.S./Canadian border on or about September 8, 2001."
Canada had been warned
Canadian intelligence officials have been trying for years to get their government to act more aggressively against terrorism.
"We cannot become, through inaction or otherwise, what might be called an unofficial state sponsor of terrorism," Ward Elcock, director of the Canadian intelligence service, testified in 1998 to the Canadian Senate.
Wesley Wark of the University of Toronto, a former intelligence consultant to the Canadian government, said his country is soft on terrorism because terrorists do not target the country and people do not feel at risk.
"There was never any notion that a crackdown was necessary before the 11th of September, or that a crackdown would be very politically acceptable in Canada," Wark said.
"All that has changed now. It's a real scandal. No one here is proud of this."
Another reason why terrorists are attracted to Canada, experts say, is that they are able to blend into immigrant communities, raise money and provide logistical support for operations carried out elsewhere in the world.
Also, unlike other Western countries, Canada does not prohibit fund-raising by known terrorist fronts and even allows charitable tax deductions for those who contribute.
Some terrorists come to Canada seeking status as political refugees or immigrants. Others may arrive on student or other temporary visas and then stay indefinitely.
"We have a very cumbersome deportation process, and once someone sets foot in Canada, then it is very hard and takes a very long time to get them out," said Reid Morden, a former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence System.
One prominent case in point: Ahmed Ressam, the man arrested in Port Angeles in December 1999 and found to have the makings of a powerful bomb.
Ressam was a member of the Armed Islamic Group, which was responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 people in the Algerian civil war.
He was caught entering Montreal with a fraudulent French passport, yet was able to collect welfare while awaiting a hearing. He not only skipped the hearing but was busted for pickpocketing at a department store. In absentia, a judge eventually ruled that Ressam had to be deported, but police never looked for him.
Meanwhile, Ressam created a new identity with a fake baptismal certificate and used it to get a Canadian passport. He admits he planned to detonate the bomb in a suitcase at the Los Angeles International Airport just before New Year's Day 2000.
Last April, Ressam was convicted of terrorist conspiracy. In exchange for a government recommendation of a lighter sentence, he cut a deal with federal authorities to reveal all he knows. Ressam has admitted he was trained in Afghanistan at a terrorist training camp funded by bin Laden.
Three arrests, three releases
A lesser-known example is the case of Abu Mezer.
U.S. Border Patrol agents in Blaine did not know Mezer was a Hamas terrorist when they arrested him in 1996 at Peace Arch Park after he avoided an entry port and jogged into the country, wearing Walkman headphones and running shoes.
It was his second arrest in five days for illegal entry, a misdemeanor rarely prosecuted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Mezer was sent back to Canada.
Six months later, a Border Patrol agent caught him putting two men on a Greyhound bus in Bellingham. This time, he was charged, but was released on a low-level bond when an immigration judge wrongly assumed his name had been checked with the State Department.
Mezer soon disappeared to Brooklyn, N.Y. A year later, New York City police, acting on a tip, raided his apartment and found four powerful pipe bombs, ready to be detonated.
After his capture, Mezer confessed that he was going to strap the bombs to his body and explode himself in a crowded New York subway. Reports say Mezer had already written a suicide note that spewed hatred of Americans and Jews while telling his family in Palestine that he loved them.
The inspector general of the Justice Department investigated the case and issued a blistering report that apparently had little impact.
The Mezer case "reveals the shortage of Border Patrol resources available along the northwest border to halt illegal immigration," the report stated. "In light of how few Border Patrol agents are assigned to guard this section of the border on a regular basis, we found it surprising that Mezer was caught once, let alone three times, trying to enter the United States."
Robert Ashbaugh, the acting inspector general for the Justice Department, criticized INS Commissioner Doris Meissner in a letter last year: "I am deeply troubled because I detect no sense of urgency in INS's response to the recommendation that the Border Patrol reassess its approach for securing the northern border."
To cover the vast border, the government has installed motion detectors and video cameras. This system sounds an alarm back at sector headquarters when tripped. But a study shows that half the time, agents are unable to respond.
At Blaine, 30 agents and 12 supervisors cover 102 miles of land, much of it rugged, and 150 miles of water — and they don't even have a boat.
It is frustrating work. Last Thursday about 5 p.m., a man sneaked into Washington along a pastoral stretch east of Lynden. There, parallel blacktop roads — one in Canada, the other in the U.S. — are separated by a shallow ditch.
The man had bad timing; a witness saw him and alerted Olson and other agents, who were in the area.
The man raced into a big cornfield about a mile long, with tall plants that offered good cover. Olson and his colleagues took off in hot pursuit.
They searched until the light quit, then gave up.
"You never know, he may have been somebody important," Olson said. "Or he might have just been some poor guy trying to find work."
Seattle Times staff reporters Mike Carter and Justin Mayo contributed to this report.
Clarification: Keith Olson, a U.S. Border Patrol agent who was quoted about security along the U.S.-Canada border, was not speaking for his employer but as president of the National Border Patrol Council, Local 2913, which represents 98 agents and employees in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.