Terrorists aided by a leaky US-Canada line
BOSTON AND WASHINGTON
Canada has been a fierce ally, top trading partner, and America's closest friend for more than a century. But it may be something else, too - a haven for terrorists.Skip to next paragraph
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Canadian and US terrorism experts alike say the giant, genial nation - known for its crimson-clad Mounties and great comedians - has also become an entry point and staging ground for Osama bin Laden's terrorist "sleeper cells," as well as for other terrorist groups.
As many as five of the 19 men who attacked America with hijacked aircraft had sneaked over the 3,987-mile border from Canada, according to reports last week. Canadian officials deny the link, and an FBI spokesman refused to comment.
But intelligence experts say they would not be surprised if that turns out to be the case. Canada's lax immigration and refugee laws make it easy for extremists to set up shop north of the border, say Canadians and Americans who have studied the issue.
"We have an 'alphabet soup' of terrorist organizations in Canada," says Wesley Wark, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto. "There are Sikh terror groups in Vancouver, Tamil Tigers in Toronto, and a variety like bin Laden's Al Qaeda, Hizbullah, and Hamas in both Toronto and Montreal."
As long ago as 1998, Canada's top intelligence official bluntly warned Parliament that his service was investigating 50 terrorist organizations and about 350 individuals - numbers that no doubt have grown since then, analysts say.
So even as 100,000 Canadians sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a memorial last week, somewhere in a secret Ottawa command bunker, Canadian and US intelligence officials were said to be poring over options for dealing with terrorist threats on Canadian soil - a threat Canadians are slowly recognizing.
The long, relatively open border with the US means that those threats are US threats, as well. "The Canadian border is open, and a lot of people who are potentially very serious security risks to the United States are coming across," says Yossef Bodansky, director of the US Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.
Canada's weak antiterrorism laws mean intelligence officials and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are often stymied. Also, several of Canada's ethnic groups conduct fundraising for extremist activities abroad. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, for instance, are among Canada's top fundraising groups.
A bill now before Parliament attempts to address this problem by taking away tax-deductibility of such contributions. To US observers, this falls far short.
Vincent Cannistraro, a former counterterrorism chief, says law-enforcement sources told him last week that five of the hijackers had slipped across the border. "Three going to Bangor, two to Jackman, Maine, then getting on flights to Boston," he says, although his information is now several days old.
If, indeed, the hijackers came from Canada, they might have melted into Montreal's 100,000-strong Arab community. At least two of the hijackers are thought to have been French-speaking Algerians.