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Is Canada a haven for terrorists?

With three arrests at the US-Canadian border this week, questions of

By Ruth WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1999


The arrest of three suspected terrorists at two United States-Canadian border crossing within a week has critics on both sides of the international divide blasting Canada as a "haven for terrorism."

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Ottawa's own intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has publicly reported that its counterterrorism unit was tracking 50 different terrorist groups.

The "soft on terrorism" charge has been made against Canada before, but it has new urgency this holiday week as the US warns of more terrorist attacks. And although many of the critics are short on specifics, and other officials and experts have high praise for the country's counterterrorism efforts, calls are being made for Ottawa to tighten its system of handling refugee claims and screening international visitors.

Critics charge that Canada's system for handling refugees has too many loopholes. Leon Benoit, immigration spokesman in Parliament for the opposition Reform Party, has called the system a "sieve" that is "allowing terrorists and others into the country." He charges that the cases of some 10,000 refugee claimants, including possible terrorists, are simply lost in the bureaucracy. He is calling for detention of refugee claimants as their cases are processed - a policy more like that of the US and Australia.

A Montreal woman and an Algerian man seeking asylum in Canada were arrested at a remote border crossing Sunday night in Vermont. A drug-sniffing dog "reacted positively" to their Chrysler Neon, leading border agents to suspect the vehicle had been carrying explosives. Lucia Garofalo was charged with human smuggling; Bouabide Chamchi was charged with presenting false documentation to gain entry into the US.

This episode follows the arrest Dec.14 of Ahmed Ressam in Port Angeles, Wash., as he arrived on a ferry from Victoria, British Columbia, in a car laden with nitroglycerin and other bombmaking elements.

The Algerian-born Mr. Ressam was issued a Canadian passport under an assumed name on the basis of a fraudulently obtained church certificate of birth and baptism. Thus documented as a native of Canada, he was issued his passport with no security check. Otherwise, passport officials might have discovered the dossier that police had been compiling on him.

But ministry officials have stressed they did not consider Ressam a terrorist. Immigration ministry spokeswoman Huguette Shouldice told the Toronto Star that deportation of a rejected refugee claimant like Ressam would not be a priority. "We make sure that people who are considered dangerous or criminals get out first."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, calls the Port Angeles episode "the best wake-up call" that either Canada or the US is going to get about "our porous shared border."

An aide to Mr. Smith, Allen Key, says his boss "has made it clear that he would like to work cooperatively with the Canadians - but so far the response has not been encouraging." Mr. Key declined to name specific steps they would like to see Canada take.